Illustration of Anita Earls '81
Illustration by Megan Piontkowski

Adapted from this year’s Convocation Address, given by Bicentennial Medalist Anita Earls ’81.

Anita Earls ’81 is an American civil rights attorney, educator and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina

Never underestimate your power when you bring your full self to the table. That is the heart of what democracy means and why diversity matters.

Coming to Williams as the daughter of a Black man and a white woman who married when it was illegal in many places for them to marry, this was the first time I had to think about what my full self might mean in an environment where I didn’t have the comfort of my family around me.

In the fall of 1980, I would not have predicted that our Homecoming Weekend would see a cross burning on campus and greater attention to what it meant to be a Black student at Williams in that era. Some of the biggest influences that have stayed with me from my time at Williams are the people who came to campus, including Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Bernice Reagon was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers in the Albany State University movement in Georgia in the 1960s. As a high school student, she was protesting, going to jail and singing freedom songs. Later, she was interviewed about what she learned from that experience.

In my junior year, I wrote out her words on yellow, lined note paper and put it up on the wall in my room. She says, “What I’ve had since the Civil Rights Movement is a better knowledge of who I am in this society, an understanding of my power as a person to stand and speak and act on any issue that I feel applies to me in some way and therefore to other people.” We should have a say in the decisions that affect our lives. There are so many issues, interests, social justice movements I could draw on, but I want to say a word about two civil rights cases that the U.S. Supreme Court decided earlier this year. In Allen vs. Milligan, the court struck down Alabama’s congressional districts because they violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court said Alabama must draw two congressional districts that give African Americans in that state an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. In the weeks following that decision, the Alabama legislature openly defied the U.S. Supreme Court.

Contrast that with the reaction to Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard and UNC. The court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment does not permit Harvard, UNC and any other institution to consider race as a factor in deciding who to admit, widely understood as an end to affirmative action programs in higher education. In the weeks since that decision, immediate compliance has been the record, and some say there is overcompliance.

What explains the difference in reaction to these rulings? I would start by looking at whose rights are being vindicated in the different decisions. And just to say a word about the Students for Fair Admissions opinion: The court ultimately concluded that diversity is something we can’t measure, so we can’t evaluate it as a court—so we can’t say it passes constitutional muster. That’s the same critique that underlies the court’s decision to conclude that partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of districts in a way that unfairly advantages one political party over another, can’t be evaluated under the Constitution, because we can’t measure it.

This notion of institutional incapacity of the court system is counterfactual. Courts all the time make judgments about these kinds of things. They are things that can be measured. And at its core, I believe the opinion rests on a false premise. One of the quotes in the opinion: “Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” Which of our institutions was founded on or even now can be said to be based on equality?

That brings me to another fundamental flaw in the legal doctrine, the notion that affirmative action cannot be justified as a measure to remedy past discrimination. That was the holding in Bakke back in 1978. The civil rights community considered that decision a defeat—a loss—and we are now seeing the full ramifications of that loss in the current jurisprudence.

So what can you do about that? I want to return to Bernice Reagon. She goes on in the interview to say, “I learned that I did have a life to give for what I believed.”

When you understand that you do have a life—you do have a body—and you can put that on the line, it gives you a sense of power. Whatever you do for your day job, you can trade stocks, write code and compose symphonies and still fully participate in democracy.

We need watchdogs and whistleblowers. We need influencers and thought leaders. There are advocates and allies. And organizers and catalysts for change.

These are elements of civic engagement. Voting is only one way to participate in democracy, and being fully engaged is how you bring your full self to your community.

If I’m right that democracy and justice require each of us to bring our full selves to participate in society, then there’s no room for anyone to believe that they don’t belong. By virtue of being human, you belong. And if you’re feeling that society’s representation is not really who you are, take heart.

Bringing your full self is about figuring out which battles to fight for your space and when it won’t diminish you to just let go. It’s about understanding that you have all that you need right inside you and in community with others.

For full coverage of 2023 Convocation, visit williams.edu/convocation.

Megan Piontkowski is an illustrator living and working in Brooklyn, N.Y. She loves making illustrations of food and recipes, politics, portraits and how-tos.