Race and Class: Segregation Coming Back?

Against the Current, No. 127, March/April 2007

Malik Miah

SINCE THE VOTERS in Michigan approved an anti-affirmative action referendum, Proposition 2, by a 58 to 42% margin in November, banning race and gender preferences in state university admissions, state awarding of contracts, and agency programs and hiring, there has been a great deal of concern among civil rights activists about the steady re-segregation of higher education in the country.

How valid is this concern?

The issue of re-segregation is much more complicated and complex than most civil rights leaders and others who support full equality like to admit. There have been real social, economic and political gains for Blacks since the 1960s that the ruling class, frankly, is not interested in reversing.

At the same time, the Black community, most academics, labor organizations and some employers, were strongly opposed to Prop 2. (Only a minority of conservative Blacks supported the ban.) The majority of opponents believe that the banning of affirmative action programs in higher education can lead to other changes affecting racial diversity in society. This includes threatening the gains won by most middle- and upper-class Blacks who have benefited the most from affirmative action.

African Americans, a minority of the state, however, could not convince others to seek the bigger stakes in the battle over affirmative action.

The Michigan Vote

So what explains the Michigan vote? Again, this shouldn’t be oversimplified.

The majority of white voters, who are not bigots, believed that banning the use of race and gender preferences in public education and employment would lead to more objective and fairer treatment for all students — whether white, Black, Brown, Arab or Asian.

Fear of economic uncertainty was a driving factor for most working-class whites who voted “yes.” For some, it was simply a form of politics of resentment — that African Americans had “won” privileges that they didn’t have. The fact that “white skin” had given them advantages for centuries over people of color had little meaning to these Caucasians.

Next fall, riding this tide, other states are expected to repeat the Michigan vote in what’s being called “Super Tuesday” by Ward Connerly, the California businessman who is the public face of the drive to end affirmative action. New referenda will occur in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Connerly hopes to add more states to that list.

The fact that the counteroffensive against affirmative action began in what most Americans consider one of the great progressive states — California — shows what is won can be taken away, and how even liberal-minded voters can be convinced to turn back the clock.

This determined effort to turn back one of the most important gains of the civil rights revolution is changing the debate on race and racism in a way most of us probably thought impossible even a decade ago. Will it mean the end of diversity on college campuses? Probably not. But it could lead to other setbacks if not resisted and reversed.

Colorblind Argument

How did it happen? The so-called colorblind argument confused many voters. It was and is common to hear that laws have been adopted making it illegal to discriminate and that “30 years of special programs is enough.” These litanies of arguments made by white and Black commentators on Fox News, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and talk radio shows have had an impact.

The fact that the legacy of 400 years of slavery, legal segregation and de facto discrimination remains in housing, employment and education is blown off. The blame-yourself “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” mentality runs deep.

Affirmative action programs were won in the 1960s and 1970s to level the playing field, and eventually to create a diverse society based on full equality for all ethnic groups. If achieved, it would mean a society that was race-neutral and colorblind in terms of opportunities.

African Americans, more so than any group, wish that race were never a negative factor in applying for a home loan, job and school admission. Once you’ve suffered discrimination, the idea of a colorblind reality would be a joy to behold — but wishing it so doesn’t make it reality.

This is why the same African American leaders who organized the civil rights movement, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also supported special programs to move toward that type of society.

Institutional discrimination makes the colorblind society impossible, which is why affirmative action programs were begun in the first place. Racism will persist even after a successful socialist revolution, because of deep seated prejudices; economic equality only lays the basis to end it permanently.

Ward Connerly (and other Black conservatives) play on that desire to be treated as equal human beings (not as Black, white or brown skinned) to push his anti-affirmative action campaign.

Ironically Connerly himself benefited from such a contract program, but doesn’t believe it applies or should apply anymore.

Class and Race

There are, of course, class issues. But class and race, while related, must be taken separately. The class issue for many African Americans is to use their improved economic status to “avoid” serious race discrimination. It can’t happen completely, which is why even the more elite Black students understand the need to defend affirmative action. This includes those who don’t like the “stigma” of being seen as ‘affirmative action” babies.

Take the experiences in California since Prop 209 was passed 10 years ago. While Black enrollment to the freshmen class at the top state colleges is in decline since passage of Prop 209, Black enrollment for the incoming freshmen class of the top private universities is rising.

For example, only 2% of this year’s freshmen class at UCLA is Black. Statewide Blacks make up only 3% of University of California freshmen, although about 7% of the state’s high school graduates are Black.

Yet the Black incoming freshmen enrollment at Sanford University is 11%, up from 8% in 1995. The top Black high school graduates choose private universities. They prefer to be with more of their own and are able to get the scholarships and grants. African Americans like other ethnic groups wish to have fellow African Americans in the classroom. Who wants to be the only Black?

