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The Antidote to the Supreme Court Decision on Affirmative Action? The Essay Will Keep Us Talking About Race

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

As university administrators and admissions officers scramble to comply with the Supreme Court’s opinion, here’s the counterintuitive way out.

Be color blind. But keep talking about race.

I’ve always talked about race. And now, I’m upping the volume. The Supreme Court made me do it. The six conservatives may have on their race blindfolds (the ones they want everyone to wear). But they don’t have earplugs.

To students, if you were bashful before, don’t be. It’s time for all of us to tell our stories. Loudly. Race impacts your life but you don’t say? Say it now. Especially on college applications. I had told a friend, a female Harvard classmate, that I thought I would cry when, as expected, the Supreme Court finally ruled against the use of race in college admissions. It would be like Dodd and Rowe. A roll back. She understood.Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

And then the court ruled. But I didn’t cry.

Maybe it’s because I had a dental procedure scheduled in the morning. Nothing like a double dose of Lidocaine to numb me while absorbing the opinion. It helped me deal with the pain. I didn’t feel it. I just got mad.

Chief Justice John Roberts was at Harvard the same time I was there. And I realized I had failed in my original race mission back in the ‘70s. My mere presence at “that school in Boston” did not persuade young Roberts of the merits of diversity. What about the mutual benefits of having an underprivileged Filipino kid as part of the student body at Harvard? Because I was not just there to take. I was there to give to America’s future leaders, like Roberts, a real world understanding beyond white preppie-dom, and to help him build the kind of empathy he’d need to have as a chief justice of the United States.

Had I succeeded--had our paths crossed--maybe Roberts would not have written a terrible opinion that set back civil rights progress in higher education nearly 50 years.

Robert’s opinion was just wrong, beginning with his use of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to strike down the use of race in admissions.

“The Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” wrote Roberts. “Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.”

That got the attention of Neal Katyal, former acting Solicitor General of the United States, who said on MSNBC that the Equal Protection Clause only binds state actors.

So can Harvard a private institution violate the Equal Protection Clause?

“Legally, that’s just impossible,” said Katyal, a law school professor of more than 20 years. He pointed out that by virtue of taking federal funds Harvard could be in violation of Title VI, a federal statute. “But Harvard certainly didn’t violate the Constitution.”

If you feel bad about this decision, you’re in good company. Even the brightest legal minds in the nation were shaking their heads at this one. At least Roberts didn’t formally overturn existing laws. He just said race could not be used in admissions, even in the narrow way it’s used today.

But he did allow for a loophole:

“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” Roberts wrote. “In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”

So you want to go to Harvard? Tell your story. That hasn’t changed in 50 years.

That’s how I got in.

There’s no time limit on the legacy of experienced racism that’s handed down.

My grades were above average, and my test scores suggested I was born into a family and culture that didn’t relate to test scores. If I was going to get in, it was always going to be the essay.

I remember writing it by hand with an old plastic Bic pen. I pressed down so hard on the paper that it looked like a Dead Sea scroll.

The story was about my dad, who was 50 years older than me. He came in 1928 from the Philippines as a colonized American national, not a slave. Just a different variety of subservient. He wasn’t one of the students from well-heeled Filipino families. He was a Philippine farm boy in the U.S., where he couldn’t vote, become a citizen, own property, or intermarry. His asthma prevented him from working the fields in the Central Valley of California, where Filipinos were lynched. So he stayed in San Francisco and worked in restaurants as a cook.

Nearly 30 years passed before he was able to find a Filipino wife in the U.S. And then, I was born.

We never owned a car, were always renters, and moved every three years. But we ate chicken wings before they were cool.

In other words, I was born into Filipino American history. And still got good grades.

Harvard material? My father’s story was. It’s what I overcame.

The Harvard opinion makes it clear. On college applications, don’t say race; tell your story.

Tell your race story. That has always been our best shot.

This past February I was in New York City when I realized I’m still telling my father’s story, which includes Harvard, in my one-man show, “Emil Amok: Lost NPR Host.” (I‘m doing it again in August in San Francisco.)

I invited several classmates from decades ago to come watch me perform and most of them showed up. One of them, a doctor, said, “I know you more after 55 minutes of your show than I did in four years at Harvard.”

Another friend said he was ashamed that he wasn’t curious enough to get to know more about me and my circumstances back then.

“I just assumed you were like me,” said the white Harvard legacy who then commented on the show. “It was incredibly moving and meaningful to be let in now and to have a better sense of who you are.”

I hadn’t seen him in more than forty years. But there was still some bond that we formed long ago that crossed all differences and could still be culled up all these years later.

And that is the magic of race in admissions, and why it’s worth preserving given the new Roberts loophole.

When the magic works, our best notions of America are affirmed.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He does a micro-talk show on


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