As I sit at the bedside of affirmative action for Black people, I am not reflecting on its short life. I am not fuming about what could be a premature death.
I am reflecting on the recent strategy to keep it alive. I am fuming about the failure of liberals to move outside the new box of liberalism to sustain its life.
After the Supreme Court listened to oral arguments this week in Fisher v. University of Texas, it appears quite a few liberals have begun to pray for a miracle. Like a man falling out of an airplane, only a miracle, they believe, will keep affirmative action for Black people alive.
They are right—they do need a miracle. With their strategy, the liberal defenders of affirmative action for Black people need a miracle if they hope to win. The losing strategy: moral suasion or, what I term in my work, “White suasion.”
Liberal supporters of affirmative action have argued that it benefits White students, White colleges, White America to have diverse student bodies. They will try to persuade White people that it is in their interest to keep a minor admissions factor that benefits Black people. This is the diversity rationale.
In Grutter v. Bollinger, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action for Black people used by the University of Michigan Law School in 2003. Surprisingly siding with the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority ruling that the Constitution “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”
Who benefits educationally from a diverse student body? The implication was clear—White students. Liberal defenders grabbed this shield and have defended affirmative action for Black people from the blows of opponents ever since.
Practically all the considerations in the admissions process advantage White candidates, except affirmative action, which is a minor consideration. And we are trying to convince the majority White Supreme Court and White Americans in general to allow this one minor consideration on the pretext that a diverse classroom benefits them.
It does benefit them. The statistics show it. But oftentime people—White, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American—do not support what benefits them.
Liberals need to face the social fact of America—racism is alive and well, which is why their strategy is failing, which is why affirmative action is dying. More White people seem to value eliminating the one minor consideration that benefits Black people more than they value a diverse classroom. They hear the diversity rationale and they like diversity. But they like an admission process that totally benefits them more. White youth between the ages of 18 and 25 hear the diversity rationale, but 66 percent still oppose affirmative action.
We must accept the unpleasant truth. The liberal defenders of affirmative action are trying to make the historic enemies of affirmative action believe that it helps them. To me, that is a losing strategy, a failing strategy, and it may fail before our eyes pretty soon.
That may be a good thing for affirmative action for Black people because it may resurrect the old strategy, the more progressive strategy. The strategy that assumes White people generally will never agree to any policy they feel helps Black people and hinders them individually or as a collective. And, therefore, affirmative action must be forced on the United States to remedy past and previous discrimination, including the deeply racist K-12 system.
Through Lyndon B. Johnson at the federal level, civil rights and Black power activists at the community level, and the Black Campus Movement at the campus level—affirmative action was forced on White Americans and higher education in the 1960s and 1970s. Moderate liberals and leftist progressives joined together in the mid-twentieth century to use the racism rationale as a strategy to birth and care for affirmative action for Black people.
Since then, liberals and progressives have separated ideologically. Liberals have championed the racial progress of America, of higher education since the Sixties. When progressives have pointed toward the illusion of racial progress, liberals have called them naïve, negative, needlessly angry.
However, the liberal cheerleading of racial progress has undermined the racism rationale in the last few decades. The grander they championed America’s racial achievements, the less they could argue for affirmative action for Black people based on the racism rationale, all but forcing them to adopt the diversity rationale.
What’s more, because of their liberal cheerleading of racial progress, their move back to the original racism rationale would be fraught with resistance. In a country where many people truly believe we live in a post-racism society, a belief partly produced by the liberal defenders of affirmative action, the racism rationale would seem like heresy to many people. But we must not forget that the racism rationale seemed like heresy to many people in the 1960s.
The racism rationale is the only way forward. The diversity rationale may miraculously get past the Supreme Court this time. But its days are numbered, and affirmative action’s days are numbered unless we readopt the racism rationale and a will for grassroots struggle. What gave birth to affirmative action for Black people is now required to halt its death.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.