To the Supremes: Hands Off Affirmative Action

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court heard testimony Tuesday, October 15, 2013 on an Affirmative Action case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, which involves the constitutionality of a Michigan constitutional amendment that virtually guts previous Affirmative Action policies in college and university programs. It says that Michigan "shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin."

Currently Michigan and seven other states ban affirmative action: Arizona, California, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, and Washington.

Speaking with USA Today, Michigan Attorney General, Bill Schuette, asserted: "Anything a university does that has racial discrimination ought to be thrown in the trash can."

In a related civil rights case this past June, the Supreme Court in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, Attorney General, et al., effectively killed a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, releasing nine states, primarily in the South, to alter their election laws without approval by the federal government.

As in the Voting Rights Act example, the Michigan Affirmative Action case raises many vital questions, including one that for me raises to the very top of the list: Have we as a nation come far enough for us now to terminate the important and necessary actions (for example, Voting Rights Legislation and Affirmative Action policies) that have served us well to reduce the cavernous gaps in equality of opportunity especially for minoritized communities: most notably people of color and women?

If you ask many people, including the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, the response is a resounding "NO!" Since the Supreme Court's decision this past summer, Holder's Justice Department has become a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups and Texas lawmakers against a Texas redistricting plan. The Department has also separately issued a suit challenging Texas's new law requiring voters to show photo identification. The plaintiffs in both cases argue that Texas is by intent and impact discriminating against racialized minority groups.

Affirmative Action for White People

Why is it that we seldom hear widespread calls to eliminate Affirmative Action for white people, mainly men? Take for example the nationally funded G. I. Bill of Rights, which Karen Brodkin (1998) terms "affirmative action" for white people:

"The G. I. Bill of Rights, as The 1944 Serviceman's Readjustment Act was known, is arguably the most massive affirmative action program in American history....I call it affirmative action because it was aimed at and disproportionately helped male, Euro-origin GIs....[Benefits] were decidedly not extended to African Americans or to women of any race. Theoretically they were available to all veterans; in practice women and black veterans did not get anywhere near their share" (Brodkin, pp. 38, 42).

And what about the so-called college and university "legacy preferences" policies? Most higher education institutions offer some type of admission slots and scholarships set aside for alumni's family members available to children and stepchildren, grandchildren, and in some cases to siblings, nieces, and nephews.

John Brittain, former chief counsel at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and attorney Eric Bloom (2010) have shown that legacy preferences go disproportionately to white students while hurting students of color. Underrepresented minoritized students comprise 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective colleges and universities but amount to a mere 6.7 percent of the legacy-applicant pool. In reality, legacy preferences reduce the chances for racial and ethnic diversity on campuses throughout our country. Daniel Golden reminds us that legacy preferences are "virtually unknown in the rest of the world"; they are "an almost exclusively American custom."

Though we certainly have made progress over the years, in addition, women continue to earn only 77 cents for every dollar made by a man doing the same work (U.S. Bureau of Census, 2010). The current recession has hit black people extremely hard. They continue to have twice the unemployment rate of white people. According to Bowen & Bok (1998), if affirmative action were completely eliminated, the percentage of black students at many selective schools would drop to only 2 percent of the student body.

Jennifer Gratz, a white student who won her own anti-affirmative action case against the University of Michigan in 2003 has been promoting the constitutional amendment in her state to end the practice statewide.

Interviewed this week at the Supreme Court, she stated: "Much progress has been made over the past 15 years in challenging discriminatory policies based on race preferences and moving toward colorblind government. The Schuette case offers yet another opportunity to keep the country moving toward this goal. It was clear today that the court is ready to recognize that Michigan is moving in the right direction."

A "Colorblind" Society?

With the ascendency of Barack Obama during the primaries and his election as the 44th president of the United States in 2008 and to the current time, on numerous occasions the media have asserted that the United States can now be considered as a "post-racial" society, where the notion that "race" has lost its significance, and where our country's long history of racism is now at an end.

For example, National Public Radio Senior News Analyst, Daniel Schorr, during the presidential primaries on January 28, 2008 on All Things Considered noted that with the emergence of Barack Obama, we have entered a new "post-racial" political era, and that Obama "transcends race" and is "race free."

And according to MSNBC political analyst, Chris Matthews, responding to Obama's State of the Union message on January 27, 2010: "He is post-racial by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about."

These commentators and others imply a number of claims in their statements: The first that we have become a "race-blind" or "colorblind" society - that race has become unimportant, that we don't see "race" anymore. The second implication states that racism (i.e., prejudice along with social power to enact oppression by white people over people of color) is a thing of the past.

Is the United States now a "colorblind" society? Or even more importantly, should the United States be a "colorblind/race-blind" society? The very notion of "race-blindness" is deeply problematic.

