Race and Class: Defending Affirmative Action

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Malik Miah

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IS back as a hot political issue. Of course it never ever left — but the right wing of mainstream politics was able to hijack the topic and convince liberals and others to bury it in day-to-day political discussions.

Now George W. Bush, a prime beneficiary of legacy affirmative action (he got into Phillips Academy prep school, Yale University and even Harvard because of his family name and connections, not his academic abilities) has made affirmative action a front-page topic.

His incredible defense of racial diversity on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the context of denouncing racial quotas by opposing an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan (UofM), brought the issue front and center.

Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq and new tax plans to make the rich even richer (he attacks the critics as promoting “class warfare”) quickly pushed his opposition to affirmative action off page one. Yet the issue is still there and will remain as long as racial inequality remains in U.S. society.

UofM’s Points System

Bush, a master politician, brilliantly finessed the issue of affirmative action to keep his right-wing, mostly white, base happy and at the same time gave a nod to conservative Blacks, including those in his cabinet who back affirmative action. He poses as a truly “compassionate conservative” for the rights of all Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

In his King birthday pronouncement Bush falsely claimed that the University of Michigan undergraduate admissions policies are based on racial “quotas.”

Since this is not true, why say it? Because for political purposes it gives Bush the credibility needed to convince the rabid racists in the extreme right wing of the Republican Party that he’s not giving an inch on social justice.

To call the UofM admissions policy a “quota based” program, which is illegal, makes that possible.

Strong reaction to the pro-segregation comments of former Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi led some liberals to believe the Bush administration would not intervene in the Michigan case. His conservative base was concerned too and pressed “for” intervention.

Bush pretends to speak as a compassionate centrist on race while acting as a rightist. So the American people get his nod for “diversity.”

“I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education,” Bush said. “But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race.”

NYT: “Smoke Screen”

The lie was so blatant it even forced the editors of The New York Times to write on January 18 in an editorial titled, “An Anti-Quota Smoke Screen:”

“The Bush administration sacrificed truth for political gain, [T] he administration has clearly decided the best way to appease its right-wing supporters without alienating the rest of the country is to disguise its anti-affirmative action agenda as an anti-quota crusade. The administration should start leveling with the American people about race, and it should stop trying to turn back the clock.”

For the record, the undergraduate admissions policy at UofM is based on a system that gives points for many factors, including race (150 points in all). Half the points are awarded on the basis of how well the applicant did in high school.

It also awards twenty points for students who get athletic scholarships and twenty points if one has a “socioeconomic disadvantage” (meaning poor); legacy points are awarded if one’s grandparents attended UofM, still other points are awarded if one is planning on studying a non-traditional subject (a male nursing student or a woman engineering student). The provost, at his discretion, can award twenty points.

Those getting extra points for racial or ethnic background are from underrepresented groups in the state, including African Americans. The system also gives extra points for underrepresentative geographical areas, such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (largely rural and white).

No Black is automatically admitted by the points system, which is why it isn’t a true preference or quota system.

The second lawsuit against UofM is directed toward the law school, which simply flags the files of underrepresented students of color for further consideration. The law school seeks “a critical mass” of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, based on the educational policy that without the presence of these students it would be impossible to have enough of a cross section for an exchange of views within the law school classroom.

The Real Issue: Inclusion

The issue of affirmative action is not about race “per se” but about inclusion. Historically African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans have not been allowed to attend the major universities. It took the victory of the civil rights movement in the 1960s to begin to change admissions policies.

President Johnson issued an executive order granting affirmative action in the federal government and those who do business with the government to set aside certain work or jobs for Blacks to make up for the country’s racist past.

It is notable that Johnson did not take the issue of affirmative action to Congress because the Dixiecrats in his own party and a majority of Congress would have opposed it.

The result of affirmative inclusion in the public sector led to battles in the private sector to integrate all aspects of U.S. society. It took more protests and legal actions (at United Airlines, for example, it took a consent decree) to begin to allow African Americans a seat at the table in higher education, in skilled trades, and other segregated institutions.

So, to use a popular example, if there are 200 qualified people (including 20 Blacks) but only 100 spots, without affirmative action (inclusion) the traditional legacies of wealth, alumni status, etc., will likely mean all 100 slots will go to white men.

Affirmative action said, for diversity sake, the 100 slots must reflect society. And women, both white and minority, have made big strides with the adoption of this concept.

