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noun as in written discourse

Strongest matches

  • dissertation

Strong matches

  • composition
  • disquisition
  • explication

noun as in try, attempt

  • undertaking

Weak matches

  • one's all
  • one's level best

verb as in try, attempt

  • have a crack
  • have a shot
  • make a run at
  • put to the test
  • take a stab at
  • take a whack at

Discover More

Related words.

Words related to essay are not direct synonyms, but are associated with the word essay . Browse related words to learn more about word associations.

verb as in point or direct at a goal

  • concentrate
  • contemplate
  • set one's sights on

noun as in piece of writing

  • think piece

verb as in try, make effort

  • do level best
  • exert oneself
  • give a fling
  • give a whirl
  • give best shot
  • give it a go
  • give it a try
  • give old college try
  • go the limit
  • have a go at
  • shoot the works
  • take best shot
  • try one's hand at

Viewing 5 / 74 related words

Example Sentences

As several of my colleagues commented, the result is good enough that it could pass for an essay written by a first-year undergraduate, and even get a pretty decent grade.

GPT-3 also raises concerns about the future of essay writing in the education system.

This little essay helps focus on self-knowledge in what you’re best at, and how you should prioritize your time.

As Steven Feldstein argues in the opening essay, technonationalism plays a part in the strengthening of other autocracies too.

He’s written a collection of essays on civil engineering life titled Bridginess, and to this day he and Lauren go on “bridge dates,” where they enjoy a meal and admire the view of a nearby span.

I think a certain kind of compelling essay has a piece of that.

The current attack on the Jews,” he wrote in a 1937 essay, “targets not just this people of 15 million but mankind as such.

The impulse to interpret seems to me what makes personal essay writing compelling.

To be honest, I think a lot of good essay writing comes out of that.

Someone recently sent me an old Joan Didion essay on self-respect that appeared in Vogue.

There is more of the uplifted forefinger and the reiterated point than I should have allowed myself in an essay.

Consequently he was able to turn in a clear essay upon the subject, which, upon examination, the king found to be free from error.

It is no part of the present essay to attempt to detail the particulars of a code of social legislation.

But angels and ministers of grace defend us from ministers of religion who essay art criticism!

It is fit that the imagination, which is free to go through all things, should essay such excursions.

Synonym of the day

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On this page you'll find 154 synonyms, antonyms, and words related to essay, such as: article, discussion, dissertation, manuscript, paper, and piece.

From Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition Copyright © 2013 by the Philip Lief Group.

Related Words and Phrases

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Words to Use in an Essay: 300 Essay Words

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Hannah Yang

words to use in an essay

Table of Contents

Words to use in the essay introduction, words to use in the body of the essay, words to use in your essay conclusion, how to improve your essay writing vocabulary.

It’s not easy to write an academic essay .

Many students struggle to word their arguments in a logical and concise way.

To make matters worse, academic essays need to adhere to a certain level of formality, so we can’t always use the same word choices in essay writing that we would use in daily life.

If you’re struggling to choose the right words for your essay, don’t worry—you’ve come to the right place!

In this article, we’ve compiled a list of over 300 words and phrases to use in the introduction, body, and conclusion of your essay.

The introduction is one of the hardest parts of an essay to write.

You have only one chance to make a first impression, and you want to hook your reader. If the introduction isn’t effective, the reader might not even bother to read the rest of the essay.

That’s why it’s important to be thoughtful and deliberate with the words you choose at the beginning of your essay.

Many students use a quote in the introductory paragraph to establish credibility and set the tone for the rest of the essay.

When you’re referencing another author or speaker, try using some of these phrases:

To use the words of X

According to X

As X states

Example: To use the words of Hillary Clinton, “You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health.”

Near the end of the introduction, you should state the thesis to explain the central point of your paper.

If you’re not sure how to introduce your thesis, try using some of these phrases:

In this essay, I will…

The purpose of this essay…

This essay discusses…

In this paper, I put forward the claim that…

There are three main arguments for…

Phrases to introduce a thesis

Example: In this essay, I will explain why dress codes in public schools are detrimental to students.

After you’ve stated your thesis, it’s time to start presenting the arguments you’ll use to back up that central idea.

When you’re introducing the first of a series of arguments, you can use the following words:

First and foremost

First of all

To begin with

Example: First , consider the effects that this new social security policy would have on low-income taxpayers.

All these words and phrases will help you create a more successful introduction and convince your audience to read on.

The body of your essay is where you’ll explain your core arguments and present your evidence.

It’s important to choose words and phrases for the body of your essay that will help the reader understand your position and convince them you’ve done your research.

Let’s look at some different types of words and phrases that you can use in the body of your essay, as well as some examples of what these words look like in a sentence.

Transition Words and Phrases

Transitioning from one argument to another is crucial for a good essay.

It’s important to guide your reader from one idea to the next so they don’t get lost or feel like you’re jumping around at random.

Transition phrases and linking words show your reader you’re about to move from one argument to the next, smoothing out their reading experience. They also make your writing look more professional.

The simplest transition involves moving from one idea to a separate one that supports the same overall argument. Try using these phrases when you want to introduce a second correlating idea:


In addition


Another key thing to remember

In the same way


Example: Additionally , public parks increase property value because home buyers prefer houses that are located close to green, open spaces.

Another type of transition involves restating. It’s often useful to restate complex ideas in simpler terms to help the reader digest them. When you’re restating an idea, you can use the following words:

In other words

To put it another way

That is to say

To put it more simply

Example: “The research showed that 53% of students surveyed expressed a mild or strong preference for more on-campus housing. In other words , over half the students wanted more dormitory options.”

Often, you’ll need to provide examples to illustrate your point more clearly for the reader. When you’re about to give an example of something you just said, you can use the following words:

For instance

To give an illustration of

To exemplify

To demonstrate

As evidence

Example: Humans have long tried to exert control over our natural environment. For instance , engineers reversed the Chicago River in 1900, causing it to permanently flow backward.

Sometimes, you’ll need to explain the impact or consequence of something you’ve just said.

When you’re drawing a conclusion from evidence you’ve presented, try using the following words:

As a result


As you can see

This suggests that

It follows that

It can be seen that

For this reason

For all of those reasons


Example: “There wasn’t enough government funding to support the rest of the physics experiment. Thus , the team was forced to shut down their experiment in 1996.”

Phrases to draw conclusions

When introducing an idea that bolsters one you’ve already stated, or adds another important aspect to that same argument, you can use the following words:

What’s more

Not only…but also

Not to mention

To say nothing of

Another key point

Example: The volcanic eruption disrupted hundreds of thousands of people. Moreover , it impacted the local flora and fauna as well, causing nearly a hundred species to go extinct.

Often, you'll want to present two sides of the same argument. When you need to compare and contrast ideas, you can use the following words:

On the one hand / on the other hand


In contrast to

On the contrary

By contrast

In comparison

Example: On the one hand , the Black Death was undoubtedly a tragedy because it killed millions of Europeans. On the other hand , it created better living conditions for the peasants who survived.

Finally, when you’re introducing a new angle that contradicts your previous idea, you can use the following phrases:

Having said that

Differing from

In spite of

With this in mind

Provided that




Example: Shakespearean plays are classic works of literature that have stood the test of time. Having said that , I would argue that Shakespeare isn’t the most accessible form of literature to teach students in the twenty-first century.

Good essays include multiple types of logic. You can use a combination of the transitions above to create a strong, clear structure throughout the body of your essay.

Strong Verbs for Academic Writing

Verbs are especially important for writing clear essays. Often, you can convey a nuanced meaning simply by choosing the right verb.

You should use strong verbs that are precise and dynamic. Whenever possible, you should use an unambiguous verb, rather than a generic verb.

For example, alter and fluctuate are stronger verbs than change , because they give the reader more descriptive detail.

Here are some useful verbs that will help make your essay shine.

Verbs that show change:


Verbs that relate to causing or impacting something:

Verbs that show increase:

Verbs that show decrease:


Verbs that relate to parts of a whole:

Comprises of

Is composed of




Verbs that show a negative stance:


Verbs that show a negative stance

Verbs that show a positive stance:


Verbs that relate to drawing conclusions from evidence:



Verbs that relate to thinking and analysis:




Verbs that relate to showing information in a visual format:

Useful Adjectives and Adverbs for Academic Essays

You should use adjectives and adverbs more sparingly than verbs when writing essays, since they sometimes add unnecessary fluff to sentences.

However, choosing the right adjectives and adverbs can help add detail and sophistication to your essay.

Sometimes you'll need to use an adjective to show that a finding or argument is useful and should be taken seriously. Here are some adjectives that create positive emphasis:


Other times, you'll need to use an adjective to show that a finding or argument is harmful or ineffective. Here are some adjectives that create a negative emphasis:






Finally, you might need to use an adverb to lend nuance to a sentence, or to express a specific degree of certainty. Here are some examples of adverbs that are often used in essays:






Using these words will help you successfully convey the key points you want to express. Once you’ve nailed the body of your essay, it’s time to move on to the conclusion.

The conclusion of your paper is important for synthesizing the arguments you’ve laid out and restating your thesis.

In your concluding paragraph, try using some of these essay words:

In conclusion

To summarize

In a nutshell

Given the above

As described

All things considered

Example: In conclusion , it’s imperative that we take action to address climate change before we lose our coral reefs forever.

In addition to simply summarizing the key points from the body of your essay, you should also add some final takeaways. Give the reader your final opinion and a bit of a food for thought.

To place emphasis on a certain point or a key fact, use these essay words:






It should be noted

On the whole

Example: Ada Lovelace is unquestionably a powerful role model for young girls around the world, and more of our public school curricula should include her as a historical figure.

These concluding phrases will help you finish writing your essay in a strong, confident way.

There are many useful essay words out there that we didn't include in this article, because they are specific to certain topics.

If you're writing about biology, for example, you will need to use different terminology than if you're writing about literature.

So how do you improve your vocabulary skills?

The vocabulary you use in your academic writing is a toolkit you can build up over time, as long as you take the time to learn new words.

One way to increase your vocabulary is by looking up words you don’t know when you’re reading.

Try reading more books and academic articles in the field you’re writing about and jotting down all the new words you find. You can use these words to bolster your own essays.

You can also consult a dictionary or a thesaurus. When you’re using a word you’re not confident about, researching its meaning and common synonyms can help you make sure it belongs in your essay.

Don't be afraid of using simpler words. Good essay writing boils down to choosing the best word to convey what you need to say, not the fanciest word possible.

Finally, you can use ProWritingAid’s synonym tool or essay checker to find more precise and sophisticated vocabulary. Click on weak words in your essay to find stronger alternatives.

ProWritingAid offering synonyms for great

There you have it: our compilation of the best words and phrases to use in your next essay . Good luck!

synonym for essay in english

Good writing = better grades

ProWritingAid will help you improve the style, strength, and clarity of all your assignments.

Hannah Yang is a speculative fiction writer who writes about all things strange and surreal. Her work has appeared in Analog Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, The Dark, and elsewhere, and two of her stories have been finalists for the Locus Award. Her favorite hobbies include watercolor painting, playing guitar, and rock climbing. You can follow her work on hannahyang.com, or subscribe to her newsletter for publication updates.

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  • 40 Useful Words and Phrases for Top-Notch Essays

synonym for essay in english

To be truly brilliant, an essay needs to utilise the right language. You could make a great point, but if it’s not intelligently articulated, you almost needn’t have bothered.

Developing the language skills to build an argument and to write persuasively is crucial if you’re to write outstanding essays every time. In this article, we’re going to equip you with the words and phrases you need to write a top-notch essay, along with examples of how to utilise them.

It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and there will often be other ways of using the words and phrases we describe that we won’t have room to include, but there should be more than enough below to help you make an instant improvement to your essay-writing skills.

If you’re interested in developing your language and persuasive skills, Oxford Royale offers summer courses at its Oxford Summer School , Cambridge Summer School , London Summer School , San Francisco Summer School and Yale Summer School . You can study courses to learn english , prepare for careers in law , medicine , business , engineering and leadership.

General explaining

Let’s start by looking at language for general explanations of complex points.

1. In order to

Usage: “In order to” can be used to introduce an explanation for the purpose of an argument. Example: “In order to understand X, we need first to understand Y.”

2. In other words

Usage: Use “in other words” when you want to express something in a different way (more simply), to make it easier to understand, or to emphasise or expand on a point. Example: “Frogs are amphibians. In other words, they live on the land and in the water.”

3. To put it another way

Usage: This phrase is another way of saying “in other words”, and can be used in particularly complex points, when you feel that an alternative way of wording a problem may help the reader achieve a better understanding of its significance. Example: “Plants rely on photosynthesis. To put it another way, they will die without the sun.”

4. That is to say

Usage: “That is” and “that is to say” can be used to add further detail to your explanation, or to be more precise. Example: “Whales are mammals. That is to say, they must breathe air.”

