A recent column in the alumni newsletter of my alma mater,
the University of
Mississippi, is headlined
"We Have Legacies." The quote is lifted from the column and would ordinarily
evoke the world of Southern landed gentry. A photograph on the page, however,
shows the author to be an African-American woman, thereby turning another Old
South stereotype on its head at a school that already has cast off many symbols
of its all-white history. The battle flag of the Confederacy is no longer
displayed at Ole Miss football games, for instance, and "Dixie"
is no longer sung loudly in the stands.
The author is my former classmate and a member of the Ole
Miss student hall of fame, as are her daughter and numerous other
African-American alumni. She notes certain responsibilities associated with
what she calls legacy status at Ole Miss, such as leadership and humanitarian
spirit. She writes passionately about second-generation members of black
families now enrolled there and praises those whose courageous sacrifices made
it all possible, including "people of various races, backgrounds, and age
"I am the beneficiary of those sacrifices," she wrote.
So am I, I thought.
Since its founding in 1848, Ole Miss has reluctantly
relinquished traditions; until nearly half a century ago, one such tradition
was to exclude blacks from admission. Yet in recent years, despite its racially
charged history, the school has strategically employed affirmative action to
welcome minority students, and the effort has succeeded. African Americans now
make up nearly 15 percent of the student body, three times the enrollment
during my time there in the 1970s. The black students on campus--including
those walking at the very spot where riots broke out in 1962 when James
Meredith integrated the university--are legacies of affirmative action.
To be sure, affirmative action at Ole Miss has not been
without its detractors, including members of old-line white-legacy families.
That being the case, and now that blacks are part of the school's alumni
establishment, I wonder when debate over the future of affirmative action will
begin. For my part, I have started to question a tenet I once resolutely held,
taking a position that would make the author of the newsletter column wince. I
believe it is time to reconsider affirmative action.
The question is as old as affirmative action itself, which
can be traced back to March 6, 1961, when President Kennedy created the
President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and directed its members
to "consider and recommend additional affirmative steps" to eliminate racial
discrimination in government employment. Codified as law in the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, affirmative action has been upheld by the Supreme Court in University of California
Regents v. Bakke (1978) and again in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003),
which originated at the University
of Michigan law school.
Both decisions generated countless analyses by legal scholars, political
scientists, and sociologists, and I've studied many of the arguments through
the years while strongly supporting the law. After all, like my Ole Miss
classmate, I am one of its beneficiaries. Grutter v. Bollinger and its
companion case Gratz v. Bollinger hit especially close to home because I
attended the University
of Michigan as a graduate
student on a minority-student scholarship governed by the admissions policy
challenged in the lawsuit.
My time in Michigan
introduced me to a world of ideas beyond the provincial South--I had grown up
closed society--and provided an intellectual transformation that still resounds
in my life. I arrived in Ann Arbor
when literary-theory debates were active in English departments across the
country yet had not made their way to my corner of the South. I followed them
with rapt attention. Deconstruction challenged the way we all thought about
literature, making us read and recontextualize what we read rather than think
strictly in terms of genres of literature. Looking back, I realize that if I
had not had a middle-class background and college-educated parents, I would not
have thrived at Michigan.
But I also know that the ideas I found transformative were considered routine
by my fellow graduate students, the white students who had grown up with
broader cultural experiences than mine. The gap between my middle-class
experience and theirs was bridged in part by affirmative action.
Not long ago, whenever I heard conservative commentators say
that the University
affirmative-action system is fatally flawed, that it should be "colorblind," my
reaction, based on my experiences there, was one of emotional rejection. I'd
heard that line before, in defense of the separate-but-equal schools that
created gaps in my education. But after studying Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's
majority opinion in the 5-4 Michigan
case, I began to put my emotions aside. "Race-conscious admissions policies
must be limited in time," she wrote, and I have come to believe that although
the time may not be the present, preparations must begin now.
Three years ago I began to research and write about the
lives of my maternal grandparents, Jim and Edna Richardson, an interracial
couple whose Alabama
marriage in about 1915 was outlawed by miscegenation laws. In a state where
intermarriage was punishable by seven years of hard labor, Jim and Edna left
few written traces of their lives and struggles. They kept no diaries, and the
family destroyed their letters. I've been reconstructing their lives in the
context of race and identity by looking at court data and land records and
collecting oral histories. Through courthouse records I've learned how they
legal hurdles regarding property, inheritance, and the transference of assets--laws
that were enacted to discourage interracial marriage and families. My
grandparents' lives were richer and fuller than I could ever have imagined, yet
a sense of peril hovered over them.
My white grandfather chose to live and raise his family in a
black community in the Jim Crow South and cast a blind eye to traditional
racial lines. At that time in Alabama,
a citizen's race was determined by the so-called one-drop rule: anyone with a
trace of African ancestry could not be considered Caucasian. Despite the
documents identifying them as white, and despite years of census records
describing them as Caucasian, the children of Jim and Edna Richardson lived as
black people. At the same time, my black grandmother, white grandfather, and
their children simply ignored the Jim Crow trappings of state-sanctioned shame
and inferiority, and that denial is a source of my strong racial and cultural
Examining laws and courthouse records, I discovered how
severely my family was disadvantaged economically by choosing a black identity.
