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The Affirmative Action Decree & Life After Twitter
Plus, I saw Beyoncé in Brooklyn last night at the library
Me, last night, inside a replica of Baseline Studios inside the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in an exhibit honoring the life journey of Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z.
This may come as a surprise to you and me both, but after many consecutive weeks on the road—filming, speaking, unpacking, and repacking—I’m finally heading home to Los Angeles! I’m literally sitting at JFK airport in New York waiting for my delayed flight. I was here for the grand opening of The Book of HOV, a tribute to Jay-Z in the form of an exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library, where I serve as a member of the board of trustees. Short version: Jay-Z and his ROC Nation team decided his archive—including handwritten lyrics, archival footage, memorabilia, and more—should live at the Brooklyn Public Library. BPL has become more of a national institution in the wake of foolish book bans by fearful, small-minded people in a number of states, and the library responded with Books Unbanned. There are many private institutions which would have loved to host the archive of what many people consider to be the greatest MC, but it’s going to live in a truly public space. For a limited time, some very rare and valuable artifacts will be on public display as part of this exhibit, and I urge you to get to Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn in the next few weeks if possible. It’s a truly tremendous, interactive experience. I posted a video and a few photos on the possibly-temporary social network, Threads.
My experience last night at a public institution of learning and letters is a perfect setup for the main focus of this week’s newsletter: the Supreme Court’s much-anticipated decision to end affirmative action as we’ve known it in higher education admissions. That case struck close to home. I’m sure I was the beneficiary of such programs, and by extension you were too, if you like reading my words, so I dragged myself and a good friend out of vacation mode last week to discuss the case, and she revealed several perspectives I’m confident you haven’t encountered.
But first, a few thoughts on Zuckerberg’s new “Twitter killer.” Actually, we all should acknowledge that the real Twitter Killer is Elon Musk, the first of his name, Destroyer of Shareholder Value, Breaker of Contracts, and Purveyor of Juvenility.
Life After Twitter
Like many of you, I’m sure, I was dragged out of vacation mode last week by new efforts to capitalize on the chaos created at Twitter since Elon Musk took over. The diaspora of Twitter refugees has splintered across several apps and services including Spoutible, T2, Post, and larger federated networks built on open protocols such as Mastodon and Bluesky. I created accounts on all of these so that I could try them out, claim my username, and decide if any would become a worthy new digital home. In most cases, my experiments have stayed in that phase of commitment. It’s exhausting trying to exist simultaneously in multiple, often redundant, social networks. But two new entrants this week have offered something different.
The first is Spill which describes itself as “visual conversation at the speed of culture.” Unlike most of the post-Twitter clones, Spill looks and feels very different because it was explicitly designed to cater to folks who drove a lot of culture on Twitter but were often treated as an afterthought, a.k.a. Black folks, queer folks, and women. In short, Spill, whose name is based on the colloquialism “spill the tea” or “tell the truth” is very, refreshingly, Black. The co-founders are Black. Many of the investors are Black. This is not the social media platform story we are used to. I joined 130,000 other users there over the Independence Day weekend, and the experience lives up to the promise: it’s a visually vibrant, unapologetically fun, Black-friendly space. The character limit is only 90, and GIFs and images abound. Laughter is my most common physical reaction to spending time there. It’s as if Black Twitter, Vine, and Queer TikTok had a baby. I am rooting for this team and this app hard! Right now it’s still in invite-only mode, and it doesn’t have a web client, just mobile phone apps. If you can get a ticket to the club, find me there. I’m “baratunde” as usual.
Meanwhile, I’m sure you’ve heard about a little app called Threads, from the people who bought Instagram and tried to bring you the metaverse. The app accrued 70 million account signups in its first 48 hours. It’s grown to at least 100 million now. Yes, million. I felt some very personal feelings about this app from Mark Zuckerberg’s company. I truly wanted to dislike it, but I’ve been so annoyed with Musk’s reckless management of Twitter that I also found myself silently chanting to myself, “Get him, Zuck! Take him down!” as if I were watching the cage match that the two billionaires have maybe-not-jokingly teased.
On the merits, Threads is instantly relevant to me because I was able to connect to my existing social graph from Instagram. The manual effort I slogged through to try to export and import contacts on Mastodon was completely absent. When I wanted to tag the Brooklyn Public Library, I could, because they are there. Puck is there. Famous people are there, too. I posted (threaded?) about the joy of this instant reunion with friends, but Threads is only able to break these user-signup records because it’s built on the back of incumbency and Meta’s near monopoly over our friend lists. This is a great technology feature and a terrible tech policy failure. The company promises to make Threads interoperable with the open ActivityPub standard (which powers Mastodon), which theoretically means that we will be able to decouple our social graphs from the companies that have held them hostage. Time will tell if Meta lives up to that commitment; I’ll return in a few weeks with deeper thoughts.
Now, on to my discussion of the Supreme Court!
The End of Affirmative Action and the Attempt to Erase Race
A candid conversation with Anurima Bhargava, a top civil rights litigator and education advisor, about a Supreme Court earthquake.
