The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States of America

(This reflection was supposed to be published on July 7. It was originally written a week ago, but Fr. Tim’s computer malfunctioned. His data, including this reflection, was successfully recovered. For this week’s Aloha Friday with Fr. Tim, please click here.)

            When I was a little boy, I remember schoolyard conversations that went something like this: “You don’t know Raphael is a better Ninja Turtle than Michelangelo? You’re dumb!” As I got older and entered high school, the conversations became a little more nuanced. “You don’t know how to drive a stick shift? You’re dumb!” Or maybe, “You think Joe Montana is a better quarterback than Dan Marino? You’re dumb!” In fairness, to this day, I like Michelangelo better than Raphael. I do know how to drive a stick shift (as obsolete as that skill is becoming), and I do think Joe Montana was a better quarterback than Dan Marino. But disagreeing about those opinions does not make one of us “dumb.” And nuanced conversation can get us a lot further than simply calling someone names. An appropriate way to go about these discussions might be: “I know Raphael is physically stronger than Michelangelo, but I really value Michelangelo’s playful attitude and his sense of humor. Raphael is too serious for me.” Or, “I understand you are just learning how to drive, so it’s probably difficult to learn how to operate a clutch. Fortunately for me, my dad took me out to the field when I was little and taught me how to drive a stick shift years ago. I had a head start. I’m happy to teach you what I know.” Or, “Yes, Dan Marino was a successful quarterback. But the Dolphins never won a Super Bowl when he was their quarterback. Joe Montana won four Super Bowls with the 49ers and he is one of only a handful of quarterbacks to lead his team to both a college football national championship and a Super Bowl championship.” See how those talking points offer kindness to someone who doesn’t share the same viewpoints?

            I am a firm believer that quality dialogue can be an art form. You know how they say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? I think that’s a good metaphor for productive conversation. If I’m trying to convince you of something, it’s probably a bad idea if I insult you before I get some buy-in from you. And today, it seems like so many people can’t disagree without throwing around insults. People have always disagreed. But these days, especially on social media, I’m seeing disagreement and name calling at a level I didn’t know could possibly exist. People wear insults on their ball caps and t-shirts and bumper stickers and flags. A piece of unsolicited advice: we’re probably not going to win any arguments if we start by calling someone a deplorable, or by wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” t-shirt, or by suggesting that we obtain joy by “drinking the tears” of someone with whom we disagree. If we want someone to see things from our point of view, then it’s important to respect the other person’s humanity and even validate the goodness in their viewpoints.

            Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on some cases that had controversial outcomes. Sadly, the decisions were made along ideological lines. Allow me to say, I don’t believe the Supreme Court ought to support and uphold my opinions. I believe the Supreme Court should interpret the laws and hold all lawmakers accountable. The justices are not supposed to always side with the political party of the president who nominated them. They’re supposed to interpret the laws with as little bias as is humanly possible. Nonetheless, the Court ruled on some hot-button issues. People on one side of the aisle are spiking the political football, while people on the other side are terribly heartbroken. I have noticed name calling from both sides and I would much prefer to see much more civilized conversations sans the vitriol. Believe it or not, people who see things differently very likely have developed their opposing viewpoints from a good place.

            One of the Court’s rulings does away with affirmative action. Affirmative action is a policy that many universities and places of employment have used for a number of decades in an effort to give people of color access to education and workplace opportunities they otherwise would have missed out on. While some people say race should not be a factor in admissions because we ought to use our merits exclusively, other people say that people of color are beginning from a place of disadvantage because of the impact of a history of prejudice. I happen to believe the second argument because I have seen people I love struggle with these disadvantages. When I was in high school, I attended the “rich school” in my community. Our crosstown rival school was older and starting to become run down. The new school was built on the southwest side of town (subsequently, it was given the very cleaver name Southwest High School. Go Eagles!). It educated children from the more affluent families who lived in the more expensive homes and neighborhoods. Southwest had access to the latest state-of-the-art technology, brand new athletic equipment, a beautiful performing arts theatre, and a convenient location. Most of the families who lived in the district were white families, while the families of color were far more likely to live in the other district. Their children attended the older, more run down high school in the center of town (which, by the way, has an equally clever name, Central Union High School). Central had inferior academics and athletics. Many of the seasoned teachers took jobs at Southwest. Central’s equipment and facilities were in disrepair. To succeed academically and athletically at the older high school, it took a lot more effort. The students at that high school already had a built in disadvantage that they did nothing to cause. They simply lived in older, less expensive homes. Statistically speaking, families of color are more likely to have lower incomes, to live in poorer neighborhoods, and to have less access to affordable healthy foods and education opportunities. This is a holdover from the disadvantages their parents had from lack of resources, and that’s a holdover from the disadvantages their parents had for the same reasons and so on. Affirmative action allows children of families who have struggled to get an equal foothold and to potentially level the playing field. Yes, I worked hard in high school. Yes, I am a white person. But yes, I also had advantages I didn’t know about. Some of my peers, especially peers of color, did not have those same advantages. Affirmative action isn’t intended to give people of color advantages over white people. It’s intended to give people of color access to equal treatment that they simply have never been able to achieve because the deck has always been stacked against their success.

