Affirmative Action on Death Row

"Affirmative action”. These two words remain a verifiable powder keg because they bring the history of race in America to the present. While there seldom is agreement on the value of the policies designed to even the playing field for the majority of the country that fails to be White and male (and heterosexual and able-bodied…), what is painfully clear is the fact that they are on the chopping block in 2012.

It’s only been nine years since the Supreme Court decided that race and other factors (but let’s be honest- race has always been the most controversial of factors) could remain part of determining admissions to colleges and universities. The landmark 2003 University of Michigan decisions did not end the assault on affirmative action; instead it’s become more enlivened in the years following the case. As signs of racial progress like the election of President Barack Obama have emerged, a counter-current of anti-affirmative action activism has been pressing ahead in scholarship and on state and federal dockets.

A recent Duke University study has been getting attention with its claims that Black students admitted to selective colleges flounder in disciplines like science and engineering. The study has been used as rationale for the need to dismantle affirmative action in higher education. Ironically, the Duke report doesn’t talk about affirmative action at all; there are no discussions of admissions criterion or consideration of racial background. Instead, researchers focused on how students choose majors and their matriculation through school. So, how did their results become anti-affirmative action fodder? Thanks to the study’s suggestion that Black students who enter selective institutions are inadequately prepared and switch majors to less challenging courses in order to stay afloat.

As a college professor, I’ve seen students who enter college convinced of their interests and skills and are soon surprised to find that university life is a different ball game then what they anticipated. They find their way by choosing classes that appeal to their adjusted taste and by leaning on social support from classmates, campus centers, and informal networks.The Duke study and others like it assume that White students come to college adequately prepared and Black students arrive largely by virtue of their skin tone and are underprepared. More comprehensive and thorough studies like “The Shape of the River” found that Black students when admitted under affirmative action thrived academically and were more likely to be involved in efforts of community uplift and general good citizenship.

The mythology of Black intellectual inferiority has long been central to narratives of higher education, while systematic racism and prejudice has become gutted from the discussion. Sadly, in recent years the defense of affirmative action has not attacked these assumptions of inferiority or historical and contemporary racial inequalities. Instead, people have chosen to focus on the need for diversity.  In 2003, the Supreme Court supported the maintenance of affirmative action by siding with the University of Michigan’s use of diversity rationale. Following decades of legal arguments, Michigan argued that diversity was compelling state interest and that having students from diverse backgrounds created a dynamic learning environment. While this defense stood up to careful legal scrutiny, it tacitly suggested that students of color, in particular, were admitted for the benefit of the larger university community, which tend to be affluent and White. While many think of affirmative action as retribution for past injustices, our universities have hunkered down on the idea that bodies of color provide spice to the proverbial higher education stew.

Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University and defendant in the 2003 cases, penned an editorial in the Washington Post about his concern that the Supreme Court may hear Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin and further whittle away what remains of affirmative action. Bollinger is right; another Supreme Court test could serve to weaken diversity considerations in higher education admissions. But that’s not the only danger. Conservative organizations have attempted to repeal programming that takes ethnic background into consideration for higher education. With that passing of ballot initiatives like Prop 209 and Prop 2 in Michigan we have seen significant declines in Black enrollments and there is an ongoing legal battle to block these initiatives from closing the door on opportunity.

The coming months will determine the lifespan of affirmative action in higher education. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested that affirmative action should not be necessary in 25 years, yet there is mass movement for its elimination just a few years after finding national support for its need. We will continue to see assaults on affirmative action as long as assumptions of Black intellectual inferiority remain and people are willing to turn a blind eye to contemporary racial inequalities. Throughout the early 2000s students, faculty, and community members stepped up to raise