BY Pat Smith, TFN President & CEO

I was wrapping up my visit to Morehouse College, a campus that is a living testament to Black excellence, leadership and achievement, when news broke of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision rejecting affirmative action at colleges and universities around the nation.

This ruling upends a policy that has been a pillar of higher education for more than a half century, one that provided a first step up the ladder of success and opportunity for generations of young Black and brown people, including myself.

Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, recruiters from the elite Seven Sisters colleges came to my Philadelphia high school to introduce Black students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds to their institutions. I ultimately chose to attend Mount Holyoke College on a full academic scholarship.

For me, it is an outrageous irony that this country has sanctioned exclusion on the basis of race since its founding, and yet we cannot take race into account when fashioning remedies to redress generational, systemic harm.

I’m struck by the further irony that this ruling does not apply to our nation’s military academies, which may still consider race as a factor in admissions. Are we saying that Black, Latinx/e and other people of color aren’t valuable to places of higher education, except where the United States has an interest in deciding who can fight — and die — for our country?

I went to college during the height of Vietnam War. I was devastated to learn recently that a predominately Black Philadelphia high school holds the distinction of having the most Vietnam casualties — more than any other single high school in the United States.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson both offered blistering criticisms of the ruling and the myth of color-blindness in their dissenting opinions.

It beggars belief to say that race doesn’t matter. It mattered in 1619. It mattered in 1968. And it matters still today.

Affirming our Commitment to Racial Justice

The affirmative action ruling was quickly followed by the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan, a decision that disproportionately impacts students of color.

Both rulings present significant challenges to helping this generation of young people of color close racial wealth gaps.

Many in the philanthropic sector are wrestling with the impact the decision will have on education and beyond: Namely, whether this will create a chilling effect on incorporating the values of racial equity and inclusion in hiring policies, grantmaking and advocacy work.

I speak on behalf of TFN’s team in saying that we are committed to centering racial justice in our work. And we are likewise committed to helping our members and partners navigate potential fallout from the recent Supreme Court ruling and other attempts to roll back progress and water down challenges to systemic racism.

That commitment is foundational to our work, which includes varied but intersecting funder focus areas such as climate action, transportation and land use policies, urban water strategies, disaster resilience, and economic injustice.

The Road to Justice

It was some comfort that I was surrounded by an amazing group of highly engaged and passionate funders when the court issued its ruling. We had gathered at Morehouse for TFN’s 2023 Inclusive Economies Meeting: Pathways to Power & Prosperity, a two-day event designed to deepen understanding of systemic challenges to opportunity, examine effective and equitable funding strategies and explore collaborations that drive change.

I am grateful to my friend, Judge Glenda Hatchett — a Mount Holyoke College alumna —  who stopped by to visit our Inclusive Economies gathering. In impassioned and impromptu remarks, she shared the extraordinary journey of Horace T. Ward, a graduate of Morehouse College, who was denied admission into the all-white University of Georgia Law School in 1950. He later became the first African American to serve on the federal bench in Georgia. In telling his story, Judge Hatchett reminded us that the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action is just another obstacle we can and will overcome on the road toward justice.

Stronger Together

Last week, TFN participated in a check-in call with other philanthropy serving organizations, organized by the United Philanthropy Forum, to process and strategize next steps in the wake of the ruling. As part of the briefing, we heard from ABFE, which is working with other identity-based PSOs — such as Native Americans in PhilanthropyAsian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and Hispanics in Philanthropy — to craft a collective strategy.

We look forward to engaging with them on this effort and sharing resources and calls-to-action with TFN’s community of funders and partners.

This recent Supreme Court decision is momentous, but not singular. It is part of an escalating effort to undo decades of progress around racial justice and bodily autonomy. One has only to look at TFN’s home state of Florida, where LGBTQ+ rights are under assault, books are being banned from classrooms, and public colleges and universities are now forbidden from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Many of you are seeing similar conflicts playing out in your states, cities and school boards.

I encourage our community of funders to use their positions of trust and influence to advocate against these efforts. I also encourage you to continue to support leadership pipelines for people of color and other marginalized groups, including community-led nonprofits, grassroots organizations and chronically underfunded historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

And I welcome you to share your own strategies, concerns and ways TFN can be of service to our collective goal of creating more equitable and just.

Additional Resources & Reactions

TFN is compiling reactions and resources from the philanthropic sector. Please reach out if you or your organization have additional links to share. 

ABFE | Statement in Response to the US Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling

Barr Foundation | Undeterred, Our Work Continues

California Wellness Foundation | Cal Wellness Denounces SCOTUS Decision on Affirmative Action

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | Casey’s Response to the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Decision

Hispanics in Philanthropy | Injustice Unmasked

W. K. Kellogg Foundation | Statement on Affirmative Action Ruling & Additional Resources

The Kresge Foundation | College admissions affirmative action case won’t sway our dedication to equity

Latino Community Foundation | A Setback But We Will Press Forward, Together

McKnight Foundation | Statement in Response to Supreme Court Affirmative Action Ruling

Surdna Foundation | Surdna’s Unwavering Commitment to Advancing Racial Justice in America’s Communities

Featured Image: Artwork on display at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, site of TFN’s 2023 Inclusive Economies meeting.