Why the right wages war on affirmative action

September 7, 2017

New York City educator and activist Brian Jones makes the case in defense of one element of the legacy of the 1960s social movements for liberation from oppression.

AS PART of their never-ending quest to "Make America Great Again," Donald Trump and his loyal minion Attorney General Jeff Sessions are taking aim at affirmative action programs for student admissions in higher education.

For the country's newly emboldened racist right wing, affirmative action at the college level is a perfect target. It is, they claim, an example of Black people and other groups "jumping the line" and taking away resources from white people.

Ominously, the U.S. Department of Justice posted an advertisement seeking to hire lawyers to work on "investigations and possible litigation related to international race-based discrimination in college and university admissions."

For now, the Department claims it is only looking into a single case brought by Asian students claiming that a single university--Harvard--discriminates against them.

ONE OF the most infamous anti-affirmative action cases was a complaint brought to the U.S. Supreme Court by Abigail Fisher in Fisher v. University of Texas. Denied admission to the University of Texas in 2008, Fisher claimed that less qualified Black applicants were admitted, and therefore she was discriminated against because of the (white) color of her skin.

Students march against Trump's racism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Students march against Trump's racism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Joe Brusky | flickr)

The Supreme Court, though packed with conservatives, ruled against her not once, but twice--in 2013 and 2016--both times upholding the right of the university to consider the race of applicants.

Commentators have subsequently pointed out that of the 47 students admitted to the University of Texas that year with lower grades and SAT scores than Fisher's, only five were Black or Latino, while the other 42 were white.

The fact that Fisher insisted it was the people of color who bumped her, not other white students, reveals what her case was really about--pushing back against any kind of program that attempts to address racism.

Beyond this obvious hypocrisy is the issue of who is "qualified" to go to college in the first place. Who "deserves" to attend?

Socialists support the demand that higher education should be free and available to all. At the same time, we recognize that Black people and other oppressed groups have been and continue to be actively discriminated against in many walks of life, including access to higher education.

Affirmative action programs as they are currently constituted allow colleges and universities to consider the race or ethnicity in addition to other aspects of an application, recognizing the value of diverse student populations and as an opportunity to actively combat the pattern of discrimination.

Such "race-conscious" admissions plans are legally banned in eight states, including California since 1996, where minority admissions have declined ever since. But even where such measures are in place, Black students continue to be dramatically underrepresented--at less than 5 percent in the freshman classes of many of the top public universities.

Currently, "merit" and "deservingness" are measured by grade point averages and standardized test scores, such as the SAT. However, there is strong evidence that neither of these measures are accurate indicators of who will be successful in college--which is why many institutions of higher education are ditching standardized testing requirements for admission.

IN THE Black Revolution on Campus, historian Martha Biondi traces the origins of affirmative action as we know it today to the struggles of African American students to gain wider access to public colleges and universities.

In the 1960s, activists argued for shifting the responsibility of these institutions. Black students, she writes, "increasingly framed access to higher education as a right of postwar U.S. citizenship."

In the late 1960s, student organizers at City College of New York--where the students were, at the time, 90 percent white--called for a student body that represented the surrounding Harlem community and its high schools, which would require the college to admit a freshman class that was 43 percent Black. At Brooklyn College--at the time 98 percent white--activists demanded that admission to all Black and Puerto Rican high school graduates who applied.

We owe affirmative action today to the explosive struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, but the policies in place today are a far cry from the broad redistributive agenda from which they emerged.

Meanwhile, there is another kind of affirmative action program that is less talked about, but far more effective--legacy admissions and purchased admissions.

Colleges and universities tend to look favorably on admitting children of alumni, presumably because it facilitates the solicitation of donations. Author Daniel Golden estimates legacy admissions at Yale to be 13 percent of the freshman class, 22 percent at the University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame, and 29 percent at Georgetown.

Then there are those who merely buy their way in. Charles Kushner made a $2.8 million donation to Harvard in 1998, and his son Jared--now Donald Trump's son-in-law and a top White House adviser--was admitted in 1999.

It is revealing that all of the hype and anger surrounding affirmative action is reserved for the kind that admits people openly barred from attending higher education up until a few decades ago, while very little ire is directed at the "affirmative action" reserved for the likes of the Kushners. Rarely does the question emerge of whether or not such students "deserve" to be on campus.

In the context of rising costs for a college degree, declining scholarships and astronomical student debt, the tension around college attendance is likely to increase. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has generally upheld the right of colleges and universities to work towards diversifying their student populations, though undermining it in certain ways. Trump and Sessions face a challenging legal landscape.

But this is no time to be passive. The Black student struggle kicked open the doors of higher education, and a new generation can and must learn from that history.

We don't have to choose between affirmative action and free higher education for all--we can demand that colleges and universities take immediate action to make student bodies more diverse and representative--and we can organize to achieve fully funded public college tuition for all students.

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