The Atlantic

How Conservatives Turned the ‘Color-Blind Constitution’ Against Racial Progress

Progressives used to argue that the Constitution doesn’t see race. Now conservatives have weaponized that same idea.
Source: Bettman / Getty

At the core of many of America’s most heated debates—affirmative action, voting rights, reparations—is an unsettled question the nation has wrestled with for nearly two centuries: Does the Constitution care about race? Or, put another way, is the Constitution color-blind?

Supreme Court justices have weighed in frequently, perhaps most famously in John Marshall Harlan’s renowned dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which he stated peremptorily in favor of desegregation, “There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind.” More recently, Chief Justice John Roberts championed a color-blind reading of the Constitution in Parents Involved v. Seattle (2007), arguing against desegregation: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Those declarations bookended more than a century of American history. They reached very different conclusions on racial preferences but employed the same framework of constitutional color blindness in doing so. How exactly is this possible?

The answer lies in the changing faces of those who benefit most from racial preference.

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