Students and Allies Join Forces to Support Affirmative Action Policies

with Damon Hewitt of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases seeking to overturn longstanding precedents that have allowed colleges to consider race in admissions decisions.

Damon Hewitt, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, joins host Tetiana Anderson to share how the rulings can impact the future of affirmative action.

Posted on:

Jan 30, 2023

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: For more than 50 years, federal law has permitted colleges and universities to consider race when making admissions decisions. The goal is to help mitigate the impact of past discrimination. But now, the future of what's known as affirmative action hangs in limbo. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Proponents of affirmative action argue that race-conscious admissions are vital to ensure students of color are fairly represented in higher education institutions. The Supreme Court is expected to decide in the summer of 2023 if race-conscious admissions are lawful. And joining me to share insight into the impact of these affirmative action cases and how the rulings may reach far beyond the classroom is Damon Hewitt. He is the president and executive director of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. And, Damon, thank you so much for being here.

Hewitt: Thanks for having me.

Anderson: So, you know, we talk all about this, but one of the things I want to know from you is why the issue of considering race and ethnicity has been so controversial in the first place.

Hewitt: Well, it's controversial because this nation has a tortured history. When you think back to chattel slavery and Jim Crow, the question is what should be the reckoning for that in a positive, healthy, forward-looking way? And part of that reckoning is really ensuring that pathways to opportunity are open for everyone, not just each individual as a person, but also structurally for entire communities and entire people. And so that's why it's so controversial, because we have this history that we're trying to overcome in this country.

Anderson: And, you know, from your perspective, why is it so important to consider race, to consider ethnicity when it comes to college admissions?

Hewitt: Considering race is so important, number one, because race matters in our daily lives. We can't pretend when we get to college admissions or employment applications, for example, that it doesn't matter. It matters, certainly, when we walk down the street, when you go grocery shopping, when you walk into a store, when you interact with the police. It matters all the time. But most importantly, we know that the normative criteria, the typical criteria like test scores that are used to determine admissions, those criteria tend to under-predict talent and potential among Black and brown students. And so, if we only use those criteria and didn't look more broadly, what would happen is we'd be leaving on the table a broad swath of talent and disadvantaging an entire population of people.

Anderson: Lawyers' Committee has a unique place in this whole discussion. I mean, you're not actually a party to the UNC case, you're not a party to the Harvard case, but you are representing student voices when it comes to this as something called a defendant intervenor. Explain what that is.

Hewitt: Sure. A defendant intervenor, intervention status, is essentially saying that the university -- in this case, UNC in particular -- is a defendant in this case being sued, but that defendant cannot adequately represent the interests of our clients, Black students and other students of color and also alumni of color now who've graduated, because they have a particular interest. You know, UNC is an institution. It's the oldest public college in the country. And it was created specifically to educate the children of plantation owners, of slave owners. It excluded Black students for many generations, many decades. And so there's no way, even with the strides UNC has made, it alone can adequately represent the interests of Black students. We have to step in that breach, and we think we've done it well.

Anderson: And what would you say that the UNC case, the Harvard case really signal in terms of the future of the vitality of affirmative action in general?

Hewitt: These cases, and the entire debate -- and it was clear at the oral argument in the Supreme Court, where one of our lawyers presented oral argument in the case -- that this is all about a battle for what does fairness mean, what does equal protection mean in the 14th Amendment? Some say it requires race neutrality. We say that's hogwash because we know that race matters in our daily lives. The 14th Amendment itself is a race-conscious instrument, as you said in your open, designed to address past discrimination, but also ongoing structural discrimination. So, really what's at stake is, we know that race matters -- are we going to tell the truth about it?

Anderson: All of this, this whole conversation, isn't just about, you know, life on campus. You say that the decision to make sure that campuses are so diverse extends well beyond that to the business world, to the world of economics. What do you mean by that?

Hewitt: Well, look, the whole idea of affirmative action is creating a pathway to opportunity. Not opportunity to be on a college campus for four or five years, but an opportunity to be leaders in American democracy and political life, in public life, in commerce and business, and in the academy, right? It's about what our nation looks like. And we can ill afford, as our nation becomes demographically more diverse, for our major institutions, especially elite institutions, to become less diverse and go in the opposite direction.

Anderson: And, Damon, I know people are going to want to know more, so what's the website? Where should they look for more information?

Hewitt: People can go to That's our website for the organization. We have a landing page that tells you all about the cases, gives you a timeline, the key briefs, and all the key arguments and issues.

Anderson: Damon Hewitt of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, thank you for being here.

Hewitt: Thanks so much for covering this issue.

Anderson: And thanks to you as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and around the country, log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

Loading Loading...