5. To that end

Usage: Use “to that end” or “to this end” in a similar way to “in order to” or “so”. Example: “Zoologists have long sought to understand how animals communicate with each other. To that end, a new study has been launched that looks at elephant sounds and their possible meanings.”

Adding additional information to support a point

Students often make the mistake of using synonyms of “and” each time they want to add further information in support of a point they’re making, or to build an argument . Here are some cleverer ways of doing this.

6. Moreover

Usage: Employ “moreover” at the start of a sentence to add extra information in support of a point you’re making. Example: “Moreover, the results of a recent piece of research provide compelling evidence in support of…”

7. Furthermore

Usage:This is also generally used at the start of a sentence, to add extra information. Example: “Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that…”

8. What’s more

Usage: This is used in the same way as “moreover” and “furthermore”. Example: “What’s more, this isn’t the only evidence that supports this hypothesis.”

9. Likewise

Usage: Use “likewise” when you want to talk about something that agrees with what you’ve just mentioned. Example: “Scholar A believes X. Likewise, Scholar B argues compellingly in favour of this point of view.”

10. Similarly

Usage: Use “similarly” in the same way as “likewise”. Example: “Audiences at the time reacted with shock to Beethoven’s new work, because it was very different to what they were used to. Similarly, we have a tendency to react with surprise to the unfamiliar.”

11. Another key thing to remember

Usage: Use the phrase “another key point to remember” or “another key fact to remember” to introduce additional facts without using the word “also”. Example: “As a Romantic, Blake was a proponent of a closer relationship between humans and nature. Another key point to remember is that Blake was writing during the Industrial Revolution, which had a major impact on the world around him.”

12. As well as

Usage: Use “as well as” instead of “also” or “and”. Example: “Scholar A argued that this was due to X, as well as Y.”

13. Not only… but also

Usage: This wording is used to add an extra piece of information, often something that’s in some way more surprising or unexpected than the first piece of information. Example: “Not only did Edmund Hillary have the honour of being the first to reach the summit of Everest, but he was also appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.”

14. Coupled with

Usage: Used when considering two or more arguments at a time. Example: “Coupled with the literary evidence, the statistics paint a compelling view of…”

15. Firstly, secondly, thirdly…

Usage: This can be used to structure an argument, presenting facts clearly one after the other. Example: “There are many points in support of this view. Firstly, X. Secondly, Y. And thirdly, Z.

16. Not to mention/to say nothing of

Usage: “Not to mention” and “to say nothing of” can be used to add extra information with a bit of emphasis. Example: “The war caused unprecedented suffering to millions of people, not to mention its impact on the country’s economy.”

Words and phrases for demonstrating contrast

When you’re developing an argument, you will often need to present contrasting or opposing opinions or evidence – “it could show this, but it could also show this”, or “X says this, but Y disagrees”. This section covers words you can use instead of the “but” in these examples, to make your writing sound more intelligent and interesting.

17. However

Usage: Use “however” to introduce a point that disagrees with what you’ve just said. Example: “Scholar A thinks this. However, Scholar B reached a different conclusion.”

18. On the other hand

Usage: Usage of this phrase includes introducing a contrasting interpretation of the same piece of evidence, a different piece of evidence that suggests something else, or an opposing opinion. Example: “The historical evidence appears to suggest a clear-cut situation. On the other hand, the archaeological evidence presents a somewhat less straightforward picture of what happened that day.”

19. Having said that

Usage: Used in a similar manner to “on the other hand” or “but”. Example: “The historians are unanimous in telling us X, an agreement that suggests that this version of events must be an accurate account. Having said that, the archaeology tells a different story.”

20. By contrast/in comparison

Usage: Use “by contrast” or “in comparison” when you’re comparing and contrasting pieces of evidence. Example: “Scholar A’s opinion, then, is based on insufficient evidence. By contrast, Scholar B’s opinion seems more plausible.”

21. Then again

Usage: Use this to cast doubt on an assertion. Example: “Writer A asserts that this was the reason for what happened. Then again, it’s possible that he was being paid to say this.”

22. That said

Usage: This is used in the same way as “then again”. Example: “The evidence ostensibly appears to point to this conclusion. That said, much of the evidence is unreliable at best.”

Usage: Use this when you want to introduce a contrasting idea. Example: “Much of scholarship has focused on this evidence. Yet not everyone agrees that this is the most important aspect of the situation.”

Adding a proviso or acknowledging reservations

Sometimes, you may need to acknowledge a shortfalling in a piece of evidence, or add a proviso. Here are some ways of doing so.

24. Despite this

Usage: Use “despite this” or “in spite of this” when you want to outline a point that stands regardless of a shortfalling in the evidence. Example: “The sample size was small, but the results were important despite this.”

25. With this in mind

Usage: Use this when you want your reader to consider a point in the knowledge of something else. Example: “We’ve seen that the methods used in the 19th century study did not always live up to the rigorous standards expected in scientific research today, which makes it difficult to draw definite conclusions. With this in mind, let’s look at a more recent study to see how the results compare.”

26. Provided that

Usage: This means “on condition that”. You can also say “providing that” or just “providing” to mean the same thing. Example: “We may use this as evidence to support our argument, provided that we bear in mind the limitations of the methods used to obtain it.”

27. In view of/in light of

Usage: These phrases are used when something has shed light on something else. Example: “In light of the evidence from the 2013 study, we have a better understanding of…”

28. Nonetheless

Usage: This is similar to “despite this”. Example: “The study had its limitations, but it was nonetheless groundbreaking for its day.”

29. Nevertheless

Usage: This is the same as “nonetheless”. Example: “The study was flawed, but it was important nevertheless.”

30. Notwithstanding

Usage: This is another way of saying “nonetheless”. Example: “Notwithstanding the limitations of the methodology used, it was an important study in the development of how we view the workings of the human mind.”

Giving examples

Good essays always back up points with examples, but it’s going to get boring if you use the expression “for example” every time. Here are a couple of other ways of saying the same thing.

31. For instance

Example: “Some birds migrate to avoid harsher winter climates. Swallows, for instance, leave the UK in early winter and fly south…”

32. To give an illustration

Example: “To give an illustration of what I mean, let’s look at the case of…”

Signifying importance

When you want to demonstrate that a point is particularly important, there are several ways of highlighting it as such.

33. Significantly

Usage: Used to introduce a point that is loaded with meaning that might not be immediately apparent. Example: “Significantly, Tacitus omits to tell us the kind of gossip prevalent in Suetonius’ accounts of the same period.”

34. Notably

Usage: This can be used to mean “significantly” (as above), and it can also be used interchangeably with “in particular” (the example below demonstrates the first of these ways of using it). Example: “Actual figures are notably absent from Scholar A’s analysis.”

35. Importantly

Usage: Use “importantly” interchangeably with “significantly”. Example: “Importantly, Scholar A was being employed by X when he wrote this work, and was presumably therefore under pressure to portray the situation more favourably than he perhaps might otherwise have done.”


You’ve almost made it to the end of the essay, but your work isn’t over yet. You need to end by wrapping up everything you’ve talked about, showing that you’ve considered the arguments on both sides and reached the most likely conclusion. Here are some words and phrases to help you.

36. In conclusion

Usage: Typically used to introduce the concluding paragraph or sentence of an essay, summarising what you’ve discussed in a broad overview. Example: “In conclusion, the evidence points almost exclusively to Argument A.”

37. Above all

Usage: Used to signify what you believe to be the most significant point, and the main takeaway from the essay. Example: “Above all, it seems pertinent to remember that…”

38. Persuasive

Usage: This is a useful word to use when summarising which argument you find most convincing. Example: “Scholar A’s point – that Constanze Mozart was motivated by financial gain – seems to me to be the most persuasive argument for her actions following Mozart’s death.”

39. Compelling

Usage: Use in the same way as “persuasive” above. Example: “The most compelling argument is presented by Scholar A.”

40. All things considered

Usage: This means “taking everything into account”. Example: “All things considered, it seems reasonable to assume that…”

How many of these words and phrases will you get into your next essay? And are any of your favourite essay terms missing from our list? Let us know in the comments below, or get in touch here to find out more about courses that can help you with your essays.

At Oxford Royale Academy, we offer a number of  summer school courses for young people who are keen to improve their essay writing skills. Click here to apply for one of our courses today, including law , business , medicine  and engineering .

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What is another word for essay ?

Synonyms for essay ˈɛs eɪ or, for 3,5 , ɛˈseɪ; ɛˈseɪ es·say, this thesaurus page includes all potential synonyms, words with the same meaning and similar terms for the word essay ., english synonyms and antonyms rate these synonyms: 2.7 / 3 votes.

To attempt is to take action somewhat experimentally with the hope and purpose of accomplishing a certain result; to endeavor is to attempt strenuously and with firm and enduring purpose. To attempt expresses a single act; to endeavor , a continuous exertion; we say I will endeavor (not I will attempt ) while I live. To attempt is with the view of accomplishing; to essay , with a view of testing our own powers. To undertake is to accept or take upon oneself as an obligation, as some business, labor, or trust; the word often implies complete assurance of success; as, I will undertake to produce the witness. To strive suggests little of the result, much of toil, strain, and contest, in seeking it; I will strive to fulfil your wishes, i. e. , I will spare no labor and exertion to do it. Try is the most comprehensive of these words. The original idea of testing or experimenting is not thought of when a man says "I will try ." To attempt suggests giving up, if the thing is not accomplished at a stroke; to try implies using other means and studying out other ways if not at first successful. Endeavor is more mild and formal; the pilot in the burning pilot-house does not say "I will endeavor " or "I will attempt to hold the ship to her course," but "I'll try , sir!"

Synonyms: attempt , endeavor , endeavor , strive , try , undertake

Antonyms: abandon , dismiss , drop , give up , let go , neglect , omit , overlook , pass by , throw away , throw over , throw up

Princeton's WordNet Rate these synonyms: 1.0 / 2 votes

an analytic or interpretive literary composition

a tentative attempt

try, seek, attempt, essay, assay verb

make an effort or attempt

"He tried to shake off his fears"; "The infant had essayed a few wobbly steps"; "The police attempted to stop the thief"; "He sought to improve himself"; "She always seeks to do good in the world"

Synonyms: attempt , examine , search , stress , adjudicate , strain , seek , look for , assay , try out , try , prove , test , try on , taste , hear , set about , undertake , sample , judge , render

test, prove, try, try out, examine, essay verb

put to the test, as for its quality, or give experimental use to

"This approach has been tried with good results"; "Test this recipe"

Synonyms: audition , rise , analyze , leaven , try , sample , show , testify , establish , test , evidence , try out , study , examine , see , seek , try on , probe , quiz , attempt , raise , adjudicate , render , prove , shew , judge , screen , taste , turn out , demonstrate , turn up , experiment , strain , analyse , stress , hear , canvass , assay , canvas , bear witness

Matched Categories

Editors contribution rate these synonyms: 0.0 / 0 votes.

piece of writing

write an essay of a students

Dictionary of English Synonymes Rate these synonyms: 0.0 / 0 votes

Synonyms: attempt , try , endeavor

Synonyms: attempt , trial , endeavor , effort , struggle , aim

Synonyms: tract , dissertation , treatise , disquisition , brief discourse

Synonyms, Antonyms & Associated Words Rate these synonyms: 0.0 / 0 votes

Synonyms: dissertation , article , disquisition , thesis , attempt , effort , trial

PPDB, the paraphrase database Rate these paraphrases: 1.0 / 1 vote

List of paraphrases for "essay":

dissertation , test , trial , drafting , composition , testing

How to pronounce essay?

How to say essay in sign language, words popularity by usage frequency, how to use essay in a sentence.

Zeke Smith :

We started having conversations all the way back in Fiji nine months ago about the care with which this episode was going to be handled, i came to Jeff [Probst] and asked if I could write a personal essay about what happened and he immediately said yes.

Miguel Proenca :

There could not be a more interesting time to explore the issue of the European borders, and obviously the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks gave a different meaning to the project we are developing, because we decided to focus on the domestic borders, in the larger picture, the questions that we were asking ourselves and the essay raised is still the same and is about the identity of Europe: the multiculturalism, citizenship, economy, different speeds of growing, communitarian isolation and discrimination.

Mao Zedong :

A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.

Emma Rebell :

Empower your words, free your time  Write My Essay for Me.

Dan Gainor :

Can you imagine The New York Times running an essay where a white woman complains about how African-American men are rude and then blames it on race? The paper and the author would be skewered, the left's new default is that white people are doing wrong at every turn -- even walking down the street.

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synonym for essay in english


15 Other Words for “This Shows” in an Essay

synonym for essay in english

Are you worried about including “this shows” again and again in an essay?

After all, the last thing you want to do is sound repetitive and boring.

Fret not! You have found yourself in the right place.

This article will explore other ways to say “this shows” in an essay.