So is there re-segregation of higher education across the board? Yes and no. Yes, there are fewer Blacks in the state universities due to the banning of affirmative action. Yet there is an increase in the number of Blacks at private schools.

Overall more African Americans are graduating from high school and college than anytime in American history — and the numbers continue to increase.

There is a growing class divide among African-American families. The elite students can get into Stanford. There is no explicit issue of affirmative action (unstated goals clearly exist because more students apply than are accepted) since every student at Stanford is at the top of his or her high school class.

At the same time, minority students prefer to be in a diverse environment. That’s why most elite students are going to the top private schools, where active recruitment takes place to create diverse student bodies.

Creative Tools

The end of affirmative action programs in the public schools means that Michigan and other states will likely see similar results as occurred in California — the best going to private schools, and fewer to the top public colleges. In the long run, the loss of diversity hurts society.

What should be done?

The leaders of the public universities in Michigan have initially responded to Prop 2 by seeking creative tools to maintain a diverse student body. At Wayne State University’s law school in Detroit, the school is opening its doors to all who meet the requirements. Other schools are using economic criteria to create more diverse student bodies.

Opponents of affirmative action, of course, are not letting this happen and are threatening legal action. They are going after the concept of “diversity,” saying this is a new form of “discrimination” and an attempt to sneak in affirmative action.

Wayne State’s creative methods led the head of the misnamed Council for Equal Opportunity, Roger Clegg, to reply, “I have a problem when schools adopt what on their face are race-neutral criteria, if they are doing so to reach a predetermined racial and ethnic goal.”

In general, many if not a majority of the current generation of admissions officers are people who sympathize with civil rights. They oppose ending affirmative action in higher education and consciously, as at Wayne State University, are taking steps to safeguard diversity. But what happens when this older generation of administrators is gone? The post-Reagan generation is not as supportive of civil rights and tends to be more conservative.

Achieving Equality

The debate about affirmative action versus colorblindness is really about how to achieve full equality. Most whites tend to use terms like “color blind” and “race neutral” as code words to oppose any remedy to historical discrimination. It’s why those same words confuse the sentiments of African Americans who favor genuine merit — which has never been practiced by society.

Moreover, can a colorblind society be created in a profit-based system without special positive government action? Opponents of diversity, affirmative action and race neutral believe it can. To put in place especial programs, to them, is simply divisive and discriminatory.

Yet many supporters of affirmative action correctly explain that the ideology of capitalism encourages racial discrimination, greed and driving down the wages and benefits of labor. The widening gap between CEOs’ salaries to ordinary workers’ wages (400 to 1) is a result of these deepening class divisions.

What is now popularly called the demise of the middle class (really the working class) is linked to the gains won by the neoconservative ideology of “me, myself and I” — a philosophy, unfortunately, which many working people accept even as they suffer the elimination of pensions, job loses to outsourcing and rising health care costs.

It is a discussion I have regularly participated in at United Airlines as a union representative. Uses of racism are the flip side of the anti-worker and divide and rule policy of the ruling class.

In my view, the issue of affirmative action is not just about re-segregation. It reflects enhancement of white racial privileges on the one hand (best public universities) and class privileges (all ethnic groups) on the other. The elite will continue to be accepted into and attend Stanford and Harvard, while the less affluent (of all races and ethnic groups) will be forced to go to the two-year colleges and the relatively less expensive and competitive state schools.

The elite students will continue to attend the top state colleges as well. But more and more will have the choice of the top private schools. They will tend to pick the Stanfords or other private institutions, where there is an open door policy and more of them present. Why go to UCLA when the minority numbers keep declining under the guise of race neutral policies?

The fact that the Black elite can get into Stanford and MIT, and there are plenty of them to take top jobs in Corporate America and government, is why the segregation of previous generations will not return any time soon. Yet it is a blow to society that broad diversity is in retreat in public education. It can lead to greater isolation and frustration by minority students.

Class-based re-segregation thus will have a negative impact for the broader working- class communities of people of color — and eventually can alter the gains in the private sector if not stopped.

Build a Citizen Movement

How then to reverse the tide and begin to overturn setbacks to higher education and achieve true affirmative action and equality?

It will not begin by legislation. As always, it requires a new citizen based social movement: Legal change follows gains won on the streets or the battlefield.

Bob Herbert, a columnist at The New York Times, made such an observation after President Bush’s State of the Union speech in January.  He wrote in his January 25 column, “Long on Rhetoric, Short on Sorrow:”

“The most effective answer to this leadership vacuum [the failures of the Democrats and others to stand up to the neoconservatives — MM] would be a new era of political activism by ordinary citizens. The biggest, most far-reaching changes of the past century — the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement — were not primarily the result of elective politics, but rather the hard work of committed citizen-activists fed up with the status quo.”

Defense of affirmative action, the defeat of new Proposition 2s and 209s, will require a politically active citizenry ready to stand up and fight. Victories are possible with such a galvanized public.

ATC 127, March-April 2007