Editor’s note: This essay was also published in the book, "At Issue: Affirmative Action," (Cengage, 2009).
In America’s long struggle for racial equality, 2007 was a paradoxical year. Just as our political system seriously contemplated a black President for the very first time, the Supreme Court declared the end of racial integration policy, halting voluntary local remedies to desegregate public schools under Brown vs. Board of Education. Presented with the rise of Barack Obama and the fall of Brown, most people have focused on the good news.
Many Americans were captivated by the self-proclaimed "audacity" of Obama’s January announcement that he was running for President. Obama made it clear he was not running to send a message or to register voters but literally to get elected. His campaign initially worked because the political elites accepted this unprecedented proposition. Reporters took Obama’s candidacy seriously from its inception, and the donors did, too. Obama has already secured more than a footnote in history, shattering records for individual contributors to his campaign. Win or lose, he is arguably the first black American to be treated by the political and media establishment as a fully viable presidential contender. It is an achievement that cannot be claimed by any other racial minorities. (Jesse Jackson’s campaigns did not attain such standing with the political establishment, despite their significance for many voters.) We should not gloss over this development. It is a meaningful step towards addressing a resilient, uncomfortable American fact: our national power structure has always been, and stubbornly remains, overwhelmingly white, from all forty-three Presidents across history to ninety-five of the one hundred senators serving today.
That segregated power structure was reinforced by the Supreme Court’s sharply divided June decision to ban integration programs in public schools. Most educational policies that consider a student’s race for the purposes of integration are now illegal. Like the original Brown opinion, this year’s decision is not neatly confined to K-12 schools, either. Brown consecrated a new national ambition for racial equality in the public sphere, delegitimizing both explicit and implicit racism in government, and laying a foundation for remedial measures to equalize many other facets of our society. Many critics contend that this case, Parents Involved In Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, augurs a disturbing slide backwards. It bans integration programs, sharply restricts race-based government remedies and sets the stage for future bans on other remedial programs, such as affirmative action, as Justice Stephen Breyer warned.
But will the public really stand for this sweeping attack on Brown‘s legacy?
Yes. In most of the country, public opposition towards measures to remedy America’s history of racial discrimination, from academic recruitment to professional affirmative action, has actually outpaced the conservative court. Even putting aside the South, generally liberal electorates–including California, Washington and Michigan–have passed state referenda completely banning affirmative action. Hostility towards affirmative action runs so deep, in fact, it is a staple of attacks against black political candidates. Senator Jesse Helms perfected coded campaign racism in 1990, with an infamous attack ad darkly juxtaposing his black opponent’s face with the text "For RACIAL QUOTAS." Which brings us back to Barack Obama.