Conversation Starter: How Should We Talk to Students about Today's SCOTUS Ruling?

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My summer term students were taking their final exam for US History I today when the Supreme Court announced the ruling that effectively ends affirmative action in college admissions. I can’t help but wonder about the long-term impact of the decision for community college students like mine, many of whom come from disadvantaged school districts where most residents are non-white. The two years of free community college provided to new high school graduates by the state in which I teach is only a small step towards closing the enormous economic gaps that exist in our socio-economic hierarchy. The reality is that nearly all well-paying jobs require a four-year degree nowadays. Every May as I watch students walk across the stage in jubilation as they receive their hard-earned associates degrees, I can’t help but think about all the academic and economic challenges that still lie ahead.


How, then, do we talk about the SCOTUS decision to our students of color? I long ago embraced the ideology of “teaching the truth.” Students in my classes reckon with the horrible realities of our history and the ways in which racial discrimination and notions of white supremacy have shaped all of our national institutions. I emphasize to my students that we study subjects like chattel slavery, the destruction of indigenous communities, and the internment of Japanese-Americans so that we can remind ourselves that the so-called “playing field” of American life has never been even. People of color in the United States have historically struggled against discrimination and oppression, and many have achieved incredible successes in spite of historically-present roadblocks. Rather than feeling defeated by those struggles, my students are often buoyed by the resilience of individuals and groups. These stories provide the students with a foundation from which to better understand the nation in which they live and, I hope, to recognize our nation is still a work in progress.


Now, however, my students face a new obstacle as they seek to transfer to four-year colleges. Race can no longer be considered in admissions, in spite of the fact that it is truly a factor in every aspect of American life and has been since the beginning of settlement in Jamestown, New Amsterdam, and Plymouth. I’m struggling with how to talk to students about this monumental decision. Many wonder how it will impact them individually. Will colleges that today are vowing to continue to strive for diverse student bodies be able to legally achieve their goals? Or will the hands of admissions committees be tied by the ruling? Anyone who has worked in a community college understands that it is simply impossible to ignore the harsh realities of growing up in non-white communities in America today, where educational opportunities for even our youngest children are not equal to those available in predominantly white neighborhoods. How do we keep students from being deterred by this ruling from pursuing their academic dreams? I feel fortunate to have two months to mull over the implications of this monumental decision before my students return to the classroom.


Conversation welcome.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.