Oral arguments in the University’s affirmative action cases will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court today, and this summer the years-long fight over the constitutionality of the University’s admission policies – and similar programs around the country – will finally be settled.
Supporters of affirmative action are hopeful and working hard, rallying and getting their message out. But the tide turned against affirmative action a long time ago and its opponents aren’t hoping, but contentedly awaiting the inevitable. Those who chide us for considering race say ending affirmative action is necessary to repair the racial divisions in our society. Many of them – including the product of preferences for children of privilege who runs our government – like to tell us not to worry, there are other ways to achieve diversity.
There is President Bush’s favored method of granting the top percentage of students from all high schools admission to state schools, shamefully using school segregation to make up for affirmative action instead of recognizing it as an evil in itself.
As The New York Times reported over the weekend, conservative groups are threatening to launch lawsuits across the country attacking programs and scholarships aimed at encouraging minorities to attend and stay in college. How long before they attack the percentage plans as just an illegal proxy for race?
I have no doubt these affirmative action opponents sincerely believe they are righting a wrong and maybe some have truly deluded themselves into believing their fight to give more college seats to whites with better SAT scores than minority students is continuing the struggle of Martin Luther King Jr., as many are fond of claiming. But their efforts to achieve colorblindness only go one way. They never speak up when race is used against minorities or to further conservative goals.
Where were these conservatives civil rights activists when the Department of Justice used the Voting Rights Act – which requires it to approve congressional redistricting in Southern states – to veto a Mississippi redistricting plan that favored Democrats and handed the decision to a panel of Republican judges who packed minority areas together to help Republican candidates? Didn’t these champions of equality find the use of a law meant to prevent discrimination against black voters instead used to keep them from electing more of their preferred candidates by segregating congressional districts to be something unjust?
The conservative civil rights activists also had little to say about the federal appeals court nomination of Charles Pickering who, as a state senator, sponsored laws aimed at reducing the political influence of blacks and who, as a law student, authored an article on how a state law against interracial marriage could be amended to make it enforceable – advice the state legislature followed. (Pickering claims it was an “academic exercise,” but surely these civil rights activists saw through that.)
When liberals objected to the judicial nomination of a right-wing lawyer actively hiding his views from public scrutiny – which I presume means the public wouldn’t like them – and conservatives shamelessly attempt to play the race card because his name is “Estrada,” these activists failed to call their conservative pals to account.
And which of the euphemistically named conservative civil rights groups (including the Center for Individual Rights, the Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute) will first take up the cause of ending racial profiling? While these groups attack affirmative action and other programs aimed at helping minorities in court, their conservative brethren use race to further their goals (like the Estrada nomination) and are often indifferent to instances of active racial discrimination (like the Pickering nomination).
Race still means something in this country. The injection of race into everything from judicial nominations to who law enforcement suspects of crimes shows that. It also has continuing social and economic consequences. It still affects how you live, how others view you and what opportunities you have. The struggle to end affirmative action would be a lot more understandable if those leading the fight would acknowledge the reality that race does still matter and work to stamp out the many ugly and unjust uses and effects of race that persist.
Without such efforts, getting rid of means to attract and keep minority students in college and the effects that will have on their opportunities for social advancement and integration will only exacerbate our divisions.
Conservative civil rights groups like to tell us that race shouldn’t matter. But if they get their way, it will only matter more.
Cuniffe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org>.