My first response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the University of Texas case was to breathe a sigh of relief. I had been expecting affirmative action to be ruled illegal. Instead the Court, in effect, said that the University had to prove that non-racial methods were ineffective in creating greater diversity.
We should, however, not be truly relieved by the decision. Affirmative action has been under attack since the 1970s. And since then, the objective of the political Right has been to steadily weaken it, in part through an ideological assault suggesting that it is really not necessary. The results of that ideological assault can be seen in the opinion polls that suggest that only 45% of respondents believe that affirmative action is any longer necessary.
To conclude that affirmative action is no longer necessary one must be looking at a different United States of America. One must be looking at a country that possesses no racial differential in treatment; one must be looking at a USA that has no dead cities with large concentrations of people of color; one must be looking at a USA where funding for schools is not disproportionately biased against communities of color; one must be looking at a USA that has not witnessed the evaporation of land owned by African American and Latino independent farmers. To conclude that affirmative action is no longer necessary, therefore, one must have decided to focus more on the fact that there is an African American in the White House rather than looking at the realities facing people of color in the USA on a daily basis.
To some extent it is understandable that in periods of prolonged economic downturns there will be resentment of groups that are perceived as competitors or holding some sort of unfair advantage. The problem that people of color face, however, is that the advantages are never in our corner.
Take the issue of unemployment as one simple example. Whether in a period of boom or bust, the unemployment levels for African Americans are always at least twice that of whites. For this reason the notion that a rising tide raises all boats is not particularly helpful. There are structural factors that restrict the African American ‘boat’ from rising but so far when the tide comes in.
The task we face, as we come to grips with the Supreme Court’s decision, is the task that has faced progressives in the USA for some time: there needs to be the construction of a movement for social and economic transformation that recognizes that race and racism will not disappear on their own. Addressing economic and social injustice as a whole goes nowhere to the extent to which race and racism are ignored.
This means that a discussion of building struggles for economic justice must include an introduction of the often unsettling question of the manner in which race and racism have not only pitted groups against one another, but how it has been used to suppress the hopes and aspirations of entire populations. There is no way of successfully avoiding the question of race.
Yes, one can believe that affirmative action is no longer necessary and that we have ‘overcome’ historic racist oppression, but then again, one can believe any number of things. As a matter of fact, have you heard that there is a bridge for sale in New York? I can get it for you cheaply…
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a racial justice, labor and international writer and activist. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of three books, the most recent being “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be reached at [email protected] and his website is www.billfletcherjr.com.