Lady Macbeth’s famous “out damned spot” hand-washing ritual after participating in King Duncan’s bloody murder has long been used to illustrate undoing, a neurotic defense mechanism that entails coping with internal conflict with behaviors that “symbolically make amends for or negate previous thoughts, feelings, or actions.”

For Justice Clarence Thomas, the spot isn’t the blood on his hands imagined by Lady Macbeth on hers. It’s the shame-laden “stain” of affirmative action, which facilitated his admission to the College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School. Yet he has repeatedly insisted that affirmative action stigmatized him irreparably in raising doubts about his competence.

Thomas can’t undo the benefits he received from affirmative action. But perhaps in achieving his mission to eradicate race-based college admissions, the “stain” will finally fade.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s dissenting opinion evidently got Thomas’ goat. Many quoted her pithy words: “Today the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

It’s undeniable that Americans have been historically conditioned to make racial distinctions to the detriment of many. Still, are we doomed to be a racist society?

Perhaps not, if we understand that race doesn’t exist as a biological fact. Many scholars and scientists have demonstrated that race exists solely as a fiction invented by humans. As philosophy professors Subrena E. Smith and David Livingstone Smith put it, the existence of race is akin to the existence of 17th-century witches, who were executed not because they were witches but because people believed they were. As with witches, belief in the reality of race has had dire consequences for those who’ve been deemed “subhuman” – to the benefit of others.


When Smith and Smith asked their college students what “race” meant, their students stated the common view that race refers to a person’s skin color. But after being told that many Black and brown people have “passed” as white, they concluded that the “concept of race … must be based on something deeper.”

That “something deeper” is called “racial essentialism,” according to which a hidden biological marker believed to be in our blood distinguishes races. It’s as real as Lady Macbeth’s imaginary indelible spot – no such marker has ever been found scientifically, despite countless efforts. Yet the essentialist story lives on.

Smith and Smith maintain that because racism depends on belief in the reality of race – without race, racism can’t exist – to eliminate racism, we must first eliminate the belief that race is real: “Racially oppressed people are not oppressed because of their race (but) because of false beliefs about their race.” In their post-racial solution, Smith and Smith, therefore, say “we can acknowledge and remedy racist practices” without accepting the existence of race.

By contrast, other scholars maintain that racist inequities and policies can be identified and remedied only if we retain racial categories. In “How to Be an Antiracist,” history professor Ibram X. Kendi proffered an understanding of race that precludes biological essentialism and the hierarchical view that some races are inferior – beliefs that inhabit common understandings of race: “To be antiracist is to recognize one human race and the reality of biological equality.” Still, he states that a “post-racial strategy makes no sense in our racist world.”

Must we establish some nonessentialist conception of race to eliminate racist practices, as Kendi maintains? Or must we eliminate any notion of race as real to eliminate racism, as Smith and Smith maintain?

Thomas and his conservative colleagues showed no discernible interest in this debate. Although Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged the imprecision of racial categories in his majority opinion, six of the nine justices seemingly upheld the reality of race while denying remedies for racism in college admissions – a toxic combination, to be sure. The colorblindness they claim to endorse doesn’t address the problems either in prevailing understandings of race or in the presumed reality of race by any definition.

Murdering affirmative action has put blood on the hands of a half-dozen justices. Are they capable of experiencing the guilt from which Lady Macbeth eventually suffered? I’m not holding my breath.

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