Monday, May 5, 2014

Unaffirming Affirmative Action

In the latest Supreme Court ruling on social issues, the Court ruled 6-2 that Michigan voters did have a right to pass a state constitutional amendment prohibiting the use of Affirmative Action (AA) (i.e. racial preferences) in state higher education admission decisions.  It was not an amendment precluding AA in other higher education matters – employment, promotion, etc. as implied by many news media.  The Court did not rule on the use of AA per se, but only on the technical question of whether Michigan voters had the right to limit it in this manner.  This ruling follows several recent rulings overturning other long-standing tools enacted during the 1960s/70s to compensate for years of structural and legalized discrimination in America.

From the beginning, Americans have always struggled with the idea of AA – the concept of giving priority to one group of Americans over another.  “Racial preferences” has always covered over a reality of “reverse discrimination,” smacking of “two wrongs do not make a right.”  But AA came after a hundred years of shutting out African-Americans from equal access to schools, jobs, services and accommodations, even after being “freed” from 225 years of slavery.  It sought to force open doors of access in order to quickly catch up and rebalance that inequity.  The expectation was that, once rebalanced, we could then move ahead in a normally stabilized manner – just as a ship that is listing in the water must first right itself before it can successfully cruise forward.

However difficult it may have been to accept philosophically, or to acknowledge and pay for “the sins of our fathers,” AA has worked.  Our country is now more diversified in structure and affiliations than any country in the world.  Corporate employment, political offices, public images, and yes, college campuses, reflect a diversity unthinkable when I was young.  And not just for African-Americans, but for other races, gender, and sexual orientations.  It is no longer just a white, man’s world anymore – and that scares the hell out of many people.

Part of the legal discussion about racial/equality issues is that “times have changed,” that conditions in America have changed dramatically since mechanisms like the Voting Rights Act, AA, and school busing were originally enacted.  So, some believe, there is a need to update the law and processes to reflect current reality.  But is racism in America truly eliminated and dead, as some commentators and politicians claim?

No, racism is not dead, though it is certainly in deep decline, working its way into irrelevance.  As each generation attached to the past dies off, and each new generation comes along with no memories of the “Whites Only” signs, the direction is clear.  But ever so often, we are still reminded that we have a way to go.  Whether it be George Zimmerman, the self-appointed vigilante and executioner in Florida; or perhaps Cliven Bundy, the free-loading cattle grazer who Negroes were better off as slaves because they learned to pick cotton and stayed off of government assistance; or Donald Sterling who views his NBA basketball team akin to a southern planation, yet does not want any black players anywhere near him.  No, racism is not dead, and these kind of people remind us of more work to be done.  Work we will do.  But the overwhelming negative public condemnation to these acts and words helps us to affirm that we have made major collective progress as a culture and a community.

So how should we go forward in this changed environment and our different circumstances?  It is clear that the courts, if not the general population, is becoming less tolerant of the old ideas for remedying an even older problem.  Even as one may decry the appearance on its face of a reduced commitment to fighting racism and discrimination, is there some truth, even justification, in rethinking the appropriate tools for this fight?

Voting law preapprovals, school busing, AA, etc. were all instituted as corrective tools, not a way of American life.  Their goal was always to move America to being a colorblind community, with the expectation that their success would inherently invalidate the need for these tools.  America will always have some percentage of Donald Sterlings and Cliven Bundys.  But perhaps we should accept the benefits of our interim successes, and now move to a new legal and cultural plateau.  A plateau where “corrective rebalancing” actions are not where our priority should be, versus giving all Americans the ongoing legal tools for punitive action where proven violations of discrimination occur.  A plateau that focuses on punishing the guilty instead of the wide swath of the innocent.

The reality is, beyond the decreasing percentage of true racists in our American community, our biggest issue of discrimination is not race, it is economic.  It is poverty and the lack of career advancement that create most of today’s social issues, crossing issues of race, gender, religion and birthright.  50 years after Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty, we have much to show for our efforts against racism, but not as much headway against poverty – the homeless, the destitute, the infirm, the insufficiently-educated, and the working poor.  Which leaves too many Americans – black, white, Latino, older, female – in fear of their well-being and stymied by those who have more.  And angry at public institutions and politicians across the spectrum who are seen as perpetuating, if not exacerbating, their diminishing economic position.

I am not speaking naively about where we are.  But we are not where we were.  Nor are we yet where we want to be.  Yet perhaps it is time to let our gains take even deeper roots, solidify even stronger, let what has worked yield its full rewards.  To move away from special mechanisms in favor of universal mechanisms.  To a mindset that knows that diversity in thought and association provides each of us with a far richer life.  We need to concentrate our attention and efforts on the front end of the equality pipeline.  On the root causes of our problems.  On the economic and educational opportunities at the beginning of people’s lives.  Thereby, leaving punitive force to legal remedies and, more importantly, to the very great weight and force of public opinion – as so well demonstrated in these recent weeks.  This is not a liberal perspective; it is not a conservative perspective.  It is simply the next appropriate step in the maturing of America.  Let us be as energetically committed to this collective adult maturity as we were to our collective adolescence.

©   2014   Randy Bell