Other Ways to Say “This Shows”

  • This demonstrates
  • This indicates
  • This implies
  • This portrays
  • This illustrates
  • This establishes
  • This proves
  • This points to
  • This highlights


  • “This shows” is a common phrase used in essays to demonstrate how one thing leads to another.
  • “This demonstrates” is a great formal synonym that’ll help to spice up your academic writing.
  • Try “suggesting” as an alternative that shows how one thing could have created another.

Keep reading to learn different ways to say “this shows.” We’ve covered the two best phrases to help you understand more about how you can improve your essays.

Alternatively, you can read the final section to learn whether it’s correct to write “this shows.” It’s appropriate to check this out before continuing to include it in your essay!

This Demonstrates

If you’re looking for words to use instead of “this shows” in an essay, try “this demonstrates.” It’s a great formal synonym that’ll help to spice things up.

It also comes with two options. You can use it at the start of a sentence as written:

 This is option one. This demonstrates how to continue a thought from the previous sentence.

Or, you can include it as part of the same sentence. To do this, you should switch “this demonstrates” to “demonstrating.” For example:

This is option two, demonstrating that it’s part of the same sentence.

Either way, both are correct. The same applies to “this shows,” where you can use “showing” to include it in the same sentence.

It’s a great way to help the reader follow your process . This should make your essay much easier to read, even if the reader isn’t all that familiar with the topic.

You can also refer to these essay samples:

As you can see, we have also gathered all the necessary data. This demonstrates that we were correct about our original hypothesis.

They have created different rules for what we know. This demonstrates that they’re worried someone might try to interfere with them.

Also, you can write “suggesting” instead of “this shows.” It’s another great professional synonym that’ll help you to keep your writing interesting.

As we’ve already stated, you can use “suggesting” as part of the same sentence:

This is how it works, suggesting you can keep it to one sentence.

Or, you can switch it to “this suggests” to start a new sentence. For instance:

This is how it works. This suggests that you can create two sentences.

Both are correct. They also allow you to switch between them, giving you two options to help mix up your writing and keep the reader engaged .

Here are some essay examples if you still need help:

We have many new ideas ready to go, suggesting that we’re on the road to success. We just need more time.

This is the only way to complete the task, suggesting that things aren’t going to be as easy as we first thought.

Is It Correct to Say “This Shows”?

It is correct to say “this shows.” It’s a great word to use in an essay, and we highly recommend it when you’d like to show how one thing leads to another.

It’s a formal option, which is why it works so well in academic writing.

Also, it allows the reader to follow your thought process, which helps keep things streamlined and clear.

For instance:

Here is an example of how we can achieve this. This shows that we have considered every option so far.

“This shows” always starts a new sentence . You can use it whenever you’d like to connect back to the former sentence directly.

Also, makes sure you use “shows” as the verb form. It comes after “this,” so the only correct form is “shows.” To remind you, you can refer to these examples:

  • Correct: This shows that things are supposed to work this way.
  • Incorrect: This show that we know what we’re doing.

It’s worth using some extensions if you’re still looking to mix things up as well. Try any of the following:

  • This evidence shows
  • This picture shows
  • This data shows
  • This graph shows
  • This study shows

Including something between “this” and “shows” allows you to be more specific . It helps direct the reader’s attention to something from the previous sentence.

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  • Example of a great essay | Explanations, tips & tricks

Example of a Great Essay | Explanations, Tips & Tricks

Published on February 9, 2015 by Shane Bryson . Revised on July 23, 2023 by Shona McCombes.

This example guides you through the structure of an essay. It shows how to build an effective introduction , focused paragraphs , clear transitions between ideas, and a strong conclusion .

Each paragraph addresses a single central point, introduced by a topic sentence , and each point is directly related to the thesis statement .

As you read, hover over the highlighted parts to learn what they do and why they work.

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Other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about writing an essay, an appeal to the senses: the development of the braille system in nineteenth-century france.

The invention of Braille was a major turning point in the history of disability. The writing system of raised dots used by visually impaired people was developed by Louis Braille in nineteenth-century France. In a society that did not value disabled people in general, blindness was particularly stigmatized, and lack of access to reading and writing was a significant barrier to social participation. The idea of tactile reading was not entirely new, but existing methods based on sighted systems were difficult to learn and use. As the first writing system designed for blind people’s needs, Braille was a groundbreaking new accessibility tool. It not only provided practical benefits, but also helped change the cultural status of blindness. This essay begins by discussing the situation of blind people in nineteenth-century Europe. It then describes the invention of Braille and the gradual process of its acceptance within blind education. Subsequently, it explores the wide-ranging effects of this invention on blind people’s social and cultural lives.

Lack of access to reading and writing put blind people at a serious disadvantage in nineteenth-century society. Text was one of the primary methods through which people engaged with culture, communicated with others, and accessed information; without a well-developed reading system that did not rely on sight, blind people were excluded from social participation (Weygand, 2009). While disabled people in general suffered from discrimination, blindness was widely viewed as the worst disability, and it was commonly believed that blind people were incapable of pursuing a profession or improving themselves through culture (Weygand, 2009). This demonstrates the importance of reading and writing to social status at the time: without access to text, it was considered impossible to fully participate in society. Blind people were excluded from the sighted world, but also entirely dependent on sighted people for information and education.

In France, debates about how to deal with disability led to the adoption of different strategies over time. While people with temporary difficulties were able to access public welfare, the most common response to people with long-term disabilities, such as hearing or vision loss, was to group them together in institutions (Tombs, 1996). At first, a joint institute for the blind and deaf was created, and although the partnership was motivated more by financial considerations than by the well-being of the residents, the institute aimed to help people develop skills valuable to society (Weygand, 2009). Eventually blind institutions were separated from deaf institutions, and the focus shifted towards education of the blind, as was the case for the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, which Louis Braille attended (Jimenez et al, 2009). The growing acknowledgement of the uniqueness of different disabilities led to more targeted education strategies, fostering an environment in which the benefits of a specifically blind education could be more widely recognized.

Several different systems of tactile reading can be seen as forerunners to the method Louis Braille developed, but these systems were all developed based on the sighted system. The Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris taught the students to read embossed roman letters, a method created by the school’s founder, Valentin Hauy (Jimenez et al., 2009). Reading this way proved to be a rather arduous task, as the letters were difficult to distinguish by touch. The embossed letter method was based on the reading system of sighted people, with minimal adaptation for those with vision loss. As a result, this method did not gain significant success among blind students.

Louis Braille was bound to be influenced by his school’s founder, but the most influential pre-Braille tactile reading system was Charles Barbier’s night writing. A soldier in Napoleon’s army, Barbier developed a system in 1819 that used 12 dots with a five line musical staff (Kersten, 1997). His intention was to develop a system that would allow the military to communicate at night without the need for light (Herron, 2009). The code developed by Barbier was phonetic (Jimenez et al., 2009); in other words, the code was designed for sighted people and was based on the sounds of words, not on an actual alphabet. Barbier discovered that variants of raised dots within a square were the easiest method of reading by touch (Jimenez et al., 2009). This system proved effective for the transmission of short messages between military personnel, but the symbols were too large for the fingertip, greatly reducing the speed at which a message could be read (Herron, 2009). For this reason, it was unsuitable for daily use and was not widely adopted in the blind community.

Nevertheless, Barbier’s military dot system was more efficient than Hauy’s embossed letters, and it provided the framework within which Louis Braille developed his method. Barbier’s system, with its dashes and dots, could form over 4000 combinations (Jimenez et al., 2009). Compared to the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, this was an absurdly high number. Braille kept the raised dot form, but developed a more manageable system that would reflect the sighted alphabet. He replaced Barbier’s dashes and dots with just six dots in a rectangular configuration (Jimenez et al., 2009). The result was that the blind population in France had a tactile reading system using dots (like Barbier’s) that was based on the structure of the sighted alphabet (like Hauy’s); crucially, this system was the first developed specifically for the purposes of the blind.

While the Braille system gained immediate popularity with the blind students at the Institute in Paris, it had to gain acceptance among the sighted before its adoption throughout France. This support was necessary because sighted teachers and leaders had ultimate control over the propagation of Braille resources. Many of the teachers at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth resisted learning Braille’s system because they found the tactile method of reading difficult to learn (Bullock & Galst, 2009). This resistance was symptomatic of the prevalent attitude that the blind population had to adapt to the sighted world rather than develop their own tools and methods. Over time, however, with the increasing impetus to make social contribution possible for all, teachers began to appreciate the usefulness of Braille’s system (Bullock & Galst, 2009), realizing that access to reading could help improve the productivity and integration of people with vision loss. It took approximately 30 years, but the French government eventually approved the Braille system, and it was established throughout the country (Bullock & Galst, 2009).

Although Blind people remained marginalized throughout the nineteenth century, the Braille system granted them growing opportunities for social participation. Most obviously, Braille allowed people with vision loss to read the same alphabet used by sighted people (Bullock & Galst, 2009), allowing them to participate in certain cultural experiences previously unavailable to them. Written works, such as books and poetry, had previously been inaccessible to the blind population without the aid of a reader, limiting their autonomy. As books began to be distributed in Braille, this barrier was reduced, enabling people with vision loss to access information autonomously. The closing of the gap between the abilities of blind and the sighted contributed to a gradual shift in blind people’s status, lessening the cultural perception of the blind as essentially different and facilitating greater social integration.

The Braille system also had important cultural effects beyond the sphere of written culture. Its invention later led to the development of a music notation system for the blind, although Louis Braille did not develop this system himself (Jimenez, et al., 2009). This development helped remove a cultural obstacle that had been introduced by the popularization of written musical notation in the early 1500s. While music had previously been an arena in which the blind could participate on equal footing, the transition from memory-based performance to notation-based performance meant that blind musicians were no longer able to compete with sighted musicians (Kersten, 1997). As a result, a tactile musical notation system became necessary for professional equality between blind and sighted musicians (Kersten, 1997).

Braille paved the way for dramatic cultural changes in the way blind people were treated and the opportunities available to them. Louis Braille’s innovation was to reimagine existing reading systems from a blind perspective, and the success of this invention required sighted teachers to adapt to their students’ reality instead of the other way around. In this sense, Braille helped drive broader social changes in the status of blindness. New accessibility tools provide practical advantages to those who need them, but they can also change the perspectives and attitudes of those who do not.

Bullock, J. D., & Galst, J. M. (2009). The Story of Louis Braille. Archives of Ophthalmology , 127(11), 1532. https://​doi.org/10.1001/​archophthalmol.2009.286.

Herron, M. (2009, May 6). Blind visionary. Retrieved from https://​eandt.theiet.org/​content/​articles/2009/05/​blind-visionary/.

Jiménez, J., Olea, J., Torres, J., Alonso, I., Harder, D., & Fischer, K. (2009). Biography of Louis Braille and Invention of the Braille Alphabet. Survey of Ophthalmology , 54(1), 142–149. https://​doi.org/10.1016/​j.survophthal.2008.10.006.

Kersten, F.G. (1997). The history and development of Braille music methodology. The Bulletin of Historical Research in Music Education , 18(2). Retrieved from https://​www.jstor.org/​stable/40214926.

Mellor, C.M. (2006). Louis Braille: A touch of genius . Boston: National Braille Press.

Tombs, R. (1996). France: 1814-1914 . London: Pearson Education Ltd.

Weygand, Z. (2009). The blind in French society from the Middle Ages to the century of Louis Braille . Stanford: Stanford University Press.

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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An essay is a focused piece of writing that explains, argues, describes, or narrates.

In high school, you may have to write many different types of essays to develop your writing skills.

Academic essays at college level are usually argumentative : you develop a clear thesis about your topic and make a case for your position using evidence, analysis and interpretation.

The structure of an essay is divided into an introduction that presents your topic and thesis statement , a body containing your in-depth analysis and arguments, and a conclusion wrapping up your ideas.

The structure of the body is flexible, but you should always spend some time thinking about how you can organize your essay to best serve your ideas.

Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order:

  • An opening hook to catch the reader’s attention.
  • Relevant background information that the reader needs to know.
  • A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.

The length of each part depends on the length and complexity of your essay .

A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay . Everything else you write should relate to this key idea.

A topic sentence is a sentence that expresses the main point of a paragraph . Everything else in the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence.

At college level, you must properly cite your sources in all essays , research papers , and other academic texts (except exams and in-class exercises).

Add a citation whenever you quote , paraphrase , or summarize information or ideas from a source. You should also give full source details in a bibliography or reference list at the end of your text.

The exact format of your citations depends on which citation style you are instructed to use. The most common styles are APA , MLA , and Chicago .

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Bryson, S. (2023, July 23). Example of a Great Essay | Explanations, Tips & Tricks. Scribbr. Retrieved April 1, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/academic-essay/example-essay-structure/

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Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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Sunday Puzzle

Sunday Puzzle

Sunday puzzle: in like a lion and out like lamb.

