The Color-Blind Constitution: A Point-Counterpoint on Affirmative Action

On Saturday, the normally empty Johnson Chapel was abuzz. Older generations of alumni enthusiastically mingled about in the main congregation area of the building, while current students mixed with the alumni or kept to themselves. While younger students comfortably dressed in jeans or shorts with short-sleeved tee shirts, the alumni stuck to a less casual appearance of pressed khakis and a mixture of polos or light blouses with light cardigans on top. Beloved President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin was in the latter case, dressed in a simple blue cardigan sitting not far from Dean of Faculty Gregory Call.

The hum of voices finally settled into a soft hush as alumni and students alike took their seats five minutes after the event, “A Point-Counterpoint on Affirmative Action,” was scheduled to begin. Positioned at a clear black table in the front of the room sat three people ­— Bert Rein ’61, Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Martha Umphrey, and Paul Smith ’76. For the next hour, the alumni, two highly-lauded attorneys in their own right, would debate questions moderated by Umphrey — “Should the Constitution be color-blind?”, “In regards to affirmative action and higher education, what do we mean by diversity and race?”— before the question and answer portion of the event.

For those of you interested in pre-law or enrollment in the English 111 course: “Having Arguments,” I have to admit that Saturday’s event was a sight to behold. Both gentlemen presented their points with tremendous amounts of evidence from cases based on affirmative action and the Constitution, including the Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court case, which upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the Univ. of Michigan. The two were not strangers to evidence of affirmative action rights. Rein was the plaintiff’s lawyer in the Supreme Court case Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin, which took place after Grutter, concerning the affirmative action admissions policy of the Univ. of Texas, reasserting that the factor regarding race must be “narrowly tailored”. Smith’s involvement in the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case, which led to the result of same-sex sexual activity being legal in every U.S. state, was heralded by gay rights’ advocates. Both alumni continue to make great strides in the law field, so no, their debating skills, while impressive, were not entirely surprising.

Most surprising was their answers to the questions thrown at them. The first issue of debate, for instance, “Should the Constitution be color-blind?” Rein was first to answer and quick to point out, “It already is. The fourteenth amendment never says anything about color, only that we should be treated equally.” For those of you a bit out of step with your AP U.S. History flash cards, the fourteenth amendment was proposed after the Civil War, in regards to the citizenship rights of former slaves. The citizenship clause of this amendment constitutionalized the Civil Rights Act of 1866, thus overruling the decision of the Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sanford which stated that black people could not become citizens nor experience the rights of citizenship.

Smith, on the other hand, proposed that although “The protection clause of the fourteenth amendment provided the basis of helping ensure equality […] we do not live in a perfect world of being judged solely based on our, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘the content of our character’ and test scores.”

While the fourteenth amendment does not mention color and maybe the Constitution is color-blind, American society shows us day in and out that improvement is a process of taking one step forward and sometimes two steps back.

Take the past admissions season for instance. Amherst College is being praised for its high amount of diversity present in the class of 2017, with a “record-setting 45 percent of first-years” identifying themselves as students of color, 57 percent of students receive financial aid, and “23 percent currently receive Pell grants”, according to Dean of Admissions Katie Fretwell ’81. Amherst isn’t the only high-ranked school to accept higher percentages of minority students. Of high-ranked liberal arts schools, Amherst takes the cake and of national universities, Columbia Univ. leads the list for the second year in a row, as stated by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Just a mile down South Pleasant Street lays Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst, where a major uproar about the school’s lack of diversity admissions is taking place. According to the Massachusetts-based newspaper The Daily Collegian, Amherst College, one of the most-selective schools in the country, has admitted more students of color than the public university over the past few years.

A more experienced and personal perspective on higher education affirmative action admissions comes from Amherst College Professor Benigno Sanchez-Eppler who urges all to focus on emphasizing the culture, ethnicity and multiplication of enrichment students can bring to undergraduate institutions, not the “race issue.” The English professor revealed, after the debate, that he met his wife (also an Amherst College professor and Williams College alum), while pursuing his undergraduate degree. “Meeting my non-Hispanic wife was the best thing that happened to me […] and our children are of two backgrounds, and that’s what is really important. Legal debates will never matter as much the diversity itself ­— the meeting of students of different backgrounds.”

As a current Amherst College student, I know that “diversity” is a term we cannot go a day without hearing — our school and community is rich in it — but I think we often forget of the different meanings behind the term. It doesn’t only refer to race and ethnicity as also socioeconomy, geography, sexual orientation, etc. We also forget, as wrapped up as we are in the bubble that is Amherst, that the world is not kind to all types of diversity. The dream of our fore-fathers has a long way before it is truly realized, before society begins to reflect the color-blindness of the Constitution.