For the Whiteheads, an African-American family living in the city of Baltimore, race is discussed at the dinner table. In the car on my way to work, school and games. In the backyard while the kids play sports.
So when the Supreme Court struck down racist admissions at colleges and universities, effectively ending the practice known as affirmative action, the family started talking about it seriously, echoing the range of emotions felt by people across the country who are involved in the sentence.
Though the outcome was expected, Karsonya Wise Whitehead, 54, a college professor, said she was so devastated that she had to sit down to process « the kind of story that was going on at the time. »
Her husband, Johnnie Whitehead, 59, a Christian school principal, said he was not happy with the ruling but was ambivalent about affirmative action. He hopes it’s no longer necessary, but he fears it is.
The eldest son, Kofi, 22, texted his brother Amir to share the news and thought about the chilling effect it could have on the next generation of black students. Amir, 20, felt that ending affirmative action was not wrong because admissions should be based on merit alone.
For the Whiteheads, the Supreme Court decision — seismic in its power to rearrange the admissions process at elite colleges and universities — was another chapter in a larger discussion they’d had since their children were young.
Their conversation reflects, in some way, the complex and shifting views among African Americans grappling with the question inherent in every contemporary racial conflict in the nation, from reparations to America’s justice system: How do we deal with the legacy of slavery?
« This is part of our ongoing conversation about tensions around racism and race, » said Dr. Whitehead, who teaches African-American studies and communications at Loyola University in Maryland and is executive director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace and Social Justice at the college. “We’ve seen several iterations of, ‘What does it mean to be black in America? Where do we stand in America? Whose is this America? And if we want to have equity, what does that equity look like?’”
The family’s early talks centered around making sure their children were sure of who they were as young black men. This gave way to other topics.
Kofi supports reparations but doesn’t know what the right amount of money should be for black families whose ancestors were enslaved. Amir is also in favor of reparations in some form, saying, « We built this country, we deserve a part of it. » Dr. Whitehead not only argues but believes it is the only way to deal with historic debt. Mr. Whitehead said black Americans deserved redress, especially since the country had paid others it had harmed, but he didn’t see that as a way to fix racism.
When it comes to affirmative action, African Americans are largely in favor of politics.
Second a report from the Pew Research Center released last month, just 33 percent of American adults approve of race-conscious admission to selective colleges. Forty-seven percent of African-American adults say they approve.
The research also revealed that 28 percent of Black adults said others had alleged they had unfairly benefited from efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity.
A separate NBC poll in April, about half of Americans agreed that an affirmative action program was still needed « to counter the effects of discrimination against minorities, and they’re a good idea as long as there aren’t hard quotas. » Among African Americans, the number supporting that claim has risen to about 77%.
The starkly different attitudes toward the merits of affirmative action were most profoundly laid bare in the words of the only two black judges. Their written exchange mirrored how the historic decision was discussed, debated and deconstructed among friends and families, including the Whiteheads, at dinner tables, in group chats and on social media.
Judges Clarence Thomas, who attended Yale, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, who attended Harvard, challenged each other, agreeing only that racial disparities exist but sharply disagreeing on how to address them.
« As he sees things, we are all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society, with the original sin of slavery and the historic subjugation of black Americans still determining our lives today, » wrote Judge Thomas, the second black justice of the nation and longtime critic of affirmative action.
Justice Jackson, in his dissent, said Justice Thomas « is somewhat convinced that these realities bear no relation to a fair assessment of ‘individual achievement,' » he wrote. In his opinion, the conservative majority on the court showed « cake-topping indifference » on the issue of race.
In one sense, the Whiteheads’ views on affirmative action aligned with both justices’ argument outlined in the ruling pages.
For Ms. Whitehead, a radio host, author and daughter of civil rights activists, the dismantling of affirmative action – entrenched in the civil rights movement as part of federal policy to counter discrimination – has been a « punch in the gut. » . She said she personally benefited from affirmative action as the first black student of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies program at the University of Notre Dame. She is concerned that the decision portends what is to come, shaping other aspects of life, including corporate hiring.
Mr. Whitehead said he understood the practice as a way to counter discrimination and mistreatment of African Americans. And, he said, if affirmative action is abolished, legacy preferences should also disappear.
« I’d like to believe we’re a nation that doesn’t have to have affirmative action, but I’m afraid we still need it, » said Mr. Whitehead, who is also an instructor at the Baltimore School of the Bible.
Kofi, the eldest son, who graduated from Rhodes College with a degree in English in May, has a sensibility closer to that of his mother. He began following up on the issue in high school after learning of a white student in Texas who is suing the University of Texas at Austin over the use of race in admissions decisions.
He sees last week’s ruling as both out of touch with the pervasiveness of modern racism and a blow to future generations of Black students seeking to attend elite schools. And he chafes at the argument that college academic standards are being lowered to create different campuses.
“Affirmative action is about opening the door to different backgrounds because that’s what education and higher education are all about,” Kofi said. “It’s not about having 5,000 of the same kids in two-parent, white-picket-fence families all walking in and doing the same thing. No. College and higher education are about getting different people involved so you can learn from each other.
His younger brother Amir, who is on the fencing team at Lafayette College, sees it differently. A sophomore studying economics, she began developing her political and socially conservative views as a middle school student during the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump.
While his and his mother’s opinions are the furthest apart, she said he was raised « to be an independent thinker. »
She agrees with other members of her family that race and the nation’s black history of slavery undeniably influence the present day. But he said he believed affirmative action undermined the concept of gaining admission based on qualifications rather than race.
« Affirmative action being taken away isn’t so much a bad thing, because I don’t think anyone who isn’t qualified for something should get it based solely on skin color, » said Amir, who noted that he included his race on his college application but did not include the topic in his personal essay.
« I’m not saying the bar has been lowered, » he said. “I feel like sometimes cases come down to running. I think that goes back to us, as a country, where everything is about race. »