The 6 to 3 decision by the Supreme Court rejecting affirmative action at colleges and universities brings to mind an article that I wrote awhile back whose arguments are still relevant today.
The decision comes at a time when there is an increasing trend of competition for resources with some students and conservative organizations claiming that there is “reverse” discrimination in the admissions policies of numerous colleges. The cases are also coming when there is increasing competition for limited local and federal education funds and when racial discrimination is being written off as though it did not exist anymore. Memory is short, and some critics have forgotten how segregation divided this country not too long ago.
Today, there are those who argue that affirmative action has resulted in the development of a growing middle class among underrepresented minorities. They also argue that such policies do not serve the needs of those who are stuck at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. What they fail to point out is how affirmative action has helped in opening the doors to social mobility for some of these same individuals now in the “middle class.”
Critics also argue that we need “class-based” solutions such as full employment, national health care and quality education that can pull everyone up simultaneously. What they fail to point out is how people of color, even if they reach middle-class status, confront unequal resources and a glass ceiling that prevents them from moving into managerial positions.
Critics are hiding behind the argument that we need to strive for a “color blind” society, arguing that affirmative action only serves to divide working people by allowing one group to benefit at the expense of another. This logic leaves out that specific groups, because of racism and sexism, have been historically excluded or left at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. It leaves out the historical existence and use of special preferences for those who are more privileged, such as the children of large donors or alumni.
Affirmative action has not only resulted in diversifying our campuses with more women and students of color, but it has also been part of a movement to diversify the curriculum. Affirmative action has helped to pave the way for underrepresented groups to attend college, to graduate and to write the histories of individuals who have been excluded or left out. Affirmative action has been part of including these voices, to explain why one group got stratified at one level as compared to another and to interpret why some groups were institutionalized at the lowest levels of the society.
There would be no need for affirmative action if every individual who wanted to attend college were granted that right.
In the meantime, we need to support efforts that consider race, ethnicity, gender, and economic status in admissions policies. Real unity among all those concerned will be brought about as we direct our energies to the policy-making arena and promote the idea that there is no contradiction in preserving affirmative action alongside “class- based” solutions.