            A second hot-button issue the courts ruled on is student loan forgiveness. Essentially, it seems that people who oppose student loan forgiveness say it isn’t fair to them. They paid for their education or they never took out loans, so students who are going to benefit from student loan forgiveness are getting something that other people are simply not getting. This is understandable. It’s also important to note the shifts that took place in the 20th century. In the 1960s, tuition at a public university was around $250 per year. A private school was about four times that, but still a reasonably affordable $1000 per year. In the mid-70s, public schools were about $500 per year and private schools were about $2000. Fast forward to 2000, when I entered college, and a public school cost about $3500 per year and private schools were nearing $20,000 per year. By 2020, public schools were up to around $10,000 per year and private schools were closer to $40,000. And these numbers only represent tuition costs. They don’t factor in room and board or books. At the same time, wages have remained fairly stagnant. So someone who graduated in the 70s could have likely taken out as little as $2000 in student loans, made a salary of around $25,000 per year, and easily paid off their loans. While someone who graduated in 2020 would have racked up more than $200,000 in debt and had to figure out how to pay it down while making a salary of around $40,000 per year. It’s a little harder, isn’t it?

            When I was in high school, everyone older than me told everyone my age that they had to go to college at all costs. “Take out loans if you have to! It’s worth it!” And private schools were seen as the bees’ knees. If you could go to a Harvard or a Stanford or a Notre Dame, then you were part of the “in crowd”! You were elite! Although your salary was probably not any more than that of someone who went to Arizona State at a fraction of the cost. A lot of students signed for loans because the adults in their lives told them it was the right thing to do. “I paid off my loans easily! You’ll be able to do the same!” And then it simply turned out to be untrue. Like affirmative action, student loan forgiveness wasn’t meant as a benefit to people who went to school or hadn’t yet paid their loans. Instead, it was a lifeline. It was meant to lighten a little bit of the burden incurred by crippling student debt. For the record, I have a tremendous amount of student debt. Interestingly enough, I was able to pay for my Notre Dame degree out of pocket and with scholarships. But my seminary education set me back about $200,000. I likely will never earn enough to pay it off before I die. I took out the loans knowing this full well. I make my payments as I am able. But I know I will be saddled with this debt forever. I felt called to enter ministry, which means I felt called to take out student loans. But having a portion of them forgiven would have helped me a bit.

            Sometimes it can be helpful to know the stories of others in order for us to developed fully formed opinions. Some wrongs in society ought to be made right. While some problems are indeed the result of consequences of actions, other problems are the result of unfortunate circumstances. Maybe as a society we need to work on ensuring education costs are not so high. Maybe we need to ensure that wages increase right along with rising costs. My parents bought a house for less than $100,000 30 years ago. These days, you’re lucky to find a new car for less than $70,000. Times are different. Needs are different. And society needs to learn from what has happened in the past. I believe affirmative action can help make up for some of the wrongs that have been caused by history. I also believe that student loan forgiveness can help many families who are simply trying their best. An education is important. I am hopeful that barriers to achieving an education will eventually be lowered, and not increased. I want others to enjoy the same privileges I have enjoyed. And I want it to be easier, and not harder, for them to achieve them.

What do we do When Problems aren’t Easy to Solve?