Military Example

The institution that made the most progress at inclusion based on affirmative action is the military. Since there are limited number of slots at the academies, in all cases it took intervention by the highest authorities to make it happen.

Why did the military do it? They needed to have an effective fighting machine. “Affirmative action began at the service academies in the ’70s due to political pressure and a critical need to provide more diverse leaders in America’s military,” writes Albert R. Hunt in the January 23 Wall Street Journal (not a publication noted for its support of affirmative action).

“’You can’t have increasingly Black and Hispanic enlisted ranks,’ notes retired General Dan Christman, foirmer superintendent of West Point, `and not have Black officers, lieutenants, captains, and generals.’ In his Vietnam-era class of 1965, Gen Christman recalls, there were only four African Americans out of a class of 950.”

The Black and Latino makeup of the three major academics is way beyond all other institutions: US Naval Academy, 1971: 8%, 2001: 15.1%; West Point, 1971: 6.7%, 2001: 10.9%; US Air Force Academy, 1971: 9.6%, 2001: 14%.

Compare these statistics to the University of Michigan and its undergraduate admissions policy. According to data provided by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Blacks in the student body: 8.1%; of Black faculty: 4.7%. About 14% of Michigan residents are Black.

This is typical of the top academic universities. In California, where affirmative action became illegal in 1996 with Proposition 209, there is a steady decline of Blacks in the student bodies at the top schools, especially in graduate colleges.

In fact, where the anti-affirmative action law is being implemented to its fullest, there is a decline in Black and Latino inclusion in student bodies. Only where efforts have been made by administrators who support student bodies that reflect the state’s population and favor genuine diversity and inclusion has progress been maintained.

It is a myth that those with the highest SAT scores are the best qualified. Good test taking is directly correlated with one’s socioeconomic status. It does not predict future success, either in college or in life.

Yet since all power remains in the hands of white men, the real news story is the return to more segregated universities and particularly public schools. The end of crosstown busing programs in public education has quickly lead to the resegregation of urban public schools.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, one year after the busing program was terminated, “white flight” changed integrated schools into schools with 100% African-American student bodies.

This is not an accident. It reflects how far-reaching institutionalized discrimination is when integration is viewed as a “lowering of standards.” Money and power, and demagogy by politicians like Bush, are why legal action with teeth is required.

The set asides that Johnson used — quotas — are still necessary to keep up the inclusion of qualified minorities in all aspects of society. Facts are stubborn things and every African American knows the truth about race and opportunities.

The hypocrisy and cynicism of the Republican and conservative right is seen by Bush’s announcement, a few days after King’s birthday, to increase government spending by 5% for grants to historically Black colleges and those where at least 25% of the students are Hispanic.

These were institutions established during legal segregation in the South and few could attend the de facto segregated schools like the University of Michigan in the North. It smells and sounds like a “quotas” system is okay when it’s from “those colleges.”

Impact On Society

Affirmative action for the excluded sections of the population has not just benefited African Americans. The biggest gains in fact were not for the Black middle class, as some conservatives claim. Instead women (whites and Blacks) achieved positions and jobs they had been excluded from because of skin color and sex.

The famous Title IX in collegiate sports for women was won in 1974 as a byproduct of the civil rights victory. It upgraded women’s status to that of men in terms of money spent on sport programs. Title IX is now under attack with the sexist slur that women sports are taking money from more popular men’s programs.

All advances in inclusion made by Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, women and gays are a result of affirmative action gains. Affirmative action thus has had a far greater impact on society than just for one race. It has led to integration of higher education and the workplace.

But it also true that as soon as gains were won the right sought to take them back.

Corporate America Divided

Corporate America is also divided on the topic, depending on whether it has a lot of business abroad, particularly in Third World countries, and whether it is farsighted enough to recognize the changing demographics. (It is likely that by 2050 ethnic minorities could be the majority.)

Not surprisingly thirty large corporations plan to file a friend of court brief supporting Michigan’s admissions policy. They include Microsoft, General Motors and Bank One. As Bank One’s chief legal adviser told Business Week (January 27), “diversity is good business.”

Bush and his conservative legal team know this too. But their political base is mainly white Christian fundamentalist and white workers (blue collar and professionals) who falsely believe their sons and daughters are losing out to “less qualified” Blacks in higher education and in better-paying jobs.

