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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Commentary: Affirmative action harms the wise balance between universal personhood and diversity

The U.S. Supreme Court building as seen on Sunday, July 11, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)  (DANIEL SLIM/Getty Images North America/TNS)
The U.S. Supreme Court building as seen on Sunday, July 11, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) (DANIEL SLIM/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Adam Carrington Chicago Tribune

E pluribus unum. “Out of many, one.” So says America’s traditional motto as it appears on our great seal – and has since Congress approved its inclusion in 1782.

On Oct. 31, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in cases reconsidering the legal and constitutional status of affirmative action. This reconsideration entails a broader one regarding what makes us Americans.

The motto recognizes that differences always have existed among our citizens. Americans have held to different religious creeds, including great diversity among Christian sects but also a Jewish population, which we know in part from President George Washington’s famous letter to the Hebrew congregation in 1790. William Penn’s Pennsylvania is a shining, colonial example of this plethora of religious groups as well.

Americans reflect various nationalities, races and ethnicities. We have from our earliest years incorporated people from many countries. That diversity only has increased with time. Yet our motto sees these many as made one in America.

On what basis is this unity established and maintained? First and foremost, our commonality results from our principles. Founder Thomas Jefferson called the Declaration of Independence “an expression of the American Mind.” The American mind believes the standard of justice comes out of the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” This standard tells us, as a “self-evident” truth, that all people are created equal.

As a status linked to our creation, our equality inheres in our very humanity. We are equal by the fact that we are human. Moreover, this equality is expressed in our “unalienable rights,” which include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” All human beings possess these rights. All deserve the equal protection of these rights by governments. Just laws exist to accomplish this noble goal.

That we believe we can unite around common ideals shows a view of humans as essentially rational and moral. It thereby recognizes and respects human dignity – that we are created in the image of God. The principles of human equality and of natural rights have been our compass, directing us toward the “true North” of justice. The abolition of chattel slavery, the establishment of women’s suffrage and the ending of racial segregation all owe a great debt to America’s working out of these founding ideals. We understood that a person’s skin color, in particular, is an arbitrary distinction for the purposes of government.

This view creates a presumption against affirmative action programs that have developed over the last 50 years. Despite their best intentions, they make governmental actions reflect inequality before the law. In contradiction to their common humanity, people receive different treatment based on the color of their skin. Justice John Marshall Harlan rightly saw the “colorblind” Constitution as the proper application of our fundamental commitments.

Yet we should be careful how far we take the principle of colorblindness. It rightly manifests in equality before the law. But the oneness we create in our humanity under law does not mean the many who compose that oneness lose all right to express their differences in the community.

Our differences of religious belief, political views, and race and ethnicity are not wiped away by recognizing equality – nor should they be. Socially and culturally, we can and should acknowledge, even celebrate, those qualities that make each of us different. Expressing those differences in our lives is one manifestation of our natural right to liberty. It even gives a fuller window into our national character, as different creeds and cultures have contributed to our American story in vital ways. American music, food, religion, moral values and other culturally powerful areas owe their vibrancy in part to the diverse contributions made by our diverse people.

These contributions reside well alongside a colorblind Constitution, one that sees only the human with rights to protect, not a skin color or creed with special privileges in distinction with others. It strikes the proper balance between our universal personhood and our particular characteristics. Affirmative action programs harm that wise balance.

The Supreme Court should take note. This combination of legal colorblindness and social acknowledgment of diversity respects both elements of our motto. It sees rightly the link between equality and liberty. A commitment stemming from our earliest past, so too should it define our nation’s future.

Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

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