Race and Class: Diversity or Equality?

Against the Current, No. 106, September/October 2003

Malik Miah

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (Martin Luther King Jr., August 28, 1963)

THIS QUOTE IS often cynically cited and abused by conservatives–Black and white–to justify their deep hostility toward affirmative action. Yet King understood better than most that to achieve a “colorblind” society based on merit and content of character required support to affirmative action, to make up for historical and institutional discrimination.

Passing a few laws outlawing segregation, he argued, could never make up for the centuries of affirmative privileges for whites.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the University of Michigan’s undergraduate’s admissions policies in June, in its substance, is a blow to educational equality and fairness–although many liberals see the Court’s decisions as a “victory” for affirmative action because it didn’t explicitly ban use of race as a factor in admissions.

 (Ward Connerly, architect of the California ballot initiative that outlaws affirmative action in that state, has launched an effort to put similar language on the Michigan ballot next year.)

The high fives in the civil rights communities occurred only because most supporters of affirmative action–and most opponents, too–expected the high court to give the ultraright a slam dunk victory. It didn’t, but the sighs of relief do not lessen the essence of the rulings as a further step-by-step erosion of civil rights gains won by African Americans and others since the 1960s.

“Diversity” is a Diversion

A sober reading of the two rulings makes it clear what the decisions represent. President Bush–a declared opponent of affirmative action–understood that the right did win as he hailed the Court’s two rulings:

“I applaud the Supreme Court for recognizing the value of diversity on our nation’s campuses. Diversity is one of America’s greatest strengths. Today’s decisions seek a careful balance between the goal of campus diversity and the fundamental principle of equal education under the law.”

“Diversity” is becoming the new codeword to maintain the unequal status quo, where relative white privileges are not modified except on the edges. Achieving diversity is now a diversion from the real battle of achieving full equality for African Americans.

Affirmative action, or what the British call “positive discrimination” (my preference), aims to overcome discrimination caused by legal segregation and the legacy of slavery in U.S. society.

In the face of a massive civil rights movement in the 1960s, a majority of the public went along or even backed affirmative action in Executive Orders issued by Johnson and Nixon. But the racist backlash finally led to the end of strict goals and quotas, a prohibition codified in the infamous Bakke ruling of 1978.

The Supreme Court rejection of quotas in Bakke gave the right the motivation to push for the end of affirmative action leading to new restrictions in California, Texas and Washington State in the 1990s.

That’s the context of the recent rulings. The Court never makes law outside the context of politics and what has been won or lost in the street. The civil rights laws came after the battles in Selma, Birmingham and across the South. Polarization on the issue remains strong and divisive in the public. It is why the Court gave a mixed ruling.

Why Bush is Correct

The University of Michigan’s undergraduate’s admission policies, giving Black applicants an extra twenty points toward 150 total for admission, was declared illegal.

In the second ruling concerning the Law School, by a 5-4 vote (with Sandra Day O’Connor the crucial “swing vote”) the Court said the issue of “race” is acceptable as one factor for achieving diversity, but only on an individual-by-individual basis. Racial groups are no longer a legal category.

Bush correctly recognized that the 6-3 ruling is a major victory for the right wing–even if some of them are enraged–since it overturned the undergraduate admissions program. It means race can be used as one factor, but cannot be given the extra weight as the U of M undergraduate program did.

No matter how one looks at it, this ruling makes it more difficult to come up with effective programs to begin to close the gap in unequal education opportunities for Blacks.

What was overt must become covert. Pro-affirmative action administrators will face scrutiny as they decide who gets the limited number of slots. More litigation is inevitable, as the right follows the process like a hawk.

The ultraright solution to the problem of discrimination is simply to end all mention of race. The editors of the Wall Street Journal, a leading conservative voice, called the Supreme Court’s narrow ruling allowing “race” as a factor a form of “racial discrimination.” (June 24 editorial, “Supreme Court Quotas”)

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion also irks the right because it endorses the concept of “diversity” as being in the country’s national interest. She echoes several of the friends of the court briefs filed by big corporations and top military commanders who operate in a global economy and see it as necessity in the “war on terror.”

These elites understand, in practical terms, that the old-style all-white picture of top managerial and professional layers is no longer an option. But the rightists see “diversity” as keeping the discussion they hate–on affirmative action and racism–in the center of American politics. It is an issue of principle for them.

Thomas Objects to “Stigma”

Black conservatives see the issue in personal terms. Clarence Thomas, the only African-American Justice, strongly opposed the majority’s ruling for the same reasons as the right but adds a personal touch.

Thomas argues affirmative action is a “stigma” for successful Blacks because it implies they got discriminatory help. Thomas, who did benefit from affirmation action and from his skin color, believes that all whites see him and others like him as affirmative action babies who aren’t capable of making it on their own. In his case, it’s probably true.

Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of A Dream Deferred, agrees. He wrote in the June 26 <MI>Wall Street Journal <D>that the ruling is a victory for “white guilt,” and that “we’re now at the threshold of legally sanctioned racialism.”

Hyperbole aside, affirmative action programs are not the source of that “shame.” The main real problem with the debate over affirmative action is that it focuses on quotas and goals, and not the root cause of the battle for equality: institutional racism that is structured within the capitalist profit system.

Role of Net Wealth

Wealth determines power. And net wealth is still in the hands of upper-class whites. Without property it is impossible for working people to gain political power, which is why in every Third World country farmers fight to take over the land stolen by the big landowners–local and foreign based.

In U.S. history farmers and workers sought control over their lives by gaining more property. Racism affected how this occurred: When white settlers moved West, the Homestead Act gave them the right to stake 160 acres for their use. But when former slaves were freed after the Civil War, the government refused to grant the “40 acres and the mule” needed by ex-slaves to survive and build wealth.

After World War II whites as a “racial” group were allowed to get cheap loans to buy homes, and over the next fifty years used that equity to put their kids in colleges and technical schools and to live a better life in retirement.

The typical Black family, however, was unable to get loans because of “redlining.” When they could, the whites would flee the nearby property, which led to immediate drops in property values.

My old neighborhood on the East side of Detroit is a case in point. When my parents bought their first house in the mid-1950s its value barely changed over the fifteen years before they sold it.

Worse, after the 1967 rebellion, property values dropped in most Black neighborhoods. Yet my white friends’ parents who moved to the suburbs saw their homes’ average value shoot up tenfold.

Home equity is how most working-class Americans survive recessions, and the vehicle to improve their lives. Racism gives Blacks less net wealth that often leads to poverty, homelessness and negative impact on the next generation.

Moving Forward

The big changes since the 1960s involve the rise of a Black middle class that can afford to live in integrated, more stable communities. The net wealth of these families is growing.

That’s why one of the most important laws won was the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This along with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act opened the door for ending legal segregation. But institutional racism continues to undermine the wealth factor for Black families.

The media and opponents of affirmative action rarely talk about inequalities of wealth and why it exists. The typical Black family’s net wealth remains ten to twenty times less than the average white family.

The challenge for civil rights supporters today is to recognize the blow of the Court’s decisions, while acknowledging the silver lining. The fact that the concept of race is still legal, as a basis for individual consideration, gives an opportunity to push back and fight for affirmative action programs with teeth.

The key to winning King’s dream for full equality will be mass direct political action that can bring fundamental changes to the profit-driven capitalist system. Then and only then can working people of all colors and races achieve a race-neutral and color-blind society.

ATC 106, September-October 2003