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Constitutional scholars have long construed the Equal Protection Clause as containing two dueling visions: anticlassification and antisubordination. Scholars advancing the first view contend that the Clause prohibits the government from racially classifying people. But scholars promoting the second view argue that racial classifications are permissible—provided that the government does not engage in racial subjugation. On no issue have these competing perspectives clashed more intensely than affirmative action. Where the anticlassification view deems those policies unconstitutional for exhibiting race consciousness, the antisubordination view finds them permissible because they do not racially subjugate anyone. Conventional antisubordination scholars portray the concept’s support for affirmative action as one part of its larger intellectual program that inexorably champions racial egalitarianism.

This Article challenges that conventional account by demonstrating that antisubordination’s career has been far more protean, complex, and—above all—strange than scholars typically allow. Some of the most reviled opinions in Supreme Court history were predicated upon antisubordination rhetoric, as that concept has been used both to challenge and to maintain racist regimes. Legal luminaries from across the ideological spectrum, moreover, have often contended that affirmative action marks Black and brown people as substandard. Indeed, it is impossible to understand last Term’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College without foregrounding antisubordination’s multiplicity. That decision introduced “antisubordination” into the U.S. Reports, reframed how affirmative action subjugates racial minorities, and witnessed the Justices talking past each other by wielding the concept in divergent fashions. Grappling with antisubordination’s complexity remains urgent today because the theory has been exported to an ever-growing, astonishingly diverse array of legal domains.

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