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Affirmative Action and After

Winter 2009 |
Racial inequities have simply not been replaced by class inequities.
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A recent column in the alumni newsletter of my alma mater, the University of Mississippi, is headlined "We Have Legacies." The quote is lifted from the column and would ordinarily evoke the world of Southern landed gentry. A photograph on the page, however, shows the author to be an African-American woman, thereby turning another Old South stereotype on its head at a school that already has cast off many symbols of its all-white history. The battle flag of the Confederacy is no longer displayed at Ole Miss football games, for instance, and "Dixie" is no longer sung loudly in the stands.

The author is my former classmate and a member of the Ole Miss student hall of fame, as are her daughter and numerous other African-American alumni. She notes certain responsibilities associated with what she calls legacy status at Ole Miss, such as leadership and humanitarian spirit. She writes passionately about second-generation members of black families now enrolled there and praises those whose courageous sacrifices made it all possible, including "people of various races, backgrounds, and age groups."

"I am the beneficiary of those sacrifices," she wrote.

So am I, I thought.

Since its founding in 1848, Ole Miss has reluctantly relinquished traditions; until nearly half a century ago, one such tradition was to exclude blacks from admission. Yet in recent years, despite its racially charged history, the school has strategically employed affirmative action to welcome minority students, and the effort has succeeded. African Americans now make up nearly 15 percent of the student body, three times the enrollment during my time there in the 1970s. The black students on campus--including those walking at the very spot where riots broke out in 1962 when James Meredith integrated the university--are legacies of affirmative action.

To be sure, affirmative action at Ole Miss has not been without its detractors, including members of old-line white-legacy families. That being the case, and now that blacks are part of the school's alumni establishment, I wonder when debate over the future of affirmative action will begin. For my part, I have started to question a tenet I once resolutely held, taking a position that would make the author of the newsletter column wince. I believe it is time to reconsider affirmative action.

The question is as old as affirmative action itself, which can be traced back to March 6, 1961, when President Kennedy created the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and directed its members to "consider and recommend additional affirmative steps" to eliminate racial discrimination in government employment. Codified as law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action has been upheld by the Supreme Court in University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978) and again in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), which originated at the University of Michigan law school. Both decisions generated countless analyses by legal scholars, political scientists, and sociologists, and I've studied many of the arguments through the years while strongly supporting the law. After all, like my Ole Miss classmate, I am one of its beneficiaries. Grutter v. Bollinger and its companion case Gratz v. Bollinger hit especially close to home because I attended the University of Michigan as a graduate student on a minority-student scholarship governed by the admissions policy challenged in the lawsuit.

My time in Michigan introduced me to a world of ideas beyond the provincial South--I had grown up in Mississippi's closed society--and provided an intellectual transformation that still resounds in my life. I arrived in Ann Arbor when literary-theory debates were active in English departments across the country yet had not made their way to my corner of the South. I followed them with rapt attention. Deconstruction challenged the way we all thought about literature, making us read and recontextualize what we read rather than think strictly in terms of genres of literature. Looking back, I realize that if I had not had a middle-class background and college-educated parents, I would not have thrived at Michigan. But I also know that the ideas I found transformative were considered routine by my fellow graduate students, the white students who had grown up with broader cultural experiences than mine. The gap between my middle-class experience and theirs was bridged in part by affirmative action.

Not long ago, whenever I heard conservative commentators say that the University of Michigan's affirmative-action system is fatally flawed, that it should be "colorblind," my reaction, based on my experiences there, was one of emotional rejection. I'd heard that line before, in defense of the separate-but-equal schools that created gaps in my education. But after studying Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion in the 5-4 Michigan case, I began to put my emotions aside. "Race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time," she wrote, and I have come to believe that although the time may not be the present, preparations must begin now.

Three years ago I began to research and write about the lives of my maternal grandparents, Jim and Edna Richardson, an interracial couple whose Alabama marriage in about 1915 was outlawed by miscegenation laws. In a state where intermarriage was punishable by seven years of hard labor, Jim and Edna left few written traces of their lives and struggles. They kept no diaries, and the family destroyed their letters. I've been reconstructing their lives in the context of race and identity by looking at court data and land records and collecting oral histories. Through courthouse records I've learned how they dodged Alabama's legal hurdles regarding property, inheritance, and the transference of assets--laws that were enacted to discourage interracial marriage and families. My grandparents' lives were richer and fuller than I could ever have imagined, yet a sense of peril hovered over them.