The full version of this essay lives, as usual, at Puck. I’ll set up the opening then share some choice moments. You can also listen to me in today’s edition of the Puck podcast, The Powers That Be Daily, where I discuss this piece with Peter Hamby.
In a landmark decision on June 29, the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, effectively abolished affirmative action as we know it. The lawsuit was initiated by a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which argued that these policies unfairly discriminated against Asian American applicants to Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, where race-conscious guidelines allegedly undermined their likelihood of acceptance while boosting opportunities for Black and Latino students. This nation’s highest court agreed.
This decision was particularly meaningful for me, because I am, in part, a product of America’s tortured history of racism and its incomplete effort to acknowledge and atone for that history. I’m a descendant of enslaved people on both my mother’s and father’s side, in Virginia and South Carolina. My maternal grandmother was the first Black person to work in the Supreme Court building. Many decades later, with the determination of my mother and the help of loans and scholarships, I attended the private Sidwell Friends school in Washington, D.C. While there, I considered many possible colleges, but the Harvard admissions official who visited for an information session really grabbed my attention. David Evans was a bowtie-wearing Black man from the South. Seeing him represent the school made me think I might seriously be able to go there and find a place. I applied. Harvard accepted me, and I accepted Harvard. Now, the admissions process, which I’m certain took my race into account, is severely restricted from doing so thanks to the decision of the Supreme Court in which my alma mater was a named defendant.
One of the friends I made at Harvard is Anurima Bhargava, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, attended public schools, and went on to Columbia Law School. Anurima, now a civil rights lawyer, has more than a decade of experience as the former leader of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s education practice. She has also advised higher education institutions about how to achieve their diversity goals, worked in the Obama Justice Department from 2010 to 2016, and has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court about race and education. In short, I can’t think of a better person to help explain the meaning of the recent SCOTUS ruling on affirmative action.
I spoke to Anurima via Zoom as I sat in the lobby of a downtown Milwaukee hotel, and she stood on a Portuguese beach while on a much-needed vacation. She faced the Atlantic Ocean, looking westward back at America, and offered some profound, original perspectives on the decision and the nation. I’ve edited our conversation for length and clarity.
What’s really heartbreaking are the ways in which this decision takes what is the finest moment, in my mind, in Supreme Court history, which is Brown v. Board of Education, and recasts it as a moment of “colorblindness” in American history. That is entirely the opposite of what Brown was. Brown focused on how we can get to a point of true racial equality in America, where we are breaking down the ways in which we see each other by recognizing how race plays out. If the first thing we see in each other is race, then the idea is to have people be in a space together where we can discover what unites us. And that’s something we learn, not something we can just proclaim.
The whole point of these cases was to serve as an intervention point, to get us to where Florida and Texas (to name a few recent examples) have gone in their attempt to erase race. They want to erase race from how we see ourselves in any kind of context around the law, policy, or government, but most importantly, how we see ourselves in terms of how we learn. You can’t separate these cases from the freedom to learn efforts (pushing back against attacks on teaching about race, gender, and sexuality in schools), which are really about what’s being banned, what stories and histories we’re telling. I just want to emphasize that this is all part of that same effort. They are trying to create a world in which we can’t have diversity programs, we can’t have equity programs, and we can’t really talk about the facts and histories that are underlying why we need those programs.
There was a wave of Asian immigration that came after the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, and the main way that people entered the country was as professional skilled workers. Those that came in at that time were people like my parents, and they’re now in retirement age.
I just want to underscore this point: if you came in because you were valued for your skills, for your profession, for your work, and now you’re retired, you have some real questions for yourself: How do I think about myself, my worth, and what I contribute? How do I value myself now? These questions arise because when you came in, you were admitted based on criteria that was very narrow.
That’s the concern I have about narrowly-defined college admissions, too. When we start to narrow that assessment of someone, how does that affect the way a person understands the ways they can contribute to their community, to their family, to what’s going on around them?
This is critically important and generational. In America, seeing ourselves and our worth only in some measurable, concrete way--as the Supreme Court decision does--reduces us and our humanity. In short, the law can’t account for humanity.
Here’s my closing
Now that there’s a new lawsuit challenging the whiteness of legacy admissions, we’ll see how long that victory lasts. I’m glad you brought up the so-called “anti-woke” efforts in states like Florida and Texas, because it helps us see this as a deliberate moment. These folks are creating a world where you can’t teach kids about the history of the country, and you can’t intervene later and try to remediate and account for the harms that persist because of that history. They’ve kind of taken out both ends, so nothing changes—and if anything, things actually contract backward, without anyone having to affirmatively push things in that direction. It’s just another way to roll back the clock without explicitly saying whites-only, or rich-only.
This is where I’m really grateful we have a Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, because she put things in her dissent, starting at page 209, that are now illegal to teach in certain places. But as far as I know, it’s not yet illegal to teach Supreme Court dissents, so maybe some kids or teachers will find this loophole and read her words and understand why we even have a thing that’s been called “affirmative action.”
Again, the full version is at Puck thanks!