They don’t challenge the forms of affirmative action available for alumni, sports, and other non-merit criteria that benefit mainly those of the upper classes and with white skin. Nor do they understand the real history of U.S. racism and what it would take to build a society in which there was equal opportunity.

Bush understands this psychology well, which is why he must attempt to square the circle. He knows that race does matter in U.S. society and he is milking it politically. It’s also why his court brief does not call for reversing the infamous Bakke ruling of 1978 that all right-wing conservatives are eager to overturn. From Bush’s perspective, if it happens, that’s great, but he will not explicitly make that call.

The Bakke Decision

The 1978 University of California Regents v. Bakke was a landmark decision. It made quotas illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race could only be used as a factor in admissions to higher education.

Bakke was seen as a defeat by civil rights organizations at the time. It laid the basis for future attacks in California, Texas and Florida and other decisions in the 1990s to end affirmative action in both the public and private sectors.

Once affirmative action was outlawed in Texas, supporters of racial diversity developed a plan where the top 10% of all high school graduates in the state are automatically admitted to the major public colleges. While that initiative has maintained the percentage of Latino and Blacks at the undergraduate colleges, it does not address graduate programs.

Groups led by conservatives, however, opposed even this nod to diversity, charging that all affirmative action programs, including backdoor ones under the title of “diversity,” were forms of reverse discrimination and racist. Discrimination is discrimination according to William Bennett (white), Ward Connerly (African American) and Linda Chavez (Hispanic) no matter the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow or other racist laws, if it undermines the relative advantages of those with a white skin.

Declaring their opponents race baiters (or promoting “racial warfare”) is also a tactic of the extreme right and so-called compassionate conservatives. For Bush, the muddled mind of white working people on race is key to winning reelection in 2004.

At the same time, the growing voting potential of minority communities requires that Bush give lip service to “diversity,” all the while undermining real steps toward full equality. Ironically Bakke is now the last line of defense of modest affirmative action programs.

Rice and Powell

Those in Bush’s inner circle who still back modest affirmative action support this convoluted and demagogic strategy. After stating her support of Bush’s position on UofM, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said there are occasions when “it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body.”

As the first African-American provost at Stanford University Rice told a faculty senate meeting in 1998 that she was “a beneficiary of a Stanford strategy that took affirmative action seriously.” Yet as provost she refused to ensure affirmative action in the graduate programs.

Bush’s top African-American cabinet member, Secretary of State Colin Powell, also supports, and was a beneficiary of, affirmative action while in the military. He came out in support of the University of Michigan points system, saying affirmative action is still important.

Yet neither Rice nor Powell sees this issue as urgent enough to break with the racist base of the Republican Party or with Bush. Political support to the overall conservative agenda is clearly more important than achieving progress in equality for minorities.

While leading Democrats have expressed support for affirmative action and the Michigan case, they have done little to promote such programs since the Bakke decision. Clinton was famous for talking up Black issues while adopting programs (gutting welfare, for example) that weakened past gains.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a leading presidential contender, is one of the most hawkish Democrats for war and a strong opponent of quotas. The Democrats are simply scoring points with no intention of taking on the racists in their own party. African-American voters are simply taken for granted.

The political conundrum for Bush and the Republican Party, on the other hand, is how to step up their appeal to minorities, who face the legacy of discrimination in their daily lives, and a white voter base still fooled by rightist demagogues.

The latter will always believe they are the victims of reverse discrimination so long as defense of affirmative action inclusions is not seen as solidarity between workers, and thus in all working people’s interests.

Yet polls do indicate that whites are for helping poor people of all races gain entrance into college. They just haven’t made the connection that continued racial discrimination affects the Black and Latino population in unique ways.

Affirmative action is not about paying back historical racism but dealing with the real racism of today. Diversity is necessary because there is no such thing as a color blind or race neutral society so long as the powerful elite, to maintain the wealth inequalities inherent under capitalism, promotes class and racial divisions.

What the Bush team is doing is passing the ball to the Supreme Court, which has shown itself more than willing to give the right wing the politically clear decisions  it demands. Since leaders of the civil rights groups are on the defensive and have no strategy to fight back, defense of affirmative action will fall primarily to the new generation of activists on college campuses.

ATC 103, March-April 2003