Behind every Supreme Court decision is a sociology of ordinary life. Opinions reveal the justices’ view of what’s what in the world, how people act and why things change.
Justices probably prefer that we focus on their legal analyses, but we can glean the sociology behind their assumptions. Last week, judicial world views spun into interplanetary conflict when the court voted to affirm Michigan’s vote to bar all consideration of race, gender, ethnicity, color or national origin in public decision-making, including in state college admissions.
The justices based their decision on a novel faith in the democratic process, which Justice Sonia Sotomayor spent 58 pages countering in a dissent that seemed to come from another universe.
Michigan voters had passed a constitutional amendment that effectively creates preferential treatment for a white majority — in the name of ending preferential treatment by race. The Supreme Court blessed that outcome in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, reinterpreting precedent meant to do the opposite and elevating politics over constitutional protections for racial minorities. Other states are now free to do the same.
The dangers of the decision’s sociology are as stark as its consequences for racial inequality. The world that Justice Anthony Kennedy described in his controlling opinion is not our world today. For all its colorblind tropes, Kennedy describes a world in which a majority of voters can and should decide what racial inequality means and what to do about it. As a result, more — not less — opportunity will be distributed by popular vote according to race.