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One Black Family, One Affirmative Action Ruling, and Lots of Thoughts

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For the Whiteheads, an African American family living in the city of Baltimore, race is discussed at the dinner table. In the car on the way to work and school and games. In the backyard while the sons practice sports.

So when the Supreme Court struck down race-conscious admissions at colleges and universities, effectively ending the practice known as affirmative action, the family began talking about it earnestly, echoing the range of emotions felt by people across the country who are invested in the ruling.

Though the result was anticipated, Karsonya Wise Whitehead, 54, a college professor, said she was so devastated that she had to sit down to process “the type of history being made at that moment.”

Her husband, Johnnie Whitehead, 59, the principal of a Christian school, said he took no joy in the ruling but was ambivalent about affirmative action. He is hopeful that it is no longer needed, but fears it is.

The eldest son, Kofi, 22, texted his brother Amir to share the news, and thought of the chilling effect it might have on the next generation of Black students. Amir, 20, felt that ending affirmative action was not wrong because admissions should be based upon merits only.

For the Whiteheads, the Supreme Court decision — seismic in its power to reorder the admissions process at elite colleges and universities — was another chapter in a broader discussion they had been having since their children were young.

Their conversation reflects, in some ways, the complex and shifting views among African Americans grappling with the question embedded in the nation’s every contemporary racial conflict, from reparations to the American justice system: How to deal with the legacy of slavery?

“This is part of our ongoing conversation about the tensions around racism and around race,” said Dr. Whitehead, who teaches African American studies and communications at Loyola University Maryland and is the executive director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace and Social Justice at the college. “We’ve seen different iterations of: ‘What does it mean to be Black in America? Where do we fit into America? Whose America is this? And if we want to have equity, what does this equity look like?’”

The family’s early talks centered on making sure their sons were confident in who they were as young Black men. That gave way to other topics.

Kofi favors reparations but doesn’t know what the right amount of money should be for Black families whose ancestors were enslaved. Amir favors reparations in some form, too, saying, “We built this country, we deserve some part of it.” Dr. Whitehead is not only in support, but she believes it is the only way forward to address the historical debt. Mr. Whitehead said Black Americans deserved reparations, particularly since the country had paid others that it harmed, but did not see it as a way to solve racism.

When it comes to affirmative action, African Americans are broadly supportive of the policy.

According to a Pew Research Center report released last month, only 33 percent of American adults approve of race-conscious admissions at 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 assumed that they benefited unfairly from efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity.

A separate NBC poll in April found about half of Americans agreed that an affirmative action program was still necessary “to counteract the effects of discrimination against minorities, and are a good idea as long as there are no rigid quotas.” Among African Americans, the number in support of that statement increased to about 77 percent.

The starkly different attitudes toward the merits of affirmative action were laid bare most profoundly in the words of the only two Black justices. Their written exchange mirrored how the landmark decision was discussed, debated and deconstructed among friends and families — including the Whiteheads — at dinner tables, in group chats and on social media.

Justices Clarence Thomas, who attended to Yale, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, who attended Harvard, challenged each other’s views, agreeing only on the existence of racial disparities but sharply disagreeing on how to address them.

“As she sees things, we are all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society, with the original sin of slavery and the historical subjugation of Black Americans still determining our lives today,” wrote Justice Thomas, the nation’s second Black justice and a longtime critic of affirmative action.

Justice Jackson, in her dissent, said Justice Thomas “is somehow persuaded that these realities have no bearing on a fair assessment of ‘individual achievement’,” she wrote. In her opinion, the court’s conservative majority displayed a “let-them-eat-cake obliviousness” on the issue of race.

In some ways, the Whiteheads’ views of affirmative action aligned with both of the justices’ argument outlined on the pages of the ruling.

For Ms. Whitehead, a radio show host, author and the daughter of civil rights activists, the dismantling of affirmative action — rooted in the civil rights movement as part of federal policy to counteract discrimination — was a “gut punch.” She said she personally benefited from affirmative action as the first Black student in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies program at the University of Notre Dame. She worries 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 going to be abolished, legacy preferences should go, too.

“I’d like to believe that we are a nation that doesn’t have to have affirmative action, but I fear we still need it,” said Mr. Whitehead, who is also a teacher at Baltimore School of the Bible.

Kofi, the eldest son, who graduated from Rhodes College in May with an English degree, has a sensibility closer to his mother’s. He first began following the issue in high school after learning about a white student in Texas who sued the University of Texas at Austin for its use of race in admission 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 looking to attend elite schools. And he chafes at the argument that college academic standards are lowered to create diverse campuses.

“Affirmative action is about opening the door to diverse backgrounds because that is what education and higher learning is about,” Kofi said. “It’s not about having 5,000 of the same kids in two-parent households and white picket fences who all come in and do the same thing. No. College and higher education is about bringing in different people so you can learn from each other.”

His younger brother Amir, who is a member of Lafayette College’s fencing team, sees it differently. A college sophomore who is studying economics, he began developing his political and socially conservative views as a middle school student during the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump.

While he and his mother’s views are the farthest apart, she said he was raised “to be an independent thinker.”

He agrees with the other members of his family that race, and the nation’s history of enslavement of Black people, undeniably affects the present day. But, he said he believed that affirmative action undermined the concept of earning admission based on qualifications rather than race.

“Affirmative action being taken away is not so much a bad thing, because I don’t think that anyone who is not qualified for something should get that purely based off their skin color,” said Amir, who noted that he included his race on his college application but did not include the subject in his personal essay.

“I am not saying the bar has been lowered,” he said. “I just feel as though sometimes, cases come down to race. I think that goes back to us, as a country, where everything is focused on race.”

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