Defend Affirmative Action in Education!

by Joe Auciello

This article by a Labor Standard editorial board member is followed by a statement posted on the Internet on March 29 by the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) coalition to defend affirmative action.

By the first of April the United States Supreme Court will have begun hearings on the most significant affirmative action case since the 1978 “Bakke” decision. In that ruling the Court outlawed quotas in the college selection process but did allow consideration of race as one factor in determining college admissions.

At stake now is whether any preference at all will be given to racial minorities to compensate, however partially, for an increasingly segregated and impoverished public school system that limits the academic achievement of Black and Latino students. Without affirmative action, educators predict, colleges and universities will be resegregated and the gains of the last decades will be wiped out.

In the twenty-five years since the Bakke case, most colleges and universities have followed its guidelines and implemented affirmative action programs—unless state legislatures or lower courts have prevented them. As a result, the Supreme Court’s decision will likely have a far-reaching impact on public and private colleges throughout the United States.

The Court will consider challenges to the University of Michigan’s admissions policies for its undergraduate program and its law school. Currently, both the graduate and undergraduate programs grant some preferences to minority students. On a yardstick of 150 points, which includes consideration for SAT scores, family legacy, and athletic ability as well, the University of Michigan gives 20 points to Black and Latino applicants because of race.

A group of white applicants, backed by right-wing think tanks, have filed suit to abolish Michigan’s affirmative action policies that have made the freshman class only 74 percent white. Minorities make up 26 percent of the class: 11.8 percent Asian, 8.9 percent Black, and 6.1 percent Latino.

Last January the Bush administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the white students and asserted that the University of Michigan’s admissions policies were unconstitutional.

In a major speech during the week of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, President Bush attacked affirmative action in college admission programs while claiming to favor diversity in education. The Bush speech was a signal to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn affirmative action policies in effect throughout much of the country.

Bush stated, “the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race…quota systems that use race to include or exclude people from higher education and the opportunities it offers are divisive, unfair, and impossible to square with the Constitution.”

The response to Bush’s position was sharp but divided, as is to be expected on so controversial an issue. Some 65 Fortune 500 companies have filed briefs in support of the University of Michigan. They have been joined by dozens of top universities as well as a host of retired generals and admirals. Corporate America and the military all realize that their bottom line has benefited from affirmative action.

University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman countered Bush’s accusations, stating, “We do not have, and never had, quotas or numerical targets in either the undergraduate or law school admissions programs...Academic qualifications are the overwhelming consideration for admission to both programs” (Education Week, Jan. 22).

Certainly this argument is the more honest and compelling one. The accusation of a quota system is patently false. The University of Michigan did not set aside a certain percentage of admissions for minorities.

Though the courts ruled quotas illegal, nonetheless, they are an effective and morally just means of achieving racial diversity in jobs and education. A quota system can lead to real equality in hiring and enrollment.

In the absence of quotas, affirmative action plans have maintained racial diversity in higher education. Though the number of minority enrollment varies year to year, unlike the fixed number of a quota system, affirmative action has generally been effective in opening college doors to Black, Latino, and other minority students. These programs which give racial preference to minorities must be defended and expanded.

Bush’s plan of attack on affirmative action is clear, if not credible. It amounts to a verbal sleight of hand. Since quotas are not legal and since most Americans consider them unjust, Bush simply defines any affirmative action plan as a quota. By that reasoning, the Supreme Court can appear to be consistent with the Bakke ruling, yet be persuaded to abolish affirmative action.

But Bush’s “diversity without quotas” rhetoric is reminiscent of the “separate but equal” rationalization for racial segregation proclaimed by the Supreme Court a little more than a hundred years ago. Bush and conservative critics use the language of freedom and equality as a smokescreen to promote discrimination and exclusion of African Americans and Latinos. Conservatives, and some liberals, oppose racial preferences only when they are the race which is not preferred. A social system geared to the advantage of whites, especially males, suits them just fine.

White opposition to affirmative action is often based on false and misleading beliefs. Affirmative action is not, for example, a guilty apology for slavery or for the legal segregation of America’s not-too-distant past. Nor does it thrust racial criteria into a society, or legal system, free of racial bias. Affirmative action is an antidote, however partial, to the inequality and disadvantage which African Americans and other people of color minorities face in this country today.

Bush’s attack on affirmative action deepens the offensive of the past decade against working class and minority interests. Courts in Texas and Georgia have struck down policies favorable to minorities. Voters in California and Washington passed propositions banning affirmative action, and in Florida, Governor Jeb Bush ended affirmative action by executive order. Courts have dismantled desegregation programs in some 45 cities. Statistics compiled by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard show that public schools for the last twelve years have become more racially segregated.