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synonym for essay in english

Sunday Puzzle NPR hide caption

On-air challenge: The saying goes that March comes in like a lion and goes out like lamb, so, our March 31 puzzle is going to go out like a lamb as well: it's all about words that become new words when you add a B at the end.

I'll give you a sentence with two blanks. Find a word that fits in the first blank, then add a B at the end to get the word that goes in the second blank.

For example, if I gave you the sentence "I was __ sad that I started to ___ uncontrollably," you'd give me the answers SO and SOB to fill in those blanks. "I was SO sad that I started to SOB uncontrollably".

  • If you drive your ___ instead of walking, you won't burn a single ___. 
  • My sister asked me to bring ___ some basil and rosemary from the ___ garden out back. 
  • If you spill water on your book it might ___ the ___ on the back cover, making it impossible to read. 
  • "___!" cried Captain ___, upon sighting Moby-Dick. 

Last week's challenge: Last week's challenge comes to us from Mae McAllister, from Bath, in the United Kingdom. As you may know, each chemical element can be represented by a one- or two-letter symbol. Hydrogen is H, helium is He, and so on. Mae points out that there are two commonly known elements whose names each can be spelled using three other element symbols. Name either one.

Challenge answer: IRON — Ir (iridium), O (oxygen), N (nitrogen) and SILVER — Si (silicon), Lv (livermorium), Er (erbium).

Winner: Eric Maixner of Appleton, Wisconsin

This week's challenge: In honor of women's history month, all our challenge contributors in March have been women. To close out the month, I have this related challenge.

The English language developed in a patriarchal society, so many words in our language were traditionally assumed to be male, and turned into female versions by adding a prefix or suffix. Waiter and waitress, comedian and comedienne — those are just two examples of the many stereotypically "male" words that become new "female words" by adding a suffix.

There is a common English word that works the opposite way. What is the common English word that is generally used to refer exclusively to women, but which becomes male when a two-letter suffix is added?

Submit Your Answer

If you know the answer to the challenge, submit it here by Thursday, April 4th at 3 p.m. ET. Listeners whose answers are selected win a chance to play the on-air puzzle. Important: include a phone number where we can reach you.

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  • The Case for Marrying an Older Man

A woman’s life is all work and little rest. An age gap relationship can help.

synonym for essay in english

In the summer, in the south of France, my husband and I like to play, rather badly, the lottery. We take long, scorching walks to the village — gratuitous beauty, gratuitous heat — kicking up dust and languid debates over how we’d spend such an influx. I purchase scratch-offs, jackpot tickets, scraping the former with euro coins in restaurants too fine for that. I never cash them in, nor do I check the winning numbers. For I already won something like the lotto, with its gifts and its curses, when he married me.

He is ten years older than I am. I chose him on purpose, not by chance. As far as life decisions go, on balance, I recommend it.

When I was 20 and a junior at Harvard College, a series of great ironies began to mock me. I could study all I wanted, prove myself as exceptional as I liked, and still my fiercest advantage remained so universal it deflated my other plans. My youth. The newness of my face and body. Compellingly effortless; cruelly fleeting. I shared it with the average, idle young woman shrugging down the street. The thought, when it descended on me, jolted my perspective, the way a falling leaf can make you look up: I could diligently craft an ideal existence, over years and years of sleepless nights and industry. Or I could just marry it early.

So naturally I began to lug a heavy suitcase of books each Saturday to the Harvard Business School to work on my Nabokov paper. In one cavernous, well-appointed room sat approximately 50 of the planet’s most suitable bachelors. I had high breasts, most of my eggs, plausible deniability when it came to purity, a flush ponytail, a pep in my step that had yet to run out. Apologies to Progress, but older men still desired those things.

I could not understand why my female classmates did not join me, given their intelligence. Each time I reconsidered the project, it struck me as more reasonable. Why ignore our youth when it amounted to a superpower? Why assume the burdens of womanhood, its too-quick-to-vanish upper hand, but not its brief benefits at least? Perhaps it came easier to avoid the topic wholesale than to accept that women really do have a tragically short window of power, and reason enough to take advantage of that fact while they can. As for me, I liked history, Victorian novels, knew of imminent female pitfalls from all the books I’d read: vampiric boyfriends; labor, at the office and in the hospital, expected simultaneously; a decline in status as we aged, like a looming eclipse. I’d have disliked being called calculating, but I had, like all women, a calculator in my head. I thought it silly to ignore its answers when they pointed to an unfairness for which we really ought to have been preparing.

I was competitive by nature, an English-literature student with all the corresponding major ambitions and minor prospects (Great American novel; email job). A little Bovarist , frantic for new places and ideas; to travel here, to travel there, to be in the room where things happened. I resented the callow boys in my class, who lusted after a particular, socially sanctioned type on campus: thin and sexless, emotionally detached and socially connected, the opposite of me. Restless one Saturday night, I slipped on a red dress and snuck into a graduate-school event, coiling an HDMI cord around my wrist as proof of some technical duty. I danced. I drank for free, until one of the organizers asked me to leave. I called and climbed into an Uber. Then I promptly climbed out of it. For there he was, emerging from the revolving doors. Brown eyes, curved lips, immaculate jacket. I went to him, asked him for a cigarette. A date, days later. A second one, where I discovered he was a person, potentially my favorite kind: funny, clear-eyed, brilliant, on intimate terms with the universe.

I used to love men like men love women — that is, not very well, and with a hunger driven only by my own inadequacies. Not him. In those early days, I spoke fondly of my family, stocked the fridge with his favorite pasta, folded his clothes more neatly than I ever have since. I wrote his mother a thank-you note for hosting me in his native France, something befitting a daughter-in-law. It worked; I meant it. After graduation and my fellowship at Oxford, I stayed in Europe for his career and married him at 23.

Of course I just fell in love. Romances have a setting; I had only intervened to place myself well. Mainly, I spotted the precise trouble of being a woman ahead of time, tried to surf it instead of letting it drown me on principle. I had grown bored of discussions of fair and unfair, equal or unequal , and preferred instead to consider a thing called ease.

The reception of a particular age-gap relationship depends on its obviousness. The greater and more visible the difference in years and status between a man and a woman, the more it strikes others as transactional. Transactional thinking in relationships is both as American as it gets and the least kosher subject in the American romantic lexicon. When a 50-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman walk down the street, the questions form themselves inside of you; they make you feel cynical and obscene: How good of a deal is that? Which party is getting the better one? Would I take it? He is older. Income rises with age, so we assume he has money, at least relative to her; at minimum, more connections and experience. She has supple skin. Energy. Sex. Maybe she gets a Birkin. Maybe he gets a baby long after his prime. The sight of their entwined hands throws a lucid light on the calculations each of us makes, in love, to varying degrees of denial. You could get married in the most romantic place in the world, like I did, and you would still have to sign a contract.

Twenty and 30 is not like 30 and 40; some freshness to my features back then, some clumsiness in my bearing, warped our decade, in the eyes of others, to an uncrossable gulf. Perhaps this explains the anger we felt directed at us at the start of our relationship. People seemed to take us very, very personally. I recall a hellish car ride with a friend of his who began to castigate me in the backseat, in tones so low that only I could hear him. He told me, You wanted a rich boyfriend. You chased and snuck into parties . He spared me the insult of gold digger, but he drew, with other words, the outline for it. Most offended were the single older women, my husband’s classmates. They discussed me in the bathroom at parties when I was in the stall. What does he see in her? What do they talk about? They were concerned about me. They wielded their concern like a bludgeon. They paraphrased without meaning to my favorite line from Nabokov’s Lolita : “You took advantage of my disadvantage,” suspecting me of some weakness he in turn mined. It did not disturb them, so much, to consider that all relationships were trades. The trouble was the trade I’d made struck them as a bad one.

The truth is you can fall in love with someone for all sorts of reasons, tiny transactions, pluses and minuses, whose sum is your affection for each other, your loyalty, your commitment. The way someone picks up your favorite croissant. Their habit of listening hard. What they do for you on your anniversary and your reciprocal gesture, wrapped thoughtfully. The serenity they inspire; your happiness, enlivening it. When someone says they feel unappreciated, what they really mean is you’re in debt to them.

When I think of same-age, same-stage relationships, what I tend to picture is a woman who is doing too much for too little.

I’m 27 now, and most women my age have “partners.” These days, girls become partners quite young. A partner is supposed to be a modern answer to the oppression of marriage, the terrible feeling of someone looming over you, head of a household to which you can only ever be the neck. Necks are vulnerable. The problem with a partner, however, is if you’re equal in all things, you compromise in all things. And men are too skilled at taking .

There is a boy out there who knows how to floss because my friend taught him. Now he kisses college girls with fresh breath. A boy married to my friend who doesn’t know how to pack his own suitcase. She “likes to do it for him.” A million boys who know how to touch a woman, who go to therapy because they were pushed, who learned fidelity, boundaries, decency, manners, to use a top sheet and act humanely beneath it, to call their mothers, match colors, bring flowers to a funeral and inhale, exhale in the face of rage, because some girl, some girl we know, some girl they probably don’t speak to and will never, ever credit, took the time to teach him. All while she was working, raising herself, clawing up the cliff-face of adulthood. Hauling him at her own expense.

I find a post on Reddit where five thousand men try to define “ a woman’s touch .” They describe raised flower beds, blankets, photographs of their loved ones, not hers, sprouting on the mantel overnight. Candles, coasters, side tables. Someone remembering to take lint out of the dryer. To give compliments. I wonder what these women are getting back. I imagine them like Cinderella’s mice, scurrying around, their sole proof of life their contributions to a more central character. On occasion I meet a nice couple, who grew up together. They know each other with a fraternalism tender and alien to me.  But I think of all my friends who failed at this, were failed at this, and I think, No, absolutely not, too risky . Riskier, sometimes, than an age gap.

My younger brother is in his early 20s, handsome, successful, but in many ways: an endearing disaster. By his age, I had long since wisened up. He leaves his clothes in the dryer, takes out a single shirt, steams it for three minutes. His towel on the floor, for someone else to retrieve. His lovely, same-age girlfriend is aching to fix these tendencies, among others. She is capable beyond words. Statistically, they will not end up together. He moved into his first place recently, and she, the girlfriend, supplied him with a long, detailed list of things he needed for his apartment: sheets, towels, hangers, a colander, which made me laugh. She picked out his couch. I will bet you anything she will fix his laundry habits, and if so, they will impress the next girl. If they break up, she will never see that couch again, and he will forget its story. I tell her when I visit because I like her, though I get in trouble for it: You shouldn’t do so much for him, not for someone who is not stuck with you, not for any boy, not even for my wonderful brother.

Too much work had left my husband, by 30, jaded and uninspired. He’d burned out — but I could reenchant things. I danced at restaurants when they played a song I liked. I turned grocery shopping into an adventure, pleased by what I provided. Ambitious, hungry, he needed someone smart enough to sustain his interest, but flexible enough in her habits to build them around his hours. I could. I do: read myself occupied, make myself free, materialize beside him when he calls for me. In exchange, I left a lucrative but deadening spreadsheet job to write full-time, without having to live like a writer. I learned to cook, a little, and decorate, somewhat poorly. Mostly I get to read, to walk central London and Miami and think in delicious circles, to work hard, when necessary, for free, and write stories for far less than minimum wage when I tally all the hours I take to write them.

At 20, I had felt daunted by the project of becoming my ideal self, couldn’t imagine doing it in tandem with someone, two raw lumps of clay trying to mold one another and only sullying things worse. I’d go on dates with boys my age and leave with the impression they were telling me not about themselves but some person who didn’t exist yet and on whom I was meant to bet regardless. My husband struck me instead as so finished, formed. Analyzable for compatibility. He bore the traces of other women who’d improved him, small but crucial basics like use a coaster ; listen, don’t give advice. Young egos mellow into patience and generosity.

My husband isn’t my partner. He’s my mentor, my lover, and, only in certain contexts, my friend. I’ll never forget it, how he showed me around our first place like he was introducing me to myself: This is the wine you’ll drink, where you’ll keep your clothes, we vacation here, this is the other language we’ll speak, you’ll learn it, and I did. Adulthood seemed a series of exhausting obligations. But his logistics ran so smoothly that he simply tacked mine on. I moved into his flat, onto his level, drag and drop, cleaner thrice a week, bills automatic. By opting out of partnership in my 20s, I granted myself a kind of compartmentalized, liberating selfishness none of my friends have managed. I am the work in progress, the party we worry about, a surprising dominance. When I searched for my first job, at 21, we combined our efforts, for my sake. He had wisdom to impart, contacts with whom he arranged coffees; we spent an afternoon, laughing, drawing up earnest lists of my pros and cons (highly sociable; sloppy math). Meanwhile, I took calls from a dear friend who had a boyfriend her age. Both savagely ambitious, hyperclose and entwined in each other’s projects. If each was a start-up , the other was the first hire, an intense dedication I found riveting. Yet every time she called me, I hung up with the distinct feeling that too much was happening at the same time: both learning to please a boss; to forge more adult relationships with their families; to pay bills and taxes and hang prints on the wall. Neither had any advice to give and certainly no stability. I pictured a three-legged race, two people tied together and hobbling toward every milestone.

