Alaskans assess impact of U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling

college students
University of Alaska Southeast students in X’unei Lance Twitchell’s class. (Courtesy UAS)

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action practices at public and private universities, Alaskans on the forefront of diversity initiatives have been assessing the impacts.

Elvi Gray-Jackson
Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson at a legislative committee hearing. (Courtesy Elvi Gray-Jackson)

Throughout her long history in public service, state Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson has fought against racism. She said the court’s affirmative action ruling was a gut-punch for African Americans.

“It was unbelievable,” Gray-Jackson said. “We’re going backward, instead of moving forward.”

The state senator said she worries that employers will apply the court’s reasoning to the workplace.

“Folks are already marginalized. And I think this is going to make it worse,” Gray-Jackson said.

On June 29, the high court ruled that Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s admission policies are unconstitutional, with a 6-3 majority saying they violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The decision doesn’t affect the University of Alaska system because of its open admissions policy, in which almost everyone who applies gets accepted.

Diane Hirshberg is director of the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. (Courtesy UA)

But Diane Hirshberg, director of the university’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, said she finds the popularity of the ruling disturbing.

“One of the concerns I have about the anger towards affirmative action is people are not recognizing what it’s trying to rectify,” said Hirshberg, who believes opponents mistakenly think affirmative action is designed to take away from one group to give to another.

“What we’re trying to do is really build a system that welcomes everybody and helps everybody succeed, meeting them where they’re at,” she said.

Hirshberg said affirmative action levels the playing field beyond just race, that people forget that white women have benefited more than any other group.

For Alaska Native corporations, which have invested heavily in education, the decision is discouraging. Since their formation 50 years ago, 12 regional corporations have collectively handed out more than $100 million in scholarships. And that doesn’t include village corporations like the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation in Utqiaġvik.

Pearl Brower
Dr. Pearl Brower is currently President and CEO of the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation in Utqiaġvik. (Courtesy UIC)

UIC’s president and CEO Pearl Brower said the corporation has grown to include 60 companies.

“We employ about 3,600 people in almost every state in the nation,” Brower said.

Many of those jobs, she said, go to Alaska Natives, and include executives who have attended prestigious schools. Brower worries the court’s decision will reverse the big gains made in Native hire.

“No matter where you look, you don’t ever see an Indigenous person in the forefront. They are already so underrepresented,” she said.

And yet Brower has seen much progress in her lifetime. Before she became president at Ukpeaġvik, she was director of the Iḷisaġvik College – and most recently oversaw the University of Alaska’s diversity initiatives for Alaska Natives.

“At the core, what all of this does is provide more opportunity for everyone,” said Brower. She said that goes not just for minorities but also majorities, who get to broaden their horizons by exposure to other ways of thinking and doing.

Rosita Worl
Rosita Worl is president and CEO of Sealaska Heritage Institute, which partners with the University of Alaska Southeast for Native studies classes. (Courtesy SHI)

Rosita Worl, head of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a non-profit arm of the Sealaska Corporation, said research shows that diversity fosters creativity and open-mindedness, an asset for companies who need workers comfortable communicating across different cultures.

But in the wake of the ruling, Worl expects college admissions for minorities, including Alaska Natives, to drop.

“To me, it’s just so unfathomable that the Supreme Court did that,” Worl said.

But she is pleased with the court’s other decision last month – to uphold the Indian Child Welfare Act.

“The individuals who brought the case were saying that it was racial discrimination,” Worl said. “But the Supreme Court ruled, no, it wasn’t racial discrimination — because the rights that we hold are political rights.”

Worl said those political rights could have bearing on the court’s affirmative action ruling. She said Sealaska attorneys have begun an intensive legal review on behalf of students on scholarships. She said 450 students have Sealaska Corporation scholarships at more than 180 academic and vocational schools.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get word out to universities, that because of our political status, affirmative action can be applied to Native American admissions to colleges,” Worl said.

Alex Cleghorn, an attorney and chief operating officer for the Alaska Native Justice Center, hailed Worl’s approach.

“It’s an interesting read on the situation,” he said.

Cleghorn said it’s yet to be seen if Native American political status can be tied to affirmative action. He worries about future interpretations of the court’s ruling and their impact on equal opportunity programs.

“I know that I benefited, not just admissions in that program but additional support around succeeding in school,” said Cleghorn, who is of Supiaq heritage.

Alex Cleghorn
Alex Cleghorn is an attorney and chief operating officer at the Alaska Native Justice Center. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

Cleghorn said it’s risky to forecast where future Supreme Court rulings will go. But, he said, it’s maddening to watch the very same court issue two decisions that are so diametrically opposed.

“This has been true throughout history,” Cleghorn said. “So, the same U.S. Supreme Court that decided Brown v. Board of Education was the same Supreme Court that decided Tee-Hit-Ton in Southeast.”

While the 1954 Brown decision banned racial segregation, Cleghorn said the court’s 1955 Tee-Hit-Ton ruling was blatantly racist – that it not only denied Lingíts compensation for their land and sale of their timber, but was written in language steeped in prejudice.

Cleghorn quoted from Justice Stanley Reed’s majority opinion:

“Every American schoolboy knows that the savage tribes of this continent were deprived of their ancestral ranges by force. Even when the Indians ceded millions of acres by treaty, in return for blankets, food and trinkets, it was not a sale, but the conqueror’s will that deprived them of their land,” he read.

Cleghorn said the Supreme Court, both then and now, has moments that inspire – and others that evoke shame.

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