Though when we tell another that "I don't see your race; I just see you as a human being," may seem as a righteous statement, what are we really telling the person, and how may this come across: "I discount a part of you that I may not want to address," and "I will not see you in your multiple identities." This has the tendency of erasing the person's background and historical legacy, and hides the continuing hierarchical and systemic positionalities among white people and racially minoritized people.

In addition, the assertion that we have fully addressed and finally concluded the long history of racism in the United States with the election of Barack Obama is simply unfounded.

Anti-racism consultant Valerie Batts (1998) discusses what she terms as "new forms of racism." While the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954), the Civil Right Act (1964), and other judicial and legislative actions have criminalized a number of past realities (for example, slavery, "Jim Crow" laws, lynchings, cross burnings, segregated educational, employment, business, and governmental institutions, and more), many forms of racism continue.

While some of these conditions continue today on a de facto basis, Batts lists these "new forms" as "Dysfunctional Rescuing" where White people "help" People of Color" in a condescending way believing they can't help themselves; "Blaming the Victims" of systematic oppression for the oppression itself; "Avoidance of Contact" where White people self segregate in their personal and professional lives from People of Color, and where White people show little interest in learning about the cultures of Communities of Color; "Denial of Cultural Differences," the notion of "color blindness," which minimizes the cultural and behavioral difference among people, which simply mask discomfort with racialized differences; and "Denial of Political Significance of Differences," in which White people deny the profound impact regarding the social, political, and economic realities of the lives of People of Color.

I add to the list of conditions that perpetuate systemic racism the concept of stereotyping. A stereotype is an oversimplified or misinformed perception, opinion, attitude, judgment, or image of a person or a group of people held in common by members of other groups. Originally referring to the process of making type from a metal mold in printing, social stereotypes can be viewed as molds of regular and invariable patterns of evaluation on others.

With stereotypes, people tend to overlook all other characteristics of the group. Stereotypes of out-group members by in-group members depersonalize them, in effect seeing them largely as members of a group and not as individuals with unique and distinctive qualities and attributes. This often results in the tendency to diminish the humanity of out-group members relegating them to the category of "other," and as "different."

Individuals sometime use stereotypes to justify continued marginalization and subjugation of members of that group. In this sense, stereotypes conform to the literal meaning of the word "prejudice," which is a prejudgment, derived from the Latin praejudicium.

This is the case, for example, in actions explicitly intended as a mockery of Black History Month just a few years ago when a number of institutions around the country, and most recently a group of students at the University of California at San Diego, throw off-campus "ghetto themed parties." Attendees were advised to come wearing chains, cheap clothing, and speak very loudly, and where female students are urged to come as "ghetto chicks."

In part, according to the invitation UCSD student organizers sent announcing what they referred to as the "Compton Cookout": "...For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks -- Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes, they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red...." The invitation continued: "We will be serving 40's, Kegs of Natty, dat Purple Drank, which consists of sugar, water, and the color purple, chicken, coolade, and of course Watermelon."

Students of color on the UCSD campus banded together and constructed a list of demands to ensure that these blatantly racist and sexist incidents are appropriately addressed by the administration and by the entire campus community. Many of them felt emotionally and physically unsafe on their own campus.

We must not and cannot dismiss these incidents as simply the actions of a few individuals, for racism and other forms of oppression exist on multiple levels, as enumerated by authors Rita Hardiman and Bailey Jackson (2000), on the individual/interpersonal, institution, and societal levels. These incidents are symptoms of larger systemic national problems.

In their book Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Brown, et al., 2003), the authors show how the concept of "colorblindness/race-blindness" attempts to deny and further entrench hierarchical and deeply rooted systemic racial inequities and privileges accorded to white people that permeate throughout our society.

We must as a society get beyond this false and counterproductive notion of "colorblindness/race-blindness" and confront head-on our past history and current realities of racism and transcend, to use Mica Pollock's term, "colormuteness" by engaging in honest and open conversations on the impact and legacy of race relations in our country.

Until and unless we fully resolve this collective denial of the very real racism and sexism continuing to permeate and saturate our nation, civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action policies must not only remain intact, but need to be expanded and strengthened.


Batts, V. A. (1998). Modern racism: New melody for the same old tunes. Rocky Mount, NC: Visions Publication.

Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brittain, J., & Bloom, E. L. (2010 ) Admitting the truth: The effect of affirmative action, legacy preferences, and the meritocratic ideal on students of color in college admissions. New York: The Century Foundation Press

Brodkin, K. (1998). How Jews became white folks & what that says about race in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Brown, M. K., Carnoy, M., Currie, E., Duster, T., Oppenheimer, D. B., Shultz, M. M., & Wellman, D. (2003). Whitewashing race: The myth of a color-blind society, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Hardiman, R., & Jackson, B. (2000, 2010, 2013). Conceptual foundations for social justice education. In Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W. J., Castañeda, R., Hackman, H., Peters, M., and Zúñiga, X. (Eds.). (2000, 2010, 2013). Readings for diversity and social justice (3 editions), New York: Routledge.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2010). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.