In the current political climate, the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the right of colleges and universities to take race into account in admissions must be considered a victory for those committed to racial justice. Celebration, however, should be tempered by some unpleasant facts about American history and society, and the Court itself.
When first developed in the 1960s, affirmative action formed part of a far broader program for attacking both poverty and racial inequality, including a domestic Marshall Plan to reverse urban decay and create jobs, and government action to end housing segregation and drastically improve urban public education. This program has virtually vanished. Affirmative action, the one surviving element, must be defended, but with no illusions that it alone can adequately address the enduring legacy of 250 years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow. In the long run, the Court’s decision will be cause for cheer only if it serves to reinvigorate a broader struggle for racial equality.
Among the Justices, only Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed willing to face the extent of inequality in America. Her powerful dissent in the undergraduate case forthrightly stated what should be obvious–that race still matters enormously in housing, healthcare, income, schooling and other areas of American life. Ginsburg directly attacked the conservative sophistry that, under the rallying cry of “colorblindness,” conflates affirmative action with past efforts to stigmatize minorities. Programs designed to create greater equality, she writes, cannot be equated with “policies of oppression.” Her dissent marks Ginsburg’s emergence as an uncompromising voice of liberalism on the Court, something absent since the departure of Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan.
Partly because they assumed, correctly, that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a strong critic of the idea of “societal racism,” would turn out to be the swing vote in a 5-to-4 decision, Michigan’s lawyers decided to emphasize not persistent racial inequality but the educational value of racial diversity. The diversity argument presents affirmative action not as a program that primarily aids minorities but as one that improves the educational environment, a more politically palatable case. But it runs the risk of suggesting that access for nonwhite students is desirable mainly because it enhances the educational experience of whites by exposing them to classmates from different backgrounds. Diversity is undoubtedly a worthy goal. But a single-minded focus on diversity deflects attention from the need to combat the numerous inequalities to which Ginsburg referred.
Most nonwhite students do not attend elite colleges and professional schools that feed the upper echelons of society but public two- and four-year ones. As a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education makes clear, the greatest threat to educational diversity today arises from the severe cutbacks in public funding imposed on these institutions by cash-strapped state governments. Tuition is rising rapidly, and scholarships are being reduced. A significant drop in minority enrollment will inevitably follow.
O’Connor’s opinion suggests that she was strongly influenced by briefs on behalf of affirmative action filed by major corporate executives and retired military officers. They argued that the United States cannot compete in today’s global economy, or maintain an effective military, without racially diverse business and military leaders. This argument has a historical precedent. Half a century ago, when Brown v. Board of Education was before the Court, the Eisenhower Administration urged the Justices to consider segregation’s effect on the world standing of the United States in the cold war. People of other nations, it declared, “cannot understand how such a practice can exist in a country which professes to be a staunch supporter of freedom, justice, and democracy.”
Once again, the international interests of the United States have prompted steps toward greater racial equality at home. The result should be applauded. But we should not lose sight of the fact that corporate globalization has had a devastating impact on the black working class by hastening deindustrialization, and that military service offers many nonwhites the opportunity to advance socially only by taking part in wars abroad. It is a sign of the times that it required an appeal to the demands of globalization and an imperial foreign policy to persuade the Court to uphold affirmative action in higher education.