I don’t fool myself. My marriage has its cons. There are only so many times one can say “thank you” — for splendid scenes, fine dinners — before the phrase starts to grate. I live in an apartment whose rent he pays and that shapes the freedom with which I can ever be angry with him. He doesn’t have to hold it over my head. It just floats there, complicating usual shorthands to explain dissatisfaction like, You aren’t being supportive lately . It’s a Frenchism to say, “Take a decision,” and from time to time I joke: from whom? Occasionally I find myself in some fabulous country at some fabulous party and I think what a long way I have traveled, like a lucky cloud, and it is frightening to think of oneself as vapor.

Mostly I worry that if he ever betrayed me and I had to move on, I would survive, but would find in my humor, preferences, the way I make coffee or the bed nothing that he did not teach, change, mold, recompose, stamp with his initials, the way Renaissance painters hid in their paintings their faces among a crowd. I wonder if when they looked at their paintings, they saw their own faces first. But this is the wrong question, if our aim is happiness. Like the other question on which I’m expected to dwell: Who is in charge, the man who drives or the woman who put him there so she could enjoy herself? I sit in the car, in the painting it would have taken me a corporate job and 20 years to paint alone, and my concern over who has the upper hand becomes as distant as the horizon, the one he and I made so wide for me.

To be a woman is to race against the clock, in several ways, until there is nothing left to be but run ragged.

We try to put it off, but it will hit us at some point: that we live in a world in which our power has a different shape from that of men, a different distribution of advantage, ours a funnel and theirs an expanding cone. A woman at 20 rarely has to earn her welcome; a boy at 20 will be turned away at the door. A woman at 30 may find a younger woman has taken her seat; a man at 30 will have invited her. I think back to the women in the bathroom, my husband’s classmates. What was my relationship if not an inconvertible sign of this unfairness? What was I doing, in marrying older, if not endorsing it? I had taken advantage of their disadvantage. I had preempted my own. After all, principled women are meant to defy unfairness, to show some integrity or denial, not plan around it, like I had. These were driven women, successful, beautiful, capable. I merely possessed the one thing they had already lost. In getting ahead of the problem, had I pushed them down? If I hadn’t, would it really have made any difference?

When we decided we wanted to be equal to men, we got on men’s time. We worked when they worked, retired when they retired, had to squeeze pregnancy, children, menopause somewhere impossibly in the margins. I have a friend, in her late 20s, who wears a mood ring; these days it is often red, flickering in the air like a siren when she explains her predicament to me. She has raised her fair share of same-age boyfriends. She has put her head down, worked laboriously alongside them, too. At last she is beginning to reap the dividends, earning the income to finally enjoy herself. But it is now, exactly at this precipice of freedom and pleasure, that a time problem comes closing in. If she would like to have children before 35, she must begin her next profession, motherhood, rather soon, compromising inevitably her original one. The same-age partner, equally unsettled in his career, will take only the minimum time off, she guesses, or else pay some cost which will come back to bite her. Everything unfailingly does. If she freezes her eggs to buy time, the decision and its logistics will burden her singly — and perhaps it will not work. Overlay the years a woman is supposed to establish herself in her career and her fertility window and it’s a perfect, miserable circle. By midlife women report feeling invisible, undervalued; it is a telling cliché, that after all this, some husbands leave for a younger girl. So when is her time, exactly? For leisure, ease, liberty? There is no brand of feminism which achieved female rest. If women’s problem in the ’50s was a paralyzing malaise, now it is that they are too active, too capable, never permitted a vacation they didn’t plan. It’s not that our efforts to have it all were fated for failure. They simply weren’t imaginative enough.

For me, my relationship, with its age gap, has alleviated this rush , permitted me to massage the clock, shift its hands to my benefit. Very soon, we will decide to have children, and I don’t panic over last gasps of fun, because I took so many big breaths of it early: on the holidays of someone who had worked a decade longer than I had, in beautiful places when I was young and beautiful, a symmetry I recommend. If such a thing as maternal energy exists, mine was never depleted. I spent the last nearly seven years supported more than I support and I am still not as old as my husband was when he met me. When I have a child, I will expect more help from him than I would if he were younger, for what does professional tenure earn you if not the right to set more limits on work demands — or, if not, to secure some child care, at the very least? When I return to work after maternal upheaval, he will aid me, as he’s always had, with his ability to put himself aside, as younger men are rarely able.

Above all, the great gift of my marriage is flexibility. A chance to live my life before I become responsible for someone else’s — a lover’s, or a child’s. A chance to write. A chance at a destiny that doesn’t adhere rigidly to the routines and timelines of men, but lends itself instead to roomy accommodation, to the very fluidity Betty Friedan dreamed of in 1963 in The Feminine Mystique , but we’ve largely forgotten: some career or style of life that “permits year-to-year variation — a full-time paid job in one community, part-time in another, exercise of the professional skill in serious volunteer work or a period of study during pregnancy or early motherhood when a full-time job is not feasible.” Some things are just not feasible in our current structures. Somewhere along the way we stopped admitting that, and all we did was make women feel like personal failures. I dream of new structures, a world in which women have entry-level jobs in their 30s; alternate avenues for promotion; corporate ladders with balconies on which they can stand still, have a smoke, take a break, make a baby, enjoy themselves, before they keep climbing. Perhaps men long for this in their own way. Actually I am sure of that.

Once, when we first fell in love, I put my head in his lap on a long car ride; I remember his hands on my face, the sun, the twisting turns of a mountain road, surprising and not surprising us like our romance, and his voice, telling me that it was his biggest regret that I was so young, he feared he would lose me. Last week, we looked back at old photos and agreed we’d given each other our respective best years. Sometimes real equality is not so obvious, sometimes it takes turns, sometimes it takes almost a decade to reveal itself.

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The ‘Colorblindness’ Trap

How a civil rights ideal got hijacked.

Supported by

The ‘Colorblindness’ Trap: How a Civil Rights Ideal Got Hijacked

The fall of affirmative action is part of a 50-year campaign to roll back racial progress.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

By Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer at the magazine and is the creator of The 1619 Project. She also teaches race and journalism at Howard University.

Anthony K. Wutoh, the provost of Howard University, was sitting at his desk last July when his phone rang. It was the new dean of the College of Medicine, and she was worried. She had received a letter from a conservative law group called the Liberty Justice Center. The letter warned that in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down affirmative action in college admissions, the school “must cease” any practices or policies that included a “racial component” and said it was notifying medical schools across the country that they must eliminate “racial discrimination” in their admissions. If Howard refused to comply, the letter threatened, the organization would sue.

Listen to this article, read by Janina Edwards

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Wutoh told the dean to send him the letter and not to respond until she heard back from him. Hanging up, he sat there for a moment, still. Then he picked up the phone and called the university’s counsel: This could be a problem.

Like most university officials, Wutoh was not shocked in June when the most conservative Supreme Court in nearly a century cut affirmative action’s final thin thread. In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the court invalidated race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Universities across the nation had been preparing for the ruling, trying both to assess potential liabilities and determine the best response.

But Howard is no ordinary university. Chartered by the federal government two years after the Civil War, Howard is one of about 100 historically Black colleges and universities, known as H.B.C.U.s. H.B.C.U. is an official government designation for institutions of higher learning founded from the time of slavery through the end of legal apartheid in the 1960s, mostly in the South. H.B.C.U.s were charged with educating the formerly enslaved and their descendants, who for most of this nation’s history were excluded from nearly all of its public and private colleges.

Though Howard has been open to students of all races since its founding in 1867, nearly all of its students have been Black. And so after the affirmative-action ruling, while elite, predominantly white universities fretted about how to keep their Black enrollments from shrinking, Howard (where I am a professor) and other H.B.C.U.s were planning for a potential influx of students who either could no longer get into these mostly white colleges or no longer wanted to try.

Wutoh thought it astounding that Howard — a university whose official government designation and mandate, whose entire reason for existing, is to serve a people who had been systematically excluded from higher education — could be threatened with a lawsuit if it did not ignore race when admitting students. “The fact that we have to even think about and consider what does this mean and how do we continue to fulfill our mission and fulfill the reason why we were founded as an institution and still be consistent with the ruling — I have to acknowledge that we have struggled with this,” he told me. “My broader concern is this is a concerted effort, part of an orchestrated plan to roll back many of the advances of the ’50s and ’60s. I am alarmed. It is absolutely regressive.”

Graduates attend a Howard University commencement ceremony.

Wutoh has reason to be alarmed. Conservative groups have spent the nine months since the affirmative-action ruling launching an assault on programs designed to explicitly address racial inequality across American life. They have filed a flurry of legal challenges and threatened lawsuits against race-conscious programs outside the realm of education, including diversity fellowships at law firms, a federal program to aid disadvantaged small businesses and a program to keep Black women from dying in childbirth. These conservative groups — whose names often evoke fairness and freedom and rights — are using civil rights law to claim that the Constitution requires “colorblindness” and that efforts targeted at ameliorating the suffering of descendants of slavery illegally discriminate against white people. They have co-opted both the rhetoric of colorblindness and the legal legacy of Black activism not to advance racial progress, but to stall it. Or worse, reverse it.

During the civil rights era, this country passed a series of hard-fought laws to dismantle the system of racial apartheid and to create policies and programs aimed at repairing its harms. Today this is often celebrated as the period when the nation finally triumphed over its original sin of slavery. But what this narrative obscures is that the gains of the civil rights movement were immediately met with a backlash that sought to subvert first the language and then the aims of the movement. Over the last 50 years, we have experienced a slow-moving, near-complete unwinding of the idea that this country owes anything to Black Americans for 350 years of legalized slavery and racism. But we have also undergone something far more dangerous: the dismantling of the constitutional tools for undoing racial caste in the United States.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Supreme Court began to vacillate on remedies for descendants of slavery. And for the last 30 years, the court has almost exclusively ruled in favor of white people in so-called reverse-discrimination cases while severely narrowing the possibility for racial redress for Black Americans. Often, in these decisions, the court has used colorblindness as a rationale that dismisses both the particular history of racial disadvantage and its continuing disparities.

This thinking has reached its legal apotheosis on the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Starting with the 2007 case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the court found that it wasn’t the segregation of Black and Latino children that was constitutionally repugnant, but the voluntary integration plans that used race to try to remedy it. Six years later, Roberts wrote the majority opinion in Shelby v. Holder, gutting the Voting Rights Act, which had ensured that jurisdictions could no longer prevent Black Americans from voting because of their race. The act was considered one of the most successful civil rights laws in American history, but Roberts declared that its key provision was no longer needed, saying that “things have changed dramatically.” But a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since the ruling, jurisdictions that were once covered by the Voting Rights Act because of their history of discrimination saw the gap in turnout between Black and white voters grow nearly twice as quickly as in other jurisdictions with similar socioeconomic profiles.

These decisions of the Roberts court laid the legal and philosophical groundwork for the recent affirmative-action case. Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard involved two of the country’s oldest public and private universities, both of which were financed to a significant degree with the labor of the enslaved and excluded slavery’s descendants for most of their histories. In finding that affirmative action was unconstitutional, Roberts used the reasoning of Brown v. Board of Education to make the case that because “the Constitution is colorblind” and “should not permit any distinctions of law based on race or color,” race cannot be used even to help a marginalized group. Quoting the Brown ruling, Roberts argued that “the mere act of ‘separating children’” because of their race generated “ ‘a feeling of inferiority’” among students.

But in citing Brown, Roberts spoke generically of race, rarely mentioning Black people and ignoring the fact that this earlier ruling struck down segregation because race had been used to subordinate them. When Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote those words in 1954, he was not arguing that the use of race harmed Black and white children equally. The use of race in assigning students to schools, Warren wrote, referring to an earlier lower-court decision, had “a detrimental effect upon colored children” specifically, because it was “interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group.”

Roberts quickly recited in just a few paragraphs the centuries-long legacy of legal discrimination against Black Americans. Then, as if flicking so many crumbs from the table, he used the circular logic of conservative colorblindness to dispatch that past with a pithy line: “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”

By erasing the context, Roberts turned colorblindness on its head, reinterpreting a concept meant to eradicate racial caste to one that works against racial justice.

Roberts did not invent this subversion of colorblindness, but his court is constitutionalizing it. While we seem to understand now how the long game of the anti-abortion movement resulted in a historically conservative Supreme Court that last year struck down Roe v. Wade, taking away what had been a constitutional right, Americans have largely failed to see that a parallel, decades-long antidemocratic racial strategy was occurring at the same time. The ramifications of the recent affirmative-action decision are clear — and they are not something so inconsequential as the complexion of elite colleges and the number of students of color who attend them: We are in the midst of a radical abandonment of a compact that the civil rights movement forged, a shared understanding that racial inequality is harmful to democracy.

