Affirmative action is being erased all across
The modern assault against black progress in higher education â€“ and collaterally, the future of African-American Studies at white institutions as well â€“ was simultaneously political, economic, cultural, and ideological. There was a dedicated, concerted effort by conservatives to literally turn the discourse of civil rights upside down; in effect, to rewrite the American publicâ€™s memory about what had actually transpired in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.â€™s image and words were cynically manipulated to provide a posthumous endorsement for outlawing affirmative action programs.
An important turning point occurred in
All of this was made possible because the lessons and history of the Civil Rights Movement have been largely erased from the national consciousness. As Ward Connerly, the Negro conservative who led the campaign for Proposition 209, explained: â€œThe past is a ghost that can destroy our future. It is dangerous to dwell upon it. To focus on
White moderates and liberals who had long defended race-based affirmative action programs waffled and largely collapsed before the conservative onslaught. Setting the tone was President William Jefferson Clinton, who in his re-election campaign of 1996 declared that he had â€œdone more to eliminate affirmative action programs I didnâ€™t think were fair and tighten others up than my predecessors have since affirmative action has been around.â€
In 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the Hopwood v. State of
Advocates of affirmative action then largely jettisoned historically-grounded claims to racial justice for blacks, tactically falling back to two more pragmatic approaches: first, race-neutral schemes that would admit a certain fixed percentage of a stateâ€™s graduating high school seniors into a state university system; second, restructuring formerly race-based fellowship programs to include Asians, low-income whites, and others defined either as â€œunderrepresentedâ€ or from â€œdisadvantaged backgrounds.â€ Both of these approaches are highly problematic, from the vantagepoint of African-American and Latino interests.
The fixed percentage approach essentially rewards the existence of racial residential segregation, giving access to minority students living in hypersegregated urban schools, but severely reducing college access to qualified black students attending mixed or predominantly white suburban schools. In Texas, a â€œtop 10 percent planâ€ was adopted in 1997 following the Hopwood decision, and almost immediately both the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, the stateâ€™s two flagship institutions, experienced modest declines in minority student population. By the fall 2002, of the matriculating freshmen, African Americans comprised only 3 percent, and Latinos under 10 percent â€“ in a state where over forty percent of the population is Latino and African American.
In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two lawsuits involving affirmative action programs at the
In effect, the Lewis Powell standard set in Bakke was deemed still constitutional. The initial response from the academic community was that Grutter represented a clear victory for the forces of affirmative action and â€œdiversity.â€ They unfortunately ignored the full weight of the majorityâ€™s opinion on the high court: that universities had to consider prospective students henceforth â€œas individualsâ€ and not to reject or admit them through any programs based primarily or exclusively on racial categories. This part of the ruling was quickly interpreted to mean that all programs within a college or university should not be based primarily or exclusively on racial categories.
From late 2003 through March 2004, in a relatively brief period of time, hundreds of
At the California Institute of Technology, its campus visit program designed for blacks, Latinos, and American Indians was opened to whites and Asian Americans; at Indiana University, its nine-week â€œSummer Minority Research Fellowshipâ€ originally designed â€œto get minority high school and college students interested in medical research by matching them with mentorsâ€ was restructured to recruit Asian Americans and whites; at St. Louis University, a scholarship program annually awarding $10,000 each to 30 African-American students was â€œdisbandedâ€ and substituted with the new â€œMartin Luther King, Jr.â€ scholarships, reduced to $8,000 per student, and accepting applications without consideration of race.
At Williams College in Massachusetts, a pre-doctoral fellowship program, which for more than a decade awarded annually two to five general dissertation stipends to black and Latino advanced graduate students, with the original purpose of increasing minority professors, has been radically opened to anyone regardless of color who is deemed â€œunderrepresented,â€ such as â€œwomen in physics departments,â€ or â€œwhite applicants in Asian Studies.â€
Grutter was no victory. It marked a cruel defeat that will reduce the opportunities for education advancement for thousands of Latino and African-American students in the coming years, all in the name of â€œdiversity.â€
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of Public Affairs, Political Science and History, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at