O’Connor and Tutu were among the luminaries honored at the close of the conference, which drew an unusually large number of attendees from both local communities and around the country.
In her keynote address on Friday afternoon, O’Connor defended the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Grutter vs. Bollinger, the landmark 2003 case upholding affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School, but also emphasized the necessity of reducing the achievement gap between black and white students beginning in early education.
O’Connor’s majority opinion in the case argued that the university’s admissions policy was a “narrowly tailored” plan to achieve the educational benefits of a diverse student body. As such, O’Connor wrote, the policy is not prohibited by the 14th Amendment.
“In the ideal world, I think skin color would be treated like eye color or like one’s religion, whose differences we tolerate and celebrate and do not rank,” said O’Connor in her address. “But in today’s America, I’m inclined to think that race still matters in painful ways.”
The achievement gap surfaces in early childhood and continues throughout high school, college, and adulthood, O’Connor said, citing a statistic that black men are more likely to be in prison at some point during their lives than to graduate from college. O’Connor described affirmative action as a “temporary bandage, rather than a permanent cure” to the racial tensions stemming from unequal representation in positions of power and leadership.
In light of the “disaster of K-12 education,” O’Connor said, she hoped that policy-makers would pay more attention to early education, even though promoting racial diversity in higher education was a laudable goal.
“We shouldn’t wait until there’s a law school application, because it starts in preschool,” she said.
After the speech, Philip Lee, assistant director of admissions at the Law School, said that O’Connor was a living example of the benefits of diversity.
“I just want to thank her for providing the framework for what I do,” said Lee, a Law School graduate who left private practice several years ago to work in the admissions office promoting racial diversity.
O’Connor joined Tutu and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, for a panel on Saturday, answering questions on the challenges they faced during their lives.
Tutu charmed the audience with his enthusiasm and energy, calling himself the “token male” on the panel and pumping his arms to the cheers of the crowd when Huerta noted that all humans were Africans, since the species Homo sapiens originated in Africa.
“I know that I speak on the behalf of millions and millions of my compatriots when I say: thank you for having helped us to become free,” Tutu said. “Students were in the forefront, the vanguard of the movement for divestment. And so we knew that the world was with us.”
Although Tutu and O’Connor both suggested that unacceptable racial inequalities still exist in South Africa and in the United States, Tutu chose to take a more optimistic view of the current situation.
“Things could be a great deal better,” he said, “but things could be a great deal worse.”
—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.