“As a public university, we … have an important and
distinctive role to provide access to students from all walks of
life.”

– University President Mary Sue Coleman, on the role of
affirmative action in academia, following the court’s
decision.

Last year, as the University prepared to
defend the constitutionality of affirmative action in front of the
U.S. Supreme Court in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v.
Bollinger
, civil rights organizations, politicians and
representatives of the University framed affirmative action as an
indispensable tool to ameliorate the country’s long history of
racial inequality. A win at the Supreme Court would be a victory on
par with the court’s landmark 1954 opinion in Brown v. Board of
Education
, which mandated the desegregation of America’s
schools. And while affirmative action is a necessary part of the
University’s admissions process, its merits fall far short of
providing “access to students from all walks of life.”

As part of the Michigan Colloquium on Race and American
Political Development, an ongoing speaker series about race and
politics, on Thursday, University of Pennsylvania Prof. Thomas
Sugrue, who is best known for writing the definitive history of
postwar Detroit, gave a lecture entitled “Jim Crow’s Last Stand:
The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Suburban North.” Sugrue
discussed racial segregation in the country’s northern cities,
focusing heavily on the struggle to integrate the quintessential
postwar suburban communities known as Levittowns.

In an era in which millions of black Americans found themselves
trapped in innercities rife with poverty and blatant racial
discrimination, the effort to challenge Levitt’s policy of
excluding black families from his neighborhoods was largely
symbolic. After a screening process intended to ensure that the
black family would blend into the white neighborhood well, one or
two well-off black families would move in to “desegregate” the
Levittown. Largely unaffected by these developments in Levittowns,
millions of blacks remained redlined inside their cities, while
whites were free to fan out into the suburbs.

Not surprisingly, northern metropolitan areas remain highly
segregated along racial lines. Now, as civil-rights organizations
focus on increasing the number of blacks attending the nation’s
colleges, the parallels between this effort and the Levittown
effort are difficult to ignore. Affirmative action can be a
valuable part of any strategy intended to improve the condition of
black Americans, but it helps only a relatively small number of the
nation’s underrepresented minorities. Framing the entire civil
rights agenda around affirmative action ignores other equally
important initiatives.

As a University community, we cannot pat ourselves on the back
and declare victory merely because the Supreme Court agrees that
diversity is a compelling state interest. We must demand bold new
policies that will expand opportunity and hope to the millions of
Americans whom affirmative action alone cannot reach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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