As an alternative to affirmative action, Bush points to “race-neutral admissions policies” currently in use in California, Texas, and Florida. In these states a certain percentage of top high school students are guaranteed admission to state schools. This approach is also favored by some liberals, notably Lani Guinier, who claims, “The plan is not only fair; it also promotes academic excellence” (The Nation, Feb. 10).

These supposedly “race-neutral” schemes are neutral in name only. To be successful, they must maintain segregation in housing and in schooling. Since Asians and whites score higher on achievement tests and class rank, Black and Latino students would not likely attain the percentage necessary to secure a place in the state colleges and universities. In a segregated school with a predominantly African American or Latino student body, the top percentage of graduates will qualify for state colleges and universities. But this policy means accepting the reversal of some of the significant gains of the civil rights era and, conveniently enough, accommodating to the prejudices of whites.

Under this “percent plan,” it would be “better” for a minority student to place in the top 10% of a poor, segregated school with low standards than, say, in the top 20% of a well-funded, integrated school with high standards. Under Bush’s plan, the school that provides a strong education may disqualify many of its able graduates from guaranteed acceptance to the top state schools. The logic of this scheme creates an impetus within minority communities to maintain segregated schools. It means a return to “separate but equal.”

Racial diversity in education, which Bush falsely claims to support, can be achieved by affirmative action. Bush does not oppose affirmative action because of any failure in the program. He never even pretends to make that claim. Quite the contrary. He opposes affirmative action precisely because it works — that is, it increases educational opportunity for minority students.

In his speech last January, Bush acknowledged racial prejudice in words only to minimize or ignore it in deeds, in practical legislation worthy of the name. As Julian Bond, chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, accurately points out, President Bush “wants to end the most effective remedy against” racial prejudice, which amounts to a “failure to support justice.”

Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration, and to Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN)

Statement of March 29, 2003: Why “Brown v. Board” Is at Stake.


Brown v. Board of Education means nothing—it is in fact a dead letter—if separate education, which the Supreme Court’s  “Brown” ruling of 1954 proclaimed could never be equal, is not only a steadily worsening reality but all real methods that could change that segregation are outlawed. If affirmative action is barred by the U.S. Supreme Court in the two University of Michigan cases, the effective outlawing of actions against segregation is precisely what will occur.

In a society still characterized by as much racist inequality and segregation as ours, it is simply not possible to achieve meaningful integration without positive measures. Without active desegregation policies, segregation will not only persist; it will increase.

If all measures are outlawed that could change the segregation that Brown v. Board of Education condemned, the law itself is in practice nullified. Very literally, these two affirmative action cases will either institutionalize de facto segregation by outlawing any measure to counter it, or they will present our whole society with the possibility of moving forward toward full integration and equality.

Many do not yet realize the following CRITICAL DANGER.

The U.S. Supreme Court could functionally outlaw affirmative action by upholding the court’s 1978 Bakke precedent while overturning the two University of Michigan plans. Because the University of Michigan Law School’s program is so conservative and minimal a policy, if the Supreme Court upholds Bakke but overturns the U of M Law School program, the court will have outlawed any effective measure that could achieve either desegregation or diversity in the real world. In other words, while pretending to maintain both Brown and Bakke, by overturning the U of M Law School policy the U.S. Supreme Court would in reality turn both Brown and Bakke into meaningless legal fictions. Tragically, at present this is a likely outcome which only the power of a growing new civil rights movement can prevent.

The outcome of these cases will not only determine whether any affirmative action of any kind is legal. Any and every “race conscious” measure of any kind will stand or fall on this decision; that includes the outreach, scholarship, and retention programs now used in places like California and Texas, where affirmative action has been eliminated. Those policies that have constrained and mitigated the impact of banning affirmative action would be more or less quickly overturned. Many institutions have, shamefully, already abandoned these programs over the last several weeks. Programs, scholarships, etc., that target Black, Latina/Latino, Native American and other minority students are already under a concerted, centralized attack.

What has—even with these “race conscious” outreach, scholarship, and retention policies--been a devastating drop in Black, Latina/o, and Native American enrollment at flagship schools of higher education where affirmative action has been barred, will be much, much worse if there is a ban on affirmative action coming from the high court.

The new civil rights movement is a struggle at the same time to save Brown v. Board of Education and to realize its fundamental promise—the promise of full integration and equality in American education. To that aim we commit ourselves irrespective of what this Court does.

Call to action for civil rights organizers:


Defend Affirmative Action! Save Brown v. Board of Education!

WASHINGTON, DC Supreme Court - E. Capitol & 1st Street NE

For more info, click here.