The End of Slavery, and the Instant Backlash

When this country finally eliminated first slavery and then racial apartheid, it was left with a fundamental question: How does a white-majority nation, which for nearly its entire history wielded race-conscious policies and laws that oppressed and excluded Black Americans, create a society in which race no longer matters? Do we ignore race in order to eliminate its power, or do we consciously use race to undo its harms?

Our nation has never been able to resolve this tension. Race, we now believe, should not be used to harm or to advantage people, whether they are Black or white. But the belief in colorblindness in a society constructed on the codification of racial difference has always been aspirational. And so achieving it requires what can seem like a paradoxical approach: a demand that our nation pay attention to race in order, at some future point, to attain a just society. As Justice Thurgood Marshall said in a 1987 speech, “The ultimate goal is the creation of a colorblind society,” but “given the position from which America began, we still have a very long way to go.”

Racial progress in the United States has resulted from rare moments of national clarity, often following violent upheavals like the Civil War and the civil rights movement. At those times, enough white people in power embraced the idea that racial subordination is antidemocratic and so the United States must counter its legacy of racial caste not with a mandated racial neutrality or colorblindness but with sweeping race-specific laws and policies to help bring about Black equality. Yet any attempt to manufacture equality by the same means that this society manufactured inequality has faced fierce and powerful resistance.

This resistance began as soon as slavery ended. After generations of chattel slavery, four million human beings were suddenly being emancipated into a society in which they had no recognized rights or citizenship, and no land, money, education, shelter or jobs. To address this crisis, some in Congress saw in the aftermath of this nation’s deadliest war the opportunity — but also the necessity — for a second founding that would eliminate the system of racial slavery that had been its cause. These men, known as Radical Republicans, believed that making Black Americans full citizens required color-consciousness in policy — an intentional reversal of the way race had been used against Black Americans. They wanted to create a new agency called the Freedmen’s Bureau to serve “persons of African descent” or “such persons as once had been slaves” by providing educational, food and legal assistance, as well as allotments of land taken from the white-owned properties where formerly enslaved people were forced to work.

Understanding that “race” was created to force people of African descent into slavery, their arguments in Congress in favor of the Freedmen’s Bureau were not based on Black Americans’ “skin color” but rather on their condition. Standing on the Senate floor in June 1864, Senator Charles Sumner quoted from a congressional commission’s report on the conditions of freed people, saying, “We need a Freedmen’s Bureau not because these people are Negroes but because they are men who have been for generations despoiled of their rights.” Senator Lyman Trumbull, an author of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, declared: “The policy of the states where slavery has existed has been to legislate in its interest. … Now, when slavery no longer exists, the policy of the government must be to legislate in the interest of freedom.” In a speech to Congress, Trumbull compelled “the people of the rebellious states” to be “as zealous and active in the passage of laws and the inauguration of measures to elevate, develop and improve the Negro as they have hitherto been to enslave and degrade him.”

But there were also the first stirrings of an argument we still hear today: that specifically aiding those who, because they were of African descent, had been treated as property for 250 years was giving them preferential treatment. Two Northern congressmen, Martin Kalbfleish, a Dutch immigrant and former Brooklyn mayor, and Anthony L. Knapp, a representative from Illinois, declared that no one would give “serious consideration” to a “bureau of Irishmen’s affairs, a bureau of Dutchmen’s affairs or one for the affairs of those of Caucasian descent generally.” So they questioned why the freedmen should “become these marked objects of special legislation, to the detriment of the unfortunate whites.” Representative Nelson Taylor bemoaned the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866, which he accused of making a “distinction on account of color between two races.” He argued, “This, sir, is what I call class legislation — legislation for a particular class of the Blacks to the exclusion of all whites.”

Ultimately, the Freedmen’s Bureau bills passed, but only after language was added to provide assistance for poor white people as well. Already, at the very moment of racial slavery’s demise, we see the poison pill, the early formulation of the now-familiar arguments that helping a people who had been enslaved was somehow unfair to those who had not, that the same Constitution that permitted and protected bondage based on race now required colorblindness to undo its harms.

This logic helped preserve the status quo and infused the responses to other Reconstruction-era efforts that tried to ensure justice and equality for newly freed people. President Andrew Johnson, in vetoing the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which sought to grant automatic citizenship to four million Black people whose families for generations had been born in the United States, argued that it “proposes a discrimination against large numbers of intelligent, worthy and patriotic foreigners,” who would still be subjected to a naturalization process “in favor of the Negro.” Congress overrode Johnson’s veto, but this idea that unique efforts to address the extraordinary conditions of people who were enslaved or descended from slavery were unfair to another group who had chosen to immigrate to this country foreshadowed the arguments about Asian immigrants and their children that would be echoed 150 years later in Students for Fair Admissions.

As would become the pattern, the collective determination to redress the wrongs of slavery evaporated under opposition. Congress abolished the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872. And just 12 years after the Civil War, white supremacists and their accommodationists brought Reconstruction to a violent end. The nation’s first experiment with race-based redress and multiracial democracy was over. In its place, the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 ushered in the period of official racial apartheid when it determined that “the enforced separation of the races … neither abridges the privileges or immunities of the colored man … nor denies him the equal protection of the laws.” Over the next six decades, the court condoned an entire code of race law and policies designed to segregate, marginalize, exclude and subjugate descendants of slavery across every realm of American life. The last of these laws would stand until 1968, less than a decade before I was born.

Thurgood Marshall’s Path to Desegregation

In 1930, a young man named Thurgood Marshall, a native son of Baltimore, could not attend the University of Maryland’s law school, located in the city and state where his parents were taxpaying citizens. The 22-year-old should have been a shoo-in for admission. An academically gifted student, Marshall had become enamored with the Constitution after his high school principal punished him for a prank by making him read the founding document. Marshall memorized key parts of the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. After enrolling at Lincoln University, a prestigious Black institution, he joined the debate team and graduated with honors.

But none of that mattered. Only one thing did: Marshall was a descendant of slavery, and Black people, no matter their intellect, ambition or academic record, were barred by law from attending the University of Maryland. Marshall enrolled instead at Howard University Law School, where he studied under the brilliant Charles Hamilton Houston, whose belief that “a lawyer is either a social engineer or he’s a parasite on society” had turned the law school into the “West Point of civil rights.”

It was there that Marshall began to see the Constitution as a living document that must adapt to and address the times. He joined with Houston in crafting the strategy that would dismantle legal apartheid. After graduating as valedictorian, in one of his first cases, Marshall sued the University of Maryland. He argued that the school was violating the 14th Amendment, which granted the formerly enslaved citizenship and ensured Black Americans “equal protection under the law,” by denying Black students admission solely because of their race without providing an alternative law school for Black students. Miraculously, he won.

Nearly two decades later, Marshall stood before the Supreme Court on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Brown v. Board of Education, arguing that the equal-protection clause enshrined in the 14th Amendment did not abide the use of racial classifications to segregate Black students. Marshall was not merely advancing a generic argument that the Constitution commands blindness to color or race. The essential issue, the reason the 14th Amendment existed, he argued, was not just because race had served as a means of classifying people, but because race had been used to create a system to oppress descendants of slavery — people who had been categorized as Black. Marshall explained that racial classification was being used to enforce an “inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible.” The court, he said, “should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for.” He sought the elimination of laws requiring segregation, but also the segregation those laws had created.

The Supreme Court, in unanimously striking down school segregation in its Brown decision, did not specifically mention the word “colorblind,” but its ruling echoed the thinking about the 14th Amendment in John Marshall Harlan’s lone dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. “There is no caste here,” Harlan declared. “Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” But he also made it clear that colorblindness was intended to eliminate the subordination of those who had been enslaved, writing, “In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” He continued, “The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race … is a badge of servitude.”

The court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was not merely a moral statement but a political one. Racial segregation and the violent suppression of democracy among its Black citizens had become a liability for the United States during the Cold War, as the nation sought to stymie Communism’s attraction in non-European nations. Attorney General James P. McGranery submitted a brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Truman administration supporting a ruling against school segregation, writing: “It is in the context of the present world struggle between freedom and tyranny that the problem of racial discrimination must be viewed. The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world of every nationality, race and color that a free democracy is the most civilized and most secure form of government yet devised by man. … Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.”

Civil rights activists were finally seeing their decades-long struggle paying off. But the architects and maintenance crew of racial caste understood a fundamental truth about the society they had built: Systems constructed and enforced over centuries to subjugate enslaved people and their descendants based on race no longer needed race-based laws to sustain them. Racial caste was so entrenched, so intertwined with American institutions, that without race-based counteraction , it would inevitably self-replicate.

One can see this in the effort to desegregate schools after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Across the country, North and South, white officials eliminated laws and policies mandating segregation but also did nothing to integrate schools. They maintained unofficial policies of assigning students to schools based on race, adopting so-called race-neutral admissions requirements designed to eliminate most Black applicants from white schools, and they drew school attendance zones snugly around racially segregated neighborhoods. Nearly a decade after Brown v. Board, educational colorblindness stood as the law of the land, and yet no substantial school integration had occurred. In fact, at the start of 1963, in Alabama and Mississippi, two of the nation’s most heavily Black states, not a single Black child attended school with white children.

By the mid-1960s, the Supreme Court grew weary of the ploys. It began issuing rulings trying to enforce actual desegregation of schools. And in 1968, in Green v. New Kent County, the court unanimously decided against a Virginia school district’s “freedom-of-choice plan” that on its face adhered to the colorblind mandate of Brown but in reality led to almost no integration in the district. “The fact that in 1965 the Board opened the doors of the former ‘white’ school to Negro children and of the ‘Negro’ school to white children merely begins, not ends, our inquiry whether the Board has taken steps adequate to abolish its dual, segregated system,” the court determined.

The court ordered schools to use race to assign students, faculty and staff members to schools to achieve integration. Complying with Brown, the court determined, meant the color-conscious conversion of an apartheid system into one without a “ ‘white’ school and a ‘Negro’ school, but just schools.” In other words, the reality of racial caste could not be constitutionally subordinated to the ideal of colorblindness. Colorblindness was the goal, color-consciousness the remedy.

Using Race to End Racial Inequality

Hobart Taylor Jr., a successful lawyer who lived in Detroit, was mingling at a party in the nation’s capital in January 1961 to celebrate the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson as vice president of the United States. Taylor had not had any intention of going to the inauguration, but like Johnson, Taylor was a native son of Texas, and his politically active family were early supporters of Johnson. And so at a personal request from the vice president, Taylor reluctantly found himself amid the din of clinking cocktail glasses when Johnson stopped and asked him to come see him in a few days.

Taylor did not immediately go see Johnson. After a second request came in, in February, Taylor found himself in Johnson’s office. The vice president slid into Taylor’s hands a draft of a new executive order to establish the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which Johnson would lead. This was to be one of President John F. Kennedy’s first steps toward establishing civil rights for Black people.

Taylor’s grandfather had been born into slavery, and yet he and Taylor’s father became highly successful and influential entrepreneurs and landowners despite Texas’ strict color line.

The apartheid society Taylor grew up in was changing, and the vice president of the United States had tapped him to help draft its new rules. How could he say no? Taylor had planned on traveling back to Detroit that night, but instead he checked into the Willard Hotel, where he worked so intently on the draft of the executive order that not only did he forget to eat dinner but also he forgot to tell his wife that he wasn’t coming home. The next day, Taylor worked and reworked the draft for what would become Executive Order 10925, enacted in March 1961.

A few years later, in an interview for the John F. Kennedy Library Oral History Program, Taylor would recall what he considered his most significant contribution. The draft he received said employers had to “take action” to ensure that job applicants and employees would not be discriminated against because of their race, creed, color or national origin. Taylor thought the wording needed a propellant, and so inserted the word “affirmative” in front of action. “I was torn between ‘positive’ and ‘affirmative,’ and I decided ‘affirmative’ on the basis of alliteration,” he said. “And that has, apparently, meant a great deal historically in the way in which people have approached this whole thing.”

Taylor added the word to the order, but it would be the other Texan — a man with a fondness for using the N-word in private — who would most forcefully describe the moral rationale, the societal mandate, for affirmative action. Johnson would push through Congress the 1964, 1965 and 1968 civil rights laws — the greatest civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.

But a deeply divided Congress did not pass this legislation simply because it realized a century after the Civil War that descendants of slavery deserved equal rights. Black Americans had been engaged in a struggle to obtain those rights and had endured political assassinations, racist murders, bombings and other violence. Segregated and impoverished Black communities across the nation took part in dozens of rebellions, and tanks rolled through American streets. The violent suppression of the democratic rights of its Black citizens threatened to destabilize the country and had once again become an international liability as the United States waged war in Vietnam.