My white grandfather chose to live and raise his family in a black community in the Jim Crow South and cast a blind eye to traditional racial lines. At that time in Alabama, a citizen's race was determined by the so-called one-drop rule: anyone with a trace of African ancestry could not be considered Caucasian. Despite the documents identifying them as white, and despite years of census records describing them as Caucasian, the children of Jim and Edna Richardson lived as black people. At the same time, my black grandmother, white grandfather, and their children simply ignored the Jim Crow trappings of state-sanctioned shame and inferiority, and that denial is a source of my strong racial and cultural identity.

Examining laws and courthouse records, I discovered how severely my family was disadvantaged economically by choosing a black identity. When my grandfather died, my mother and her siblings could not inherit his substantial estate because the state of Alabama did not recognize as legitimate the children of an interracial marriage. Before his death, my grandfather deeded most of his landholdings to his children, but they could not inherit his liquid assets. As a result, the disparity in affluence between middle-class blacks and whites resonates in my family.

Two generations down the line, my grandparents' great-grandchildren live in an interracial home unencumbered by state-imposed legal restrictions or culturally imposed identities. My children are part of a growing population of individuals who do not fit traditional racial and ethnic pigeonholes, the very categories that are used to determine affirmative-action preferences. Over 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, some seven million people, reported being members of more than one race in the 2000 census, the first to allow participants to "check all that apply" in the category of race. A 2004 estimate from the Census Bureau shows that 46 percent of this multiracial population is younger than 18. When the 2010 census is tabulated, the multiracial category will probably increase as Asians and Hispanics--who intermarry with members of other groups at rates higher than whites and blacks--will make up more of the overall population.

Home for spring break last year, my son Patrick, who attends a New England boarding school, told me that his fellow students told him during a late-night bull session that he "has it made" when it comes to college prospects because of his affirmative-action status. Patrick and I agreed that there is a need for some members of the minority population to continue receiving affirmative-action benefits. And yet, I thought, the one-drop rule endures. What disadvantages had Patrick encountered in his life that would make him a candidate for affirmative action? He couldn't think of any. Like many other middle-class children of his generation, he and his two siblings have known no impediments comparable to attending segregated schools and using outdated, handed-down textbooks from white schools. In one generation, our family's middle-class experience has gone from predetermined limits to few limits and even some advantages.

The changes came about in spite of the fact that across three generations my family has fallen under racial classifications based on ancestry, skin color, an ideology of colorblindness, and now what I perceive to be a deepening of the one-drop rule. Like much of our civil rights legislation, affirmative action was conceived in an era when the one-drop rule was the only way for people of mixed race to construct an ethnic identity. My children are constructing social identities outside the traditional racial boundaries by which affirmative-action preferences are determined, yet for affirmative-action status they are considered to be black. And their middle-class African-American peers also have affirmative-action status, as do those from minority groups who may be their family's first generation to attend college. This doesn't seem quite right.

As an affirmative-action beneficiary, I feel like a heretic for even contemplating the retooling of a system under which I thrived. I don't perceive America today as a post-racial society, but I do believe we are well into a post-civil-rights-movement era. Discrimination and racism persist in segments of our society. As the fortunes of the black middle class rise and race be­comes more fluid in some segments of Ameri­can society, the black underclass remains poor, poorly educated, and increasingly separated from the mainstream. More and more, social class, rather than race, determines one's fortunes. A recent study by the Pew Research Center underscores this change, concluding that "African Americans see a widening gulf between the values of the middle class and poor blacks."

What can those of us in the black middle class do to narrow the gulf? I endorse the ideals of racial equality fought for during the civil rights movement and believe they must be extended to poor and disadvantaged Americans. As we, the children of the civil rights movement, become middle-aged and mainstream, we seem to have lost sight of these ideals. Somehow we must reclaim them before what we now know as affirmative action is dismantled in a way that is detrimental to all Americans below the poverty line.

Legislation banning affirmative action has already passed in California, Michigan, and Washington State. Michigan's ban on affirmative action, called Proposal 2, passed largely in response to Grutter v. Bollinger. A referendum to ban affirmative action in Nebraska was just approved in the November 4 election. Affirmative action as we know it is slowly being chipped away, and little is being done to reshape it. For years, conservatives have been calling for a class-based system of affirmative action. Yet given that disadvantaged members of minority groups tend to perform academically at a lower level than disadvantaged whites, a totally class-based system will not work equitably. What is needed is a middle ground that examines where affirmative action has been, what it has achieved, and how we can reshape it for today's realities, all the while keeping sight of its historic goals. Class alone cannot replace race as the basis for an affirmative-action remedy; we need new criteria to deal with continuing educational and racial inequities in the United States. In places as different from one another as the Mississippi Delta and Anacostia in Washington, D.C., race is still a big factor in educational and social opportunities. And as the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has noted, schools are resegregating not only on racial lines but also on class lines. In the South, where much of this resegregation is taking place, middle-class African Americans are likely to attend a segregated school that also has a concentration of poverty as well as limited resources. Racial inequities have simply not been replaced by class inequities. The overall equation is far more complex than class alone.

