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I knew that when the United States supreme court decided recently to hear a major case involving race-conscious admissions at a US college, it had also decided, regrettably, to re-open decades-old wounds and ugliness around the issue of affirmative action. These are wounds that have divided Americans, black and white, male and female, the wealthy versus the underrepresented, since the term "affirmative action" was first coined by President John F Kennedy in the early 1960s, and subsequently initiated and applied by Presidents Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) and Richard Nixon (a Republican).
Indeed, affirmative action is such a messy and controversial subject that President Obama's White House has barely uttered a word about this new episode, and neither Democratic nor Republican leaders, in this presidential campaign cycle, want to touch it either. But when the supreme court's nine-month term begins in October, one month before the electorate votes for the next president, you can bet it will be a part of the political debate leading to the November election.
This current matter involves a young white woman named Abigail Fisher, who says she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. In the state of Texas students in the top 10% of high schools academically are automatically admitted to the public university system. It is not an initiative that considers race, but it does produce greater racial diversity because so many Texas high schools are multicultural. Fisher barely missed the cut with this policy, but she therefore entered another applicant pool where race does play a role in the selection process. She was not admitted, and sued the school in 2008.
It should be noted that Fisher will be graduating very soon from Louisiana State University, but she has continued on with this battle. Her argument is that Texas has a double standard. On the one hand, it says it has a race-neutral posture on college admissions. On the other, her lawyers maintain that Texas has a race-conscious procedure that discriminates against white students. Texas officials respond that their policy is the only way to guarantee more students of color are able to attend Texas public colleges and universities.
The hearing will follow a 2003 judgment involving the University of Michigan, Grutter v Bollinger, where the high court ruled that public colleges and universities couldn't use a point system to increase enrollment of underrepresented communities, but could take race and culture into account in more obscure ways to produce a more inclusive academic setting. At that time, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, since retired, declared that in 25 years' time (that is, 2028), there would no longer be a need for racial preferences in college admission decisions, or affirmative action.
I understand why Justice O'Connor said that, but I respectfully and strongly disagree. Racism, as well as class prejudice, are alive and well at every level of the American social order. Moreover, affirmative action, like the civil rights movement itself, is not solely about lack people, but also about Latinos, Native Americans, poor people, women, persons with disabilities, and the LGBT community, too – essentially, any group that has been historically marginalized and discriminated against in our nation.
For my immediate community, black Americans, we are still living with the tragic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, which was a legalized form of racial apartheid. Conservatives will have you believe those things are of the past, but that is not so when we are talking about the kind of affirmative action, rooted in racism and skin privilege, that benefited and supported white American privilege from the founding of this country onward.
It can even be argued that historic social justice measures like the New Deal and the GI Bill mostly helped whites to survive in tough times and to progress. And we certainly can make a strong case for the kinds of government "help" that wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations in America have gotten during this long economic recession. But a narrow and reactive view of affirmative action elicits finger-pointing and blaming without any historical or socio-economic context whatsoever.
The whole point of affirmative action has always been to level the playing field, to give those who have not had any opportunities because of their color or class background a chance at the American dream. Even Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of conservative ideologues, supported affirmative action in instances where two candidates presented equivalent credentials and one was a member of an underrepresented population. But because some do not want real diversity and real advancement for all citizens to happen in America, affirmative action has been attacked non-stop, right from the start.
In the 1970s, it was the infamous Bakke case, in which a white male felt he had been rejected twice by a medical school because of his race. The supreme court thus outlawed inflexible quota systems in affirmative action programs, which, in this case, had unfairly discriminated against a white applicant. In that same ruling, however, the court upheld the legality of affirmative action as such.
In the 1980s, when I was a college student on a full financial aid package designed for poor inner city kids, conservatives lashed out against "racial quotas" and "preferential treatment". Ignored in this bombast was the fact that kids like me were the first in our immediate families ever to go to college. Why didn't my mother, grandparents and so on ever get to college, or even get out of high school (my mother has an eighth-grade education)? Good old American racism: the kind of discrimination that, in fact, has never confronted white immigrants from Europe, then or now.
If the conservative-leaning supreme court rules in favor of Abigail Fisher, and against affirmative action in general, it would be catastrophic, mainly, for black and Latino students at American colleges and universities. And how ironic that Justice Clarence Thomas, who attended an exclusive, wealthy, private institution (Holy Cross) as an "affirmative action baby", might cast one of the deciding votes to strike down a policy by which he himself had benefited.
Cultural diversity would go out the window, and US campuses would begin to look much as they did prior to the civil rights movement. Indeed, many already do. I know because I do about 100 college lectures per year nationwide: despite the significant racial and cultural progress since affirmative action was implemented, higher education still falls far short of reflecting America's rainbow coalition reality.
And how do you level the playing field between young people who attend elite prep schools and those who attend underfunded schools that do not offer advance placement courses, etc in the same fashion as elite prep schools? And by what criteria is one candidate judged to be more qualified than another? American colleges and universities always give preferential treatment to athletes, musicians, and others who might not qualify under the normal admissions process. Is there a prevailing American interest in having diverse populations at colleges and universities, whether they are state-run or private?
And how can we claim, at our public and private institutions for higher learning, that we are producing the next wave of national and global leaders, if we are not exposing those leaders to the great diversity of our planet? Finally, why would any American of any background, or any college student, for that matter, want to live in society where there is never an opportunity to co-exist with and learn from people who are different from you?
Regardless of how the supreme court ultimately rules, we Americans have to ask ourselves whether affirmative action is to blame for our racial and cultural divides. Or is the real culprit a misguided nostalgia for the privileges of segregation, even if that wounds us all in the process?