But as this nation’s racist laws began to fall, conservatives started to realize that the language of colorblindness could be used to their advantage. In the fall of 1964, Barry Goldwater, a Republican who was running against President Johnson, gave his first major national speech on civil rights. Civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins had lambasted Goldwater’s presidential nomination, with King saying his philosophy gave “aid and comfort to racists.” But at a carefully chosen venue — the Conrad Hilton in Chicago — in front of a well-heeled white audience unlikely to spout racist rhetoric, Goldwater savvily evoked the rhetoric of the civil rights movement to undermine civil rights. “It has been well said that the Constitution is colorblind,” he said. “And so it is just as wrong to compel children to attend certain schools for the sake of so-called integration as for the sake of segregation. … Our aim, as I understand it, is not to establish a segregated society or an integrated society. It is to preserve a free society.”

The argument laid out in this speech was written with the help of William H. Rehnquist. As a clerk for Justice Robert Jackson during the Brown v. Board of Education case, Rehnquist pushed for the court to uphold segregation. But in the decade that passed, it became less socially acceptable to publicly denounce equal rights for Black Americans, and Rehnquist began to deploy the language of colorblindness in a way that cemented racial disadvantage.

White Americans who liked the idea of equality but did not want descendants of slavery moving next door to them, competing for their jobs or sitting near their children in school were exceptionally primed for this repositioning. As Rick Perlstein wrote in his book “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus,” when it came to race, Goldwater believed that white Americans “didn’t have the words to say the truth they knew in their hearts to be right, in a manner proper to the kind of men they wanted to see when they looked in the mirror. Goldwater was determined to give them the words.”

In the end, Johnson beat Goldwater in a landslide. Then, in June 1965, a few months after Black civil rights marchers were barbarically beaten on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and two months before he would sign the historic Voting Rights Act into law, Johnson, now president of a deeply and violently polarized nation, gave the commencement address at Howard University. At that moment, Johnson stood at the pinnacle of white American power, and he used his platform to make the case that the country owed descendants of slavery more than just their rights and freedom.

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair,” Johnson said. “This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

For a brief moment, it seemed as if a grander, more just vision of America had taken hold. But while Goldwater did not win the election, 14 years later a case went before the Supreme Court that would signal the ultimate victory of Goldwater’s strategy.

Claiming Reverse Discrimination

Allan Bakke was enjoying a successful career at NASA when he decided he wanted to become a physician. Bakke grew up in a white middle-class family — his father worked for the Post Office, and his mother taught school. Bakke went to the University of Minnesota, where he studied engineering and joined the R.O.T.C. to help pay for college, and then served four years as a Marine, including seven months in Vietnam. It was there that Bakke became enamored with the medical profession. While still working at NASA, he enrolled in night courses to obtain a pre-med degree. In 1972, while he was in his 30s, Bakke applied to 11 medical schools, including at his alma mater, and was rejected by all 11.

One of the schools that Bakke, who was living in California at the time, applied to was the University of California at Davis. The school received 2,664 applications for 100 spots, and by the time he completed his application, most of the seats had already been filled. Some students with lower scores were admitted before he applied, and Bakke protested to the school, claiming that “quotas, open or covert, for racial minorities” had kept him out. His admission file, however, would show that it was his age that was probably a significant strike against him and not his race.

Bakke applied again the next year, and U.C. Davis rejected him again. A friend described Bakke as developing an “almost religious zeal” to fight what he felt was a system that discriminated against white people in favor of so-called minorities. Bakke decided to sue, claiming he had been a victim of “reverse” discrimination.

The year was 1974, less than a decade after Johnson’s speech on affirmative action and a few years after the policy had begun to make its way onto college campuses. The U.C. Davis medical school put its affirmative-action plan in place in 1970. At the time, its first-year medical-school class of 100 students did not include a single Black, Latino or Native student. In response, the faculty designed a special program to boost enrollment of “disadvantaged” students by reserving 16 of the 100 seats for students who would go through a separate admissions process that admitted applicants with lower academic ratings than the general admissions program.

From 1971 to 1974, 21 Black students, 30 Mexican American students and 12 Asian American students enrolled through the special program, while one Black student, six Mexican Americans and 37 Asian American students were admitted through the regular program. Bakke claimed that his right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been violated. Though these laws were adopted to protect descendants of slavery from racial discrimination and subordination, Bakke was deploying them to claim that he had been illegally discriminated against because he was white. The case became the first affirmative-action challenge decided by the Supreme Court and revealed just how successful the rhetorical exploitation of colorblindness could be.

Justice Lewis Powell, writing for a fractured court in 1978, determined that although the 14th Amendment was written primarily to bridge “the vast distance between members of the Negro race and the white ‘majority,’” the passage of time and the changing demographics of the nation meant the amendment must now be applied universally. In an argument echoing the debates over the Freedmen’s Bureau, Powell said that the United States had grown more diverse, becoming a “nation of minorities,” where “the white ‘majority’ itself is composed of various minority groups, most of which can lay claim to a history of prior discrimination at the hands of the State and private individuals.”

“The guarantee of equal protection cannot mean one thing when applied to one individual and something else when applied to a person of another color,” Powell wrote. “If both are not accorded the same protection, then it is not equal.” Powell declared that the medical school could not justify helping certain “perceived” victims if it disadvantaged white people who “bear no responsibility for whatever harm the beneficiaries of the special admissions program are thought to have suffered.”

But who or what, then, did bear the responsibility?

Bakke was raised in Coral Gables, a wealthy, white suburb of Miami whose segregationist founder proposed a plan to remove all Black people from Miami while serving on the Dade County Planning Board, and where the white elementary school did not desegregate until after it was ordered by a federal court to do so in 1970, the same year U.C. Davis began its affirmative-action program. The court did not contemplate how this racially exclusive access to top neighborhoods and top schools probably helped Bakke to achieve the test scores that most Black students, largely relegated because of their racial designation to resource-deprived segregated neighborhoods and educational facilities, did not. It did not mean Bakke didn’t work hard, but it did mean that he had systemic advantages over equally hard-working and talented Black people.

For centuries, men like Powell and Bakke had benefited from a near-100 percent quota system, one that reserved nearly all the seats at this nation’s best-funded public and private schools and most-exclusive public and private colleges, all the homes in the best neighborhoods and all the top, well-paying jobs in private companies and public agencies for white Americans. Men like Bakke did not acknowledge the systemic advantages they had accrued because of their racial category, nor all the ways their race had unfairly benefited them. More critical, neither did the Supreme Court. As members of the majority atop the caste system, racial advantage transmitted invisibly to them. They took notice of their race only when confronted with a new system that sought to redistribute some of that advantage to people who had never had it.

Thus, the first time the court took up the issue of affirmative action, it took away the policy’s power. The court determined that affirmative action could not be used to redress the legacy of racial discrimination that Black Americans experienced, or the current systemic inequality that they were still experiencing. Instead, it allowed that some consideration of a student’s racial background could stand for one reason only: to achieve desired “diversity” of the student body. Powell referred to Harvard’s affirmative-action program, which he said had expanded to include students from other disadvantaged backgrounds, such as those from low-income families. He quoted an example from the plan, which said: “The race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor, just as geographic origin or a life spent on a farm may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases. A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a Black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.”

But, of course, a (white) farm boy from Idaho did not descend from people who were enslaved, because they were farmers from Idaho. There were not two centuries of case law arguing over the inherent humanity and rights of farm boys from Idaho. There was no sector of the law, no constitutional provision, that enshrined farm boys from Idaho as property who could be bought and sold. Farm boys from Idaho had no need to engage in a decades-long movement to gain basic rights of citizenship, including the fundamental right to vote. Farm boys from Idaho had not, until just a decade earlier, been denied housing, jobs, the ability to sit on juries and access to the ballot. Farm boys from Idaho had not been forced to sue for the right to attend public schools and universities.

In Bakke, the court was legally — and ideologically — severing the link between race and condition. Race became nothing more than ancestry and a collection of superficial physical traits. The 14th Amendment was no longer about alleviating the extraordinary repercussions of slavery but about treating everyone the same regardless of their “skin color,” history or present condition. With a few strokes of his pen, Powell wiped this context away, and just like that, the experience of 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow was relegated to one thing: another box to check.

Yet at the same time Powell was drafting this ruling, cases of recalcitrant school districts still refusing to integrate Black children were making their way to the Supreme Court. Just 15 years earlier, the federal government called up National Guardsmen to ensure that handfuls of Black students could enroll in white schools.

Indeed, Powell wrote this opinion while sitting on the same court as Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 became the first Black justice in the Supreme Court’s 178-year history. In Brown, Marshall helped break the back of legalized segregation. Now, as the court deliberated the Bakke case, a frustrated Marshall sent around a two-and-a-half-page typed memo to the other justices. “I repeat, for next to the last time: The decision in this case depends on whether you consider the action of the regents as admitting certain students or as excluding certain other students,” he wrote. “If you view the program as admitting qualified students who, because of this Nation’s sorry history of racial discrimination, have academic records that prevent them from effectively competing for medical school, then this is affirmative action to remove the vestiges of slavery and state imposed segregation by ‘root and branch.’ If you view the program as excluding students, it is a program of ‘quotas’ which violates the principle that the ‘Constitution is color-blind.’”

When Marshall’s arguments did not persuade enough justices, he joined with three others in a dissent from a decision that he saw as actively reversing, and indeed perverting, his legacy. They issued a scathing rebuke to the all-white majority, accusing them of letting “colorblindness become myopia, which masks the reality that many ‘created equal’ have been treated within our lifetimes as inferior both by the law and by their fellow citizens.”

Marshall also wrote his own dissent, where he ticked off statistic after statistic that revealed the glaring disparities between descendants of slavery and white Americans in areas like infant and maternal mortality, unemployment, income and life expectancy. He argued that while collegiate diversity was indeed a compelling state interest, bringing Black Americans into the mainstream of American life was much more urgent, and that failing to do so would ensure that “America will forever remain a divided society.”

Marshall called out the court’s hypocrisy. “For it must be remembered that, during most of the past 200 years, the Constitution, as interpreted by this court, did not prohibit the most ingenious and pervasive forms of discrimination against the Negro,” he wrote. “Now, when a state acts to remedy the effects of that legacy of discrimination, I cannot believe that this same Constitution stands as a barrier.”

At the end of his lengthy dissent, Marshall pointed out what had become the court’s historic pattern. “After the Civil War, our government started ‘affirmative action’ programs. This court … destroyed the movement toward complete equality,” he wrote. As he said, “I fear that we have come full circle.”

The Reagan Rollback

In 1980, having just secured the Republican nomination for the presidency, Ronald Reagan traveled to Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair to give an address. It was there in that county, a mere 16 years earlier, that three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by Klansmen, among the most notorious killings of the civil rights era.

Standing in front of a roaring crowd of about 10,000 white Mississippians, Reagan began his general-election campaign. He did not mention race. He did not need to. Instead he spoke of states’ rights, replicating the language of Confederates and segregationists, to signal his vision for America.

Despite the Bakke ruling, affirmative action continued to gain ground in the 1970s, with a deeply divided Supreme Court upholding limited affirmative action in hiring and other areas, and the Jimmy Carter administration embracing race-conscious policies. But Reagan understood the political power of white resistance to these policies, which if allowed to continue and succeed would redistribute opportunity in America.

Once in office, Reagan aggressively advanced the idea that racial-justice efforts had run amok, that Black Americans were getting undeserved racial advantages across society and that white Americans constituted the primary victims of discrimination.

A 1985 New York Times article noted that the Reagan administration was “intensifying its legal attack on affirmative action” across American life, saying the administration “has altered the government’s definition of racial discrimination.” As early as the 1970s, Reagan began using the phrase “reverse discrimination” — what the political scientist Philip L. Fetzer called a “covert political term” that undermined racial redress programs by redefining them as anti-white. Reagan’s administration claimed that race-conscious remedies were illegal and that hiring goals for Black Americans were “a form of racism” and as abhorrent as the “separate but equal” doctrine struck down by Brown v. Board.

Reagan, who had secretly called Black people monkeys and opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Yet in the first commemoration of that holiday in 1986, he trotted out King’s words to condemn racial-justice policy. “We’re committed to a society in which all men and women have equal opportunities to succeed, and so we oppose the use of quotas,” he said. “We want a colorblind society, a society that, in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This passage from King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech has become a go-to for conservatives seeking to discredit efforts to address the pervasive disadvantages that Black Americans face. And it works so effectively because few Americans have read the entire speech, and even fewer have read any of the other speeches or writings in which King explicitly makes clear that colorblindness was a goal that could be reached only through race-conscious policy. Four years after giving his “Dream” speech, King wrote, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him.” And during a 1968 sermon given less than a week before his assassination, King said that those who opposed programs to specifically help Black Americans overcome their disadvantage “never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the Black man’s color a stigma; but beyond this they never stop to realize that they owe a people who were kept in slavery 244 years.”