That's why black intellectuals and policymakers should reexamine affirmative action, asking how economics might shape the laws and policies that inevitably will replace affirmative action. The writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist and strategist, can guide them.

King embraced affirmative action but also believed it should help economically disadvantaged people of both races. He proposed a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, not a Bill of Rights for Blacks, noting that "while Negroes form the vast majority of America's disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill. It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor."

Conservatives quote King's famous assertion that people should be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin as evidence that he would have been against affirmative action. Yet he believed that affirmative action should benefit African Americans to compensate for past discrimination. "For it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race 300 years after another man," King wrote, "the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner." But he also wanted protection for all poor people. He went to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to promote a campaign that would unite low-income people regardless of race.

The goals of King's Poor People's Campaign were never realized, and we'll never know whether his call for justice would have brought about a bill of rights for the disadvantaged, a measure that he wanted Congress to enact and that he saw as akin to the GI Bill, with grants for education and other opportunities that would achieve "basic psychological and motivational transformation" for the poor. After King's assassination in April 1968, Rustin, his adviser, continued to write and speak about racial justice and progress until his death in 1987. Rustin was a prominent organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet his position in civil rights history is tenuous because of controversial positions he took during his long life and because he was openly gay. One obituary quoted him as saying, "I believe in social dislocation and creative trouble." His positions, controversial in his time, have aged well.

Rustin witnessed the shift in the status of African Americans from the political margins to a position near the center of power. He foresaw that the transformation would bring some African Americans into the mainstream yet leave others behind. "The prominent racial and ethnic loyalties that divide American society have, together with our democratic creed, obscured a fundamental reality-that we are a class society," he wrote in a 1971 Harper's Magazine article titled "Blacks and the Unions." He recognized that poverty, particularly urban poverty, was tougher to fight than Jim Crow segregation, and that civil rights alone would not address the issues of the African-American community: "Each of the various institutions touching the lives of urban blacks-those relating to education, health, employment, housing, and crime-is in need of drastic reform." That holds true today.

By 1974 Rustin believed that affirmative action alone could "do little to help blacks unless it operates in a positive economic framework. An affirmative action program cannot find jobs for the unemployed or help the underemployed into better jobs if those jobs do not exist." At a congressional hearing, he said he feared that the emphasis on affirmative action would leave poor African Americans behind and could not work to further their economic prospects. It can only succeed, he testified, "when combined with programs which have as their objective a much more fundamental economic transformation than affirmative action could bring about."

In the 1970s the civil rights establishment marginalized Rustin because he emphasized employment, education, and training for the African-American underclass rather than affirmative action. But his journey into the wilderness gave him time to contemplate the post-civil rights era. Many of his ideas are worth revisiting today to counter those who would dismantle affirmative action and replace it with a colorblind or completely class-based system.

In Rustin's personal papers, now held by the Library of Congress, I found an undated draft of an article he wrote for The Baltimore Sun on the future of black politics. It could have been written today. Looking beyond the civil rights era, he wondered how the cultural and political change brought about by the movement might evolve. "As in any period of significant social change, the potentials of the new situation cannot be realized until we are liberated from the modes of thought and action of the past. The strategies of the civil rights period were once appropriate, but when outdated they become roadblocks to further progress." Affirmative action is one of those strategies. We must start working now to assure that it does not become a roadblock.

But how do we approach changing a strategy that has had such success and continue with that success on another level? First of all, an independent presidential commission needs to be put in place to examine what the options might be, with an eye toward an affirmative-action program that would help bring more of the working poor into the middle class. The solution would need to be flexible enough to work in urban as well as rural areas, or in small cities in places as diverse as Alabama, Iowa, and Nebraska, where large numbers of Latino workers have settled to work in factories.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama's candor about his white mother from Kansas and black father from Kenya signaled a shift in American culture. Early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination, in response to a journalist's question regarding affirmative action, Obama said that his daughters don't deserve affirmative-action preferences. He said they "should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged." Although his view of affirmative action is at odds with prevailing liberal orthodoxy, as an African American of mixed-race heritage, Obama is well positioned to take this position. In his speech on race during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama hinted that he understands the impact this shift is having: "We may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction-toward a better future for our grandchildren."

Liberal or conservative, America must not let affirmative action wither away just because changing it might violate prevailing principles of political orthodoxy. Since the plight of low-income Americans was one of Obama's campaign themes, he should make retooled affirmative action central to providing a path for people of all races into the middle class.

My generation of African Americans got a better future because of affirmative action, yet we cannot remain focused on the past. None of us can afford to leave another generation behind without any hope of working toward a better future.

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