Affirmative action is not like slavery

After a long-anticipated wait, the United States Supreme Court recently deferred ruling on the merits of the affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, instead sending it back to a lower court for reconsideration.

Among the justices siding with the majority opinion was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who I consider a friend.

In his separate opinion, Justice Thomas, long known for his criticism of race as a factor in college admissions, made some stunning statements regarding affirmative action. Justice Thomas wrote that the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions policy promoted discrimination.

In so doing, he likened the school’s affirmative action program to slavery and segregation. He also wrote that diversity is a “faddish theory,” not inherently valuable or beneficial in education, and that it cannot be “pursued for its own sake.” Furthermore, he states that “the educational benefits flowing from student body diversity — assuming they exist — hardly qualify as a compelling state interest.”

I cannot disagree more with Justice Thomas. There is real value in diversity in our educational institutions, and many positive effects can be and have been achieved through affirmative action programs. The different opinions and perspectives that emerge from discussions in a diverse classroom are valuable in a way that makes them indispensable to our current education system.

In addition, diversity in the classroom allows students a more meaningful and relevant view of people from different backgrounds, deepening their understanding of other people in the world, something that cannot be taken for granted in a world that is getting smaller every day.

First introduced by President John F. Kennedy, affirmative action laws were designed to ensure that minorities with disadvantages are afforded the same opportunities and chances for success, as well as to ensure the kind of diversity that is crucial to a healthy, productive learning environment in classrooms across the nation.

These programs are of the utmost importance, as they allow students to learn from others who are not like themselves, sharpening their intellects, their opinions and ideas, while promoting open-mindedness both in and out of the classroom.

Without the knowledge of others that so many students are now able to get from educational institutions that have embraced affirmative action, how can we hope to combat racism, negative stereotypes and prejudice in the world?

Affirmative action in education has also allowed women to make gains in otherwise male-dominated fields by encouraging them to pursue fields they wouldn’t otherwise consider. These programs include grants and graduate fellowship programs that help women move into fields they have been discouraged from in the past, such as engineering, math, the physical sciences and even the legal field.

Affirmative action has also paved the way for ambitious men to discover opportunities which they otherwise may not have been able to take advantage of in the past.

I continue to respect Justice Thomas as a jurist. But I don’t believe that affirmative action can, in any way, be likened to slavery.

Affirmative action has provided a great many opportunities for many Americans and, in so doing, it has set many of us free.

Leah Ward Sears is a partner at the law firm of Schiff Hardin LLP and former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.