When my grandfather died, my mother and her siblings could not inherit his
substantial estate because the state of Alabama
did not recognize as legitimate the children of an interracial marriage. Before
his death, my grandfather deeded most of his landholdings to his children, but
they could not inherit his liquid assets. As a result, the disparity in
affluence between middle-class blacks and whites resonates in my family.
Two generations down the line, my grandparents'
great-grandchildren live in an interracial home unencumbered by state-imposed
legal restrictions or culturally imposed identities. My children are part of a
growing population of individuals who do not fit traditional racial and ethnic
pigeonholes, the very categories that are used to determine affirmative-action
preferences. Over 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, some seven million
people, reported being members of more than one race in the 2000 census, the
first to allow participants to "check all that apply" in the category of race.
A 2004 estimate from the Census Bureau shows that 46 percent of this
multiracial population is younger than 18. When the 2010 census is tabulated,
the multiracial category will probably increase as Asians and Hispanics--who
intermarry with members of other groups at rates higher than whites and blacks--will
make up more of the overall population.
Home for spring break last year, my son Patrick, who attends
a New England boarding school, told me that his fellow students told him during
a late-night bull session that he "has it made" when it comes to college
prospects because of his affirmative-action status. Patrick and I agreed that
there is a need for some members of the minority population to continue
receiving affirmative-action benefits. And yet, I thought, the one-drop rule
endures. What disadvantages had Patrick encountered in his life that would make
him a candidate for affirmative action? He couldn't think of any. Like many
other middle-class children of his generation, he and his two siblings have
known no impediments comparable to attending segregated schools and using
outdated, handed-down textbooks from white schools. In one generation, our
family's middle-class experience has gone from predetermined limits to few
limits and even some advantages.
The changes came about in spite of the fact that across
three generations my family has fallen under racial classifications based on
ancestry, skin color, an ideology of colorblindness, and now what I perceive to
be a deepening of the one-drop rule. Like much of our civil rights legislation,
affirmative action was conceived in an era when the one-drop rule was the only
way for people of mixed race to construct an ethnic identity. My children are
constructing social identities outside the traditional racial boundaries by
which affirmative-action preferences are determined, yet for affirmative-action
status they are considered to be black. And their middle-class African-American
peers also have affirmative-action status, as do those from minority groups who
may be their family's first generation to attend college. This doesn't seem
As an affirmative-action beneficiary, I feel like a heretic
for even contemplating the retooling of a system under which I thrived. I don't
today as a post-racial society, but I do believe we are well into a
post-civil-rights-movement era. Discrimination and racism persist in segments
of our society. As the fortunes of the black middle class rise and race becomes
more fluid in some segments of American society, the black underclass remains
poor, poorly educated, and increasingly separated from the mainstream. More and
more, social class, rather than race, determines one's fortunes. A recent study
by the Pew Research Center
underscores this change, concluding that "African Americans see a widening gulf
between the values of the middle class and poor blacks."
What can those of us in the black middle class do to narrow
the gulf? I endorse the ideals of racial equality fought for during the civil
rights movement and believe they must be extended to poor and disadvantaged
Americans. As we, the children of the civil rights movement, become middle-aged
and mainstream, we seem to have lost sight of these ideals. Somehow we must
reclaim them before what we now know as affirmative action is dismantled in a
way that is detrimental to all Americans below the poverty line.
Legislation banning affirmative action has already passed in
and Washington State. Michigan's ban on affirmative action, called
Proposal 2, passed largely in response to Grutter v. Bollinger. A referendum to
ban affirmative action in Nebraska
was just approved in the November 4 election. Affirmative action as we know it
is slowly being chipped away, and little is being done to reshape it. For
years, conservatives have been calling for a class-based system of affirmative
action. Yet given that disadvantaged members of minority groups tend to perform
academically at a lower level than disadvantaged whites, a totally class-based
system will not work equitably. What is needed is a middle ground that examines
where affirmative action has been, what it has achieved, and how we can reshape
it for today's realities, all the while keeping sight of its historic goals.
Class alone cannot replace race as the basis for an affirmative-action remedy;
we need new criteria to deal with continuing educational and racial inequities
in the United States.
In places as different from one another as the Mississippi Delta and Anacostia
in Washington, D.C., race is still a big factor in
educational and social opportunities. And as the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has noted, schools are
resegregating not only on racial lines but also on class lines. In the South,
where much of this resegregation is taking place, middle-class African
Americans are likely to attend a segregated school that also has a
concentration of poverty as well as limited resources. Racial inequities have
simply not been replaced by class inequities. The overall equation is far more
complex than class alone.
That's why black intellectuals and policymakers should
reexamine affirmative action, asking how economics might shape the laws and
policies that inevitably will replace affirmative action. The writings of
Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist and
strategist, can guide them.
