A call for more intellectual activism

BY AMER G. ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published December 10, 2001

As I have watched the most recent debates, demonstrations, and rallies revolving around our landmark affirmative action cases I see that there have emerged three distinct groups of people. First, we have those who support affirmative action, who quietly voice their opinions, and many times quietly work to make principled arguments in favor of the policy. Second, we have those such as the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, who are unmatched in their loudness and ability to make a stir wherever they choose to. And third, we have the growing voices of anti-affirmative action activists, most times using intellectual means, such as newspaper writings and quiet counter-protests. Their impact is growing, not because of their numbers, but because of their methods.

Paul Wong
Jews light candles during a Hanukkah celebration yesterday at Zion Square, the place of the suicide bombing attack last week in Jerusalem.<br><br>AP PHOTO

The first group I have mentioned has simply been too quiet. While it is perhaps the most numerous, its members rarely use more intellectual methods to achieve any types of gains. Newsletters, newspaper submissions and media activism have been neglected by this group, and their sheer size and sure emotion for the issue will mean nothing unless they start to get more organized. The other two groups of people have been able to use these methods to make their voices more well known, many times making it appear as if they are in fact larger than the "silent majority" who I think probably exists, at least on this and most college campuses. Intellectual arguments for affirmative action have been void for the most part, and pointed shortcomings of those anti-affirmative action voices have not been distinctly pointed out.

First, however, one must make a clear statement that disassociates any type of intelligent activism in support of affirmative action from the type of activism that is undertaken by BAMN. While some of what BAMN does may well educate some people and may well invigorate some others, I believe they ultimately hurt the cause of affirmative action more than help it. BAMN"s in-house attorney, Miranda Massie (the sister of one of BAMN"s leaders, Luke Massie), made a colossal mistake when attempting to refer to BAMN petitions in her opening statements last Thursday when the latest round of hearings opened up in Cincinnati. After presenting them, she was put in her place by the judge telling her that was in fact a legal case and not the forum to make fluffy arguments about integration and the such.

He"s right. Clearly, the right forums to talk about integration and petitions supporting exist almost everywhere, except the courtroom. Massie"s legal shortsightedness in this one instance probably hurt the University"s case more than helping it. Send the petitions to news agencies, politicians, students governments, but don"t commit a legal error just to get on record in one of he most important cases in American legal history. BAMN and others have failed because they have refused to recognize that their efforts are useless in a courtroom atmosphere. The affirmative action debate must happen in college auditoriums, newspapers, radio stations, etc. Not until supporters of affirmative action see this will they see much fruit of their hard work. Attending a court proceeding does nothing. Presenting a petition in open court is useless. BAMN"s strategies are sloppy, and their personnel unpleasant. Those of us who support affirmative action have to think twice before we unwittingly support BAMN and their rag-tag tactics.

Also, those who back affirmative action must do more to point out the obvious shortcomings that are the foundation of the current popular backlashes. Since those who oppose affirmative action are for the most part using intellectual arguments, we should do the same. Opponents of affirmative action distort the meaning of the principle, ignore recent history, and shun present realities. They incorrectly claim that the success of affirmative action is based on whether or not it diminishes poverty, while it was never intended to substitute for jobs, alleviate welfare woes, or provide food to poor families. Opponents also misguidedly argue that affirmative action requires a lowering of standards, pointing to grades and test scores as the real indicators of worthiness. They can"t be fully serious, since experts agree that using test scores alone is probably one of the worst ways to determine admissions. Critics also ask why we don"t simply replace race-based affirmative action with programs based on poverty and economic disadvantage. The answer to that is simple. Race is one thing, poverty another.

The irony is that most who use this popular logic would not really favor a poverty-based affirmative action they simply use this tactic to attempt to point out a moral shortcoming in current policies. Policies targeted to help those in poverty would surely be beneficial, but that does not mean ruling out policies that are race-based. Finally, opponents argue that affirmative action is contrary to the American belief in individualism and the struggle for a color blind society. This argument fails because discrimination is almost never based on individual traits (it might then be acceptable) it is based on association with a group. Let"s eliminate group discrimination before we eliminate group remedies. Also, our own Constitution recognized that we are not a color blind society. Congress knowingly perpetuated slavery of blacks, and knowingly outlawed it. Our whole legal system is based on diversity and color consciousness. So, if we are to function by the rule of law, we must be color conscious, not color blind.

These are the arguments that need to be made. Those who are currently too silent, spending too much of their either complaining about BAMN or working to oppose them must begin to delineate these arguments using the most effective outlets. We cannot let BAMN hurt affirmative action more than it already has. It is incumbent upon us to take back the fight by ignoring BAMN, not by fighting them, and by making intellectual arguments in the face of a growing, intelligent anti-affirmative action movement.

Amer G. Zahr can be reached via e-mail at zahrag@umich.edu.