The Death Of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is being erased all across America.  To understand how this tragedy happened, we need to review this country’s recent racial history. 


The modern assault against black progress in higher education – and collaterally, the future of African-American Studies at white institutions as well – 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 public’s memory about what had actually transpired in the 1950s and 1960s.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s image and words were cynically manipulated to provide a posthumous endorsement for outlawing affirmative action programs. 


An important turning point occurred in California in November 1996, with the passage of Proposition 209, the so-called “California Civil Rights Initiative.”  Winning by a margin of 54 to 46 percent, the initiative outlawed the use of “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in many aspects of public life.  Thousands of black and Latino voters, confused by the language of the initiative, failed to understand that affirmative action would be outlawed in California, and voted for it. 


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:  “The past is a ghost that can destroy our future.  It is dangerous to dwell upon it.  To focus on America’s mistakes is to disregard its virtues.”


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 “done more to eliminate affirmative action programs I didn’t think were fair and tighten others up than my predecessors have since affirmative action has been around.”  Clinton’s failure to frame the issue of affirmative action around issues of U.S. racial history, and the need to implement measures of compensatory justice for historically oppressed minorities, would prove decisive. 


In 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the Hopwood v. State of Texas decision outlawed the use of race as a factor in admissions to universities.  Initiative 200 in Washington State in 1998 followed California in outlawing affirmative action enforcement.  As a direct consequence, in the first year of Proposition 209’s enforcement, the number of African-American first-year undergraduates enrolling at the Berkeley campus fell from 258 to 95, a 63 percent decline.  At the University of California at Los Angeles, the drop was from 211 black students down to 125 students.


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 state’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 “underrepresented” or from “disadvantaged backgrounds.”  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 “top 10 percent plan” was adopted in 1997 following the Hopwood decision, and almost immediately both the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, the state’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 – 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 University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  The most important of the two decisions, Grutter v. Bollinger, declared that there was a compelling state interest in fostering programs enhancing “diversity,” and that the quality of education was enriched by having individuals from different racial and ethnic backgrounds as part of a university environment.  Therefore, the court declared in its narrow five to four ruling, the use of race as a factor was acceptable, so long as it was applied as a quota. 


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 “diversity.”  They unfortunately ignored the full weight of the majority’s opinion on the high court:  that universities had to consider prospective students henceforth “as individuals” 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 U.S. universities and colleges shut down or significantly transformed their minority-oriented programs.  The list is truly stunning:  at Yale University, a summer pre-registration program for pre-freshmen, “Cultural Connections,” was opened to white participation; at Princeton University, all “race-exclusive programs” were halted, including its Junner Summer Institute that annually brought African-American and Latino college students to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; at Boulder, University of Colorado’s “Summer Minority Access to Research Training Program” was renamed and opened to whites.


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 “Summer Minority Research Fellowship” originally designed “to get minority high school and college students interested in medical research by matching them with mentors” 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 “disbanded” and substituted with the new “Martin Luther King, Jr.” 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 “underrepresented,” such as “women in physics departments,” or “white applicants in Asian Studies.” 


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 “diversity.”


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 Columbia University in New York.   “Along the Color Line” is distributed free of charge to over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable’s column is also available on the Internet at www.manningmarable.net.

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