King embraced affirmative action but also believed it should
help economically disadvantaged people of both races. He proposed a Bill of
Rights for the Disadvantaged, not a Bill of Rights for Blacks, noting that
"while Negroes form the vast majority of America's disadvantaged, there are
millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill. It is a simple
matter of justice that America,
in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness,
should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor."
Conservatives quote King's famous assertion that people
should be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of
their skin as evidence that he would have been against affirmative action. Yet
he believed that affirmative action should benefit African Americans to
compensate for past discrimination. "For it is obvious that if a man is entered
at the starting line in a race 300 years after another man," King wrote, "the
first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his
fellow runner." But he also wanted protection for all poor people. He went to Memphis in the spring of
1968 to promote a campaign that would unite low-income people regardless of
The goals of King's Poor People's Campaign were never
realized, and we'll never know whether his call for justice would have brought
about a bill of rights for the disadvantaged, a measure that he wanted Congress
to enact and that he saw as akin to the GI Bill, with grants for education and
other opportunities that would achieve "basic psychological and motivational
transformation" for the poor. After King's assassination in April 1968, Rustin,
his adviser, continued to write and speak about racial justice and progress
until his death in 1987. Rustin was a prominent organizer of the 1963 March on
Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet his position in civil rights history is
tenuous because of controversial positions he took during his long life and
because he was openly gay. One obituary quoted him as saying, "I believe in
social dislocation and creative trouble." His positions, controversial in his
time, have aged well.
Rustin witnessed the shift in the status of African
Americans from the political margins to a position near the center of power. He
foresaw that the transformation would bring some African Americans into the
mainstream yet leave others behind. "The prominent racial and ethnic loyalties
that divide American society have, together with our democratic creed, obscured
a fundamental reality-that we are a class society," he wrote in a 1971 Harper's
Magazine article titled "Blacks and the Unions." He recognized that poverty,
particularly urban poverty, was tougher to fight than Jim Crow segregation, and
that civil rights alone would not address the issues of the African-American
community: "Each of the various institutions touching the lives of urban
blacks-those relating to education, health, employment, housing, and crime-is
in need of drastic reform." That holds true today.
By 1974 Rustin believed that affirmative action alone could
"do little to help blacks unless it operates in a positive economic framework.
An affirmative action program cannot find jobs for the unemployed or help the
underemployed into better jobs if those jobs do not exist." At a congressional
hearing, he said he feared that the emphasis on affirmative action would leave
poor African Americans behind and could not work to further their economic
prospects. It can only succeed, he testified, "when combined with programs
which have as their objective a much more fundamental economic transformation
than affirmative action could bring about."
In the 1970s the civil rights establishment marginalized
Rustin because he emphasized employment, education, and training for the
African-American underclass rather than affirmative action. But his journey
into the wilderness gave him time to contemplate the post-civil rights era.
Many of his ideas are worth revisiting today to counter those who would
dismantle affirmative action and replace it with a colorblind or completely
In Rustin's personal papers, now held by the Library of
Congress, I found an undated draft of an article he wrote for The Baltimore Sun
on the future of black politics. It could have been written today. Looking
beyond the civil rights era, he wondered how the cultural and political change
brought about by the movement might evolve. "As in any period of significant
social change, the potentials of the new situation cannot be realized until we
are liberated from the modes of thought and action of the past. The strategies
of the civil rights period were once appropriate, but when outdated they become
roadblocks to further progress." Affirmative action is one of those strategies.
We must start working now to assure that it does not become a roadblock.
But how do we approach changing a strategy that has had such
success and continue with that success on another level? First of all, an
independent presidential commission needs to be put in place to examine what
the options might be, with an eye toward an affirmative-action program that
would help bring more of the working poor into the middle class. The solution
would need to be flexible enough to work in urban as well as rural areas, or in
small cities in places as diverse as Alabama, Iowa, and Nebraska,
where large numbers of Latino workers have settled to work in factories.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama's candor about his
white mother from Kansas and black father from
signaled a shift in American culture. Early in his campaign for the Democratic
nomination, in response to a journalist's question regarding affirmative
action, Obama said that his daughters don't deserve affirmative-action
preferences. He said they "should probably be treated by any admissions officer
as folks who are pretty advantaged." Although his view of affirmative action is
at odds with prevailing liberal orthodoxy, as an African American of mixed-race
heritage, Obama is well positioned to take this position. In his speech on race
during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama hinted that he understands
the impact this shift is having: "We may not look the same and we may not have
come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction-toward
a better future for our grandchildren."
Liberal or conservative, America must not let affirmative
action wither away just because changing it might violate prevailing principles
of political orthodoxy. Since the plight of low-income Americans was one of
Obama's campaign themes, he should make retooled affirmative action central to
providing a path for people of all races into the middle class.
My generation of African Americans got a better future
because of affirmative action, yet we cannot remain focused on the past. None
of us can afford to leave another generation behind without any hope of working
toward a better future.