But as the sociologist Stuart Hall once wrote, “Those who produce the discourse also have the power to make it true.” Reagan deftly provided the road map to the nation’s racial future. Tapping into white aversion to acknowledging and addressing the singular crimes committed against Black Americans, conservatives, who had not long before championed and defended racial segregation, now commandeered the language of colorblindness, which had been used to dismantle the impacts of legal apartheid. They wrapped themselves in the banner of rhetorical equality while condemning racial-justice activists as the primary perpetrators of racism.

“There’s this really concerted, strategic effort to communicate to white people that racial justice makes white people victims, and that when people demand racial justice, they don’t actually mean justice; they mean revenge,” Ian Haney López, a race and constitutional law scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. “Black people are treated as if they are just any other Americans. There is no history of racial subordination associated with Black people. There is no structural or systemic racism against African Americans. By 1989, it’s over. Reactionary colorblindness has won.”

Diversity vs. Redress

Perhaps no single person has more successfully wielded Reagan’s strategy than Edward Blum. In 1992, Blum, who made his living as a stockbroker, decided to run for Congress as a Republican in a Texas district carved out to ensure Black representation. Blum was trounced by the Black Democratic candidate. He and several others sued, arguing that a consideration of racial makeup when creating legislative districts violated the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause. Despite the fact that until a 1944 Supreme Court ruling, Texas had selected candidates through all-white primaries, and the fact that the district had been created in part in response to the state’s history of Black-voter suppression, Blum’s side won the case, forcing a redrawing of legislative districts in a manner that diluted Black and Latino voting power. Since that victory, Blum has mounted a decades-long campaign that has undermined the use of race to achieve racial justice across American life.

Blum is not a lawyer, but his organizations, funded by a mostly anonymous cadre of deep-pocketed conservatives, have been wildly effective. It is Blum, for instance, who was the strategist behind the case against the Voting Rights Act. When the Supreme Court again narrowly upheld affirmative action in college admissions in the early 2000s, Blum set his sights on killing it altogether. In that 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the majority opinion preserving limited affirmative action but putting universities on notice by setting an arbitrary timeline for when the court should determine that enough racial justice will have been achieved. “It has been 25 years since Justice Powell first approved the use of race to further an interest in student-body diversity in the context of public higher education,” O’Connor wrote. “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” The use of the term “racial preferences” is key here. Instead of a policy created to even the playing field for a people who had been systematically held back and still faced pervasive discrimination, affirmative action was cast as a program that punished white Americans by giving unfair preferential treatment to Black Americans.

Blum didn’t wait 25 years to challenge affirmative action. His case brought on behalf of Abigail Fisher, a soft-spoken white woman who sued the University of Texas at Austin, after she was denied admission, went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ultimately upheld the university’s admissions program. In his second attempt, Blum changed tactics. As he told a gathering of the Houston Chinese Alliance in 2015: “I needed Asian plaintiffs.” In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, Blum’s group argued, and the court agreed, that affirmative-action programs discriminated against Asian Americans and, at the University of North Carolina, also white students. But many saw Blum’s use of another historically marginalized group in the lawsuit as an attempt to neutralize any argument that those targeting affirmative action opposed racial equality.

Blum’s success relied on defining affirmative action as a program about “visual diversity,” treating race as a mere collection of physical traits and not a social construct used to subordinate and stigmatize. When colleges seek diversity, he said, they are “really talking about skin-color diversity. How somebody looks. What’s your skin color? What’s the shape of your eyes? What’s the texture of your hair? Most Americans don’t think that the shape of your eyes tells us much about who you are as an individual. What does your skin color tell the world about who you are as an individual?” This reasoning resounds for many Americans who have also come to think about race simply as what you see.

Blum has described racial injustice against Black Americans as a thing of the past — a “terrible scar” on our history. As he awaited the court’s ruling last April, Blum told The Christian Science Monitor that today’s efforts to address that past were discriminatory and in direct conflict with the colorblind goals of Black activism. He said that “an individual’s race or ethnicity should not be used to help that individual or harm that individual in their life’s endeavors” and that affirmative action was “in grave tension with the founding principles of our civil rights movement.” But the civil rights movement has never been about merely eliminating race or racism; it’s also about curing its harms, and civil rights groups oppose Blum’s efforts.

Yet progressives, too, have unwittingly helped to maintain the corrupt colorblind argument that Blum has employed so powerfully, in part because the meaning of affirmative action was warped nearly from its beginning by the Supreme Court’s legal reasoning in Bakke. When the court determined that affirmative-action programs could stand only for “diversity” and not for redress, many advocates and institutions, in order to preserve these programs, embraced the idea that the goal of affirmative action was diversity and inclusiveness and not racial justice. Progressive organizations adopted the lexicon of “people of color” when discussing affirmative-action programs and also flattened all African-descended people into a single category, regardless of their particular lineage or experience in the United States.

Campuses certainly became more “diverse” as admissions offices focused broadly on recruiting students who were not white. But the descendants of slavery, for whom affirmative action originated, remain underrepresented among college students, especially at selective colleges and universities. At elite universities, research shows, the Black population consists disproportionately of immigrants and children of immigrants rather than students whose ancestors were enslaved here.

So, at least on this one thing, Blum is right. Many institutions have treated affirmative-action programs as a means of achieving visual diversity. Doing so has weakened the most forceful arguments for affirmative action, which in turn has weakened public support for such policies. Institutions must find ways, in the wake of the affirmative-action ruling, to address the racism that Black people face no matter their lineage. But using affirmative action as a diversity program — or a program to alleviate disadvantage that any nonwhite person faces — has in actuality played a part in excluding the very people for whom affirmative action and other racial redress programs were created to help.

Taking Back the Intent of Affirmative Action

Just as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund used the Brown v. Board of Education ruling as a legal catalyst for eliminating apartheid in all American life, Blum and those of like mind intend to use the affirmative-action ruling to push a sweeping regression in the opposite direction: bringing down this nation’s racial-justice programs and initiatives.

Right after the June ruling, 13 Republican state attorneys general sent letters to 100 of the nation’s biggest companies warning that the affirmative-action ruling prohibits what they call “discriminating on the basis of race, whether under the label of ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ or otherwise. Treating people differently because of the color of their skin, even for benign purposes, is unlawful and wrong.” Companies that engage in such racial discrimination, the letter threatened, would “face serious legal consequences.”

The letter points to racial-justice and diversity-and-inclusion programs created or announced by companies, particularly after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. In response to the killing, a multigenerational protest movement arose and faced violent suppression by law enforcement as it sought to force this nation to see that the descendants of slavery were still suffering and deserved repair. Corporations took a public stance on racial justice, vowing to integrate everything from their boardrooms to their suppliers. Monuments to white supremacists and Confederates that had stood for 100 years were finally vanquished from the public square. And many colleges and other institutions vocally committed to racial justice as an ethos.

But that fragile multiracial coalition — which for a period understood racial redress as a national good needed to secure and preserve our democracy — has been crushed by the same forces that have used racial polarization to crush these alliances in the past. Conservatives have spent the four years since George Floyd’s murder waging a so-called war against “woke” — banning books and curriculums about racism, writing laws that eliminate diversity-and-inclusion programs and prohibiting the teaching of courses even at the college level that are deemed racially “divisive.”

In other words, conservatives have used state power to prepare a citizenry to accept this new American legal order by restricting our ability to understand why so much racial inequality exists, particularly among the descendants of slavery, and why programs like affirmative action were ever needed in the first place.

“Something really stunning and dangerous that has happened during the Trump era is that the right uses the language of colorblindness or anti-wokeness to condemn any references to racial justice,” Haney López told me. “This rhetoric is a massive fraud, because it claims colorblindness toward race but is actually designed to stimulate hyper-race-consciousness among white people. That strategy has worked.”

Today we have a society where constitutional colorblindness dictates that school segregation is unconstitutional, yet most Black students have never attended a majority-white school or had access to the same educational resources as white children. A society with a law prohibiting discrimination in housing and lending, and yet descendants of slavery remain the most residentially, educationally and economically segregated people in the country. A society where employment discrimination is illegal, and yet Black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as white Americans, even when they hold college degrees.

Despite these realities, conservative groups are initiating a wave of attacks on racial-equality programs. About 5 percent of practicing attorneys are Black, and yet one of Blum’s groups, the American Alliance for Equal Rights, sued law firms to stop their diversity fellowships. In August, it also sued the Fearless Fund, a venture-capital firm founded by two Black women, which through its charitable arm helps other Black women gain access to funding by giving small grants to businesses that are at least 51 percent owned by Black women. Even though according to the World Economic Forum, Black women receive just 0.34 percent of venture-capital funds in the United States, Blum declared the fund to be racially discriminatory. Another Blum group, Students for Fair Admissions, has now sued the U.S. Military Academy, even though the Supreme Court allowed race-conscious admissions to stand in the military. Another organization, the Center for Individual Rights, has successfully overturned a decades-long Small Business Administration policy that automatically treated so-called minority-owned businesses as eligible for federal contracts for disadvantaged businesses.

Last year, a group called the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation sued the City and County of San Francisco over their funding of several programs aimed at eliminating disparities Black Americans face, including the Abundant Birth Project, which gives stipends for prenatal care, among other supports, to Black women and Pacific Islanders to help prevent them from dying during childbirth. Even though maternal mortality for Black women in the United States is up to four times as high as it is for white women, conservatives argue that programs specifically helping the women most likely to die violate the 14th Amendment. Even as this lawsuit makes its way through the courts, there are signs of why these sorts of programs remain necessary: It was announced last year that the Department of Health and Human Services opened a civil rights investigation into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for allegations of racism against Black mothers following the death of a Black woman who went there to give birth.

It is impossible to look at the realities of Black life that these programs seek to address and come to the conclusion that the lawsuits are trying to make society more fair or just or free. Instead they are foreclosing the very initiatives that could actually make it so.

And nothing illuminates that more than the conservative law group’s letter warning Howard — an institution so vaunted among Black Americans that it’s known as the Mecca — that its medical school must stop any admissions practices that have a “racial component.” Howard’s medical school, founded in 1868, remains one of just four historically Black medical schools in the United States. Howard received nearly 9,000 medical-school applicants for 130 open seats in 2023. And while almost all of the students who apply to be Howard undergraduates are Black, because there are so few medical-school slots available, most applicants to Howard’s medical school are not. Since the school was founded to serve descendants of slavery with a mission to educate “disadvantaged students for careers in medicine,” however, most of the students admitted each year are Black.

That has now made it a target, even though Black Americans account for only 5 percent of all U.S. doctors, an increase of just three percentage points in the 46 years since Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in Bakke. Despite affirmative action at predominantly white schools, at least 70 percent of the Black doctors and dentists in America attended an H.B.C.U. H.B.C.U.s also have produced half of the Black lawyers, 40 percent of Black engineers and a quarter of Black graduates in STEM fields.

Even Plessy v. Ferguson, considered perhaps the worst Supreme Court ruling in U.S. history, sanctioned the existence of H.B.C.U.s and other Black-serving organizations. If institutions like Howard or the Fearless Fund cannot work to explicitly assist the descendants of slavery, who still today remain at the bottom of nearly every indicator of success and well-being, then we have decided as a nation that there is nothing we should do to help Black Americans achieve equality and that we will remain a caste society.

What we are witnessing, once again, is the alignment of white power against racial justice and redress. As history has shown, maintaining racial inequality requires constant repression and is therefore antithetical to democracy. And so we must be clear about the stakes: Our nation teeters at the brink of a particularly dangerous moment, not just for Black Americans but for democracy itself.

To meet the moment, our society must forcefully recommit to racial justice by taking lessons from the past. We must reclaim the original intent of affirmative-action programs stretching all the way back to the end of slavery, when the Freedmen’s Bureau focused not on race but on status, on alleviating the conditions of those who had endured slavery. Diversity matters in a diverse society, and American democracy by definition must push for the inclusion of all marginalized people. But remedies for injustice also need to be specific to the harm.

So we, too, must shift our language and, in light of the latest affirmative-action ruling, focus on the specific redress for descendants of slavery . If Yale, for instance, can apologize for its participation in slavery, as it did last month, then why can’t it create special admissions programs for slavery’s descendants — a program based on lineage and not race — just as it does for its legacy students? Corporations, government programs and other organizations could try the same.

Those who believe in American democracy, who want equality, must no longer allow those who have undermined the idea of colorblindness to define the terms. Working toward racial justice is not just the moral thing to do, but it may also be the only means of preserving our democracy.

Race-based affirmative action has died. The fight for racial justice need not. It cannot.

Top photo illustration by Mark Harris. Photograph by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

A picture with an earlier version of this article was published in error. The image caption, relying on erroneous information from a photo agency, misidentified the man shown as Hobart Taylor Jr. The image has been replaced with a photo of Taylor.

How we handle corrections

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a domestic correspondent for The New York Times Magazine focusing on racial injustice. Her extensive reporting in both print and radio has earned a Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, Peabody and a Polk Award. More about Nikole Hannah-Jones



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