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Viewpoint: Student protest and affirmative action

BY GARRETT FELBER AND AUSTIN MCCOY

Published October 15, 2013

The recent We Are Michigan protest and U.S. Supreme Court hearing on affirmative action calls to mind the long history of student protest on campus around racial diversity. Building a more inclusive campus requires an understanding of past anti-racist student movements.

After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, 100 Black students locked themselves in an administrative building to address low Black enrollment. Their demands included the appointment of Black administrators and the establishment of a U-M Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship. The lock-in resulted in the establishment of the scholarship and the institution of the Center of Afroamerican and African Studies (CAAS, now the department of Afroamerican and African Studies) in 1970.

This takeover initiated student movements that mobilized coalitions, articulated explicit demands and utilized direct-action protest strategies to create a more inclusive campus for students of color. In 1970, the student-led Black Action Movement organized a massive protest to draw attention to racial disparities on campus. Students fought for a Black Student Center, tuition waivers, additional funding for the MLK scholarship, and most importantly, a University commitment to a 10-percent goal of Black enrollment within three years. The administration initially agreed to only the enrollment goal. BAM responded by taking hundreds of books off the shelves in the library, interrupting classes, picketing parking garages and blocking State Street. These disruptive tactics caused LSA attendance to drop by 75 percent. The strikers gained more power by enlisting white students and organized labor. The University agreed to devote more resources to achieving the 10-percent goal by the 1973 academic year and increase financial support to CAAS.

The multiracial United Coalition Against Racism renewed the fight for minority rights in 1987. Two hundred students blocked Fleming Hall and issued 12 explicit demands. These focused on the unfulfilled promise of minority enrollment, anti-racist education and low numbers of Black faculty. UCAR also demanded the University close in recognition of MLK Day; the University refused to cancel classes to commemorate the day until six years after it was declared a national holiday. Most significantly, students reasserted the minority enrollment issue broached in 1968. Black students remained a mere 5 percent of the student body. The University drafted the “Michigan Mandate” — a comprehensive plan to increase diversity on campus.

Last week’s demonstration mirrors the Mandate’s core ideas: commitment to diversity, representation of minority groups and a pluralistic community. The Mandate aimed for students of color to represent at least a third of the student body by the end of the 1990s. The University glowingly reported a 39 percent increase of students of color. It even assured this growth would lead to 14 percent Black enrollment by 1996, matching the state population at the time. The University’s confidence in 1991 contrasts sharply with our current climate. For example, Black and Latina/o enrollment is under 5 percent.

A partial explanation to the rollback of minority enrollment is the affirmative action debate of the last decade. In the early 2000s, Michigan nearly reached BAM’s original goal of 10 percent Black enrollment. However, Proposal 2 banned consideration of race, sex and religion in University admissions. Since the passage of Proposal 2, the Black student population has dropped from 6.5 percent in 2006 to 4.6 percent in 2012.

Still, widespread confusion about the meaning and efficacy of affirmative action remains. One obscuring argument is that the dismantling of affirmative action led to a more positive climate for students of color. Carl Cohen, a University of Michigan professor who spearheaded the Proposal 2 initiative, told the Daily in 2011: “When you see Blacks on our campus now, they didn’t get here with preference. You can’t look down your nose at minorities at Michigan now . . . And I think that’s a great thing for the minorities. They don’t have to excuse themselves.” The hostile response to the recent viewpoint by LSA senior Dan Green reveals the fallacy of this argument. Commenters challenged him to reveal his GPA, ACT score and tuition costs, after he wrote about the discomfort he feels as a Black Detroiter in Ann Arbor. Affirmative action does not cause a hostile campus climate. It is the already-existing negative perceptions about the inferiority of students of color. For some, affirmative action becomes a convenient scapegoat.

As the examples of BAM and UCAR demonstrate, grassroots student activism has driven efforts to create a more diverse and supportive campus. These actions have been led by students of color, but have always comprised white allies, faculty/staff and others from the campus community. They relied on a combination of direct-action protests, explicit demands and disruption of normal campus operations. These tactics succeeded in building leverage for students who otherwise had little decision-making power in University policies. However, struggling for a more inclusive university should not fall squarely on the shoulders of those underrepresented. The University must take more than a “wait and see” stance and facilitate broader dialogue about these issues. Student activists should build on the rich history and lessons of student protest on campus. And all students must educate themselves about how privilege functions in university life. Only through the combination of strong student protest, education and an active administration can we begin to realize the aspirations of this legacy of activism.

Garrett Felber and Austin McCoy are PhD students in the History and American Culture Departments.


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