Affirmative Action’s True Purpose

As a new SCOTUS case begins, it's time for advocates to reframe the conversation about the issue.


 (The Root) — As the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments this week in Fisher v. University of Texas, we can expect our country to descend into the now standard hand-wringing about affirmative action. But our conversations about Fisher, like those surrounding the Ricci v. DeStefano firefighter case four years ago and the Grutter v. Bollinger case nine years ago, will most likely avoid engaging the core questions that lie at the heart of whether and how affirmative action should be continued. 

The blame for the inadequate nature of our conversation about affirmative action must be shared by civil rights organizations and right-wing groups. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when right-wing groups and the Reagan Justice Department were engaged in a full-frontal attack on affirmative action, civil rights organizations were hard at work fighting the toughest cases in the courts. What civil rights organizations were not doing was fighting the right on the terrain of America’s hearts and minds. Of course, civil rights leaders thought that they had fought that battle already. The civil rights movement was not just a monumental legal and legislative victory over institutionalized racism in the U.S.; it was also — and perhaps more importantly — a moral victory over the idea of white supremacy.

Forty years later, overt racism remains a social taboo, largely because of the shifted moral ground plowed by civil rights protesters, plantiffs, schoolchildren and iconic leaders, who compelled America to confront itself and shamed this country into living up to our country’s rhetoric about freedom and equality.

But it’s now evident that during the late ’70s and ’80s we mistakenly abandoned the moral appeal to the heart of America. Instead, the right took up their own emotional and moral appeal. They spoke to deeply held American beliefs about fairness, and the ill-informed belief that America is a true meritocracy. And they tapped into the fierce underlying fear and insecurity of working-class whites, who feared that black advancement would result in their economic displacement. 

By the time the Supreme Court had the opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of affirmative-action policies, the court and the American public were already deeply influenced by an anti-affirmative-action lexicon that had begun to seep into the mainstream. The word “quota” had been resurrected and mined for all of its anti-Semitic history and used to taint affirmative-action efforts. The term “reverse discrimination” — a slur against affirmative action in the ’80s — became mainstream and was, by the 1990s, the title of sections in constitutional-law casebooks used to teach the nation’s law students. 

For the last 20 years, affirmative action has suffered even more by the limited context in which it’s been considered by the court and the public. Admission to elite universities and law schools has masked the realities of continued racial exclusion and segregation in employment in the U.S. economy, where, from its very beginnings, affirmative-action efforts have been powerfully resisted. The result is that even many blacks believe that affirmative action has nothing to do with working-class blacks. The Ricci v. DeStefano case, in which a bare majority of the court struck down the use of affirmative-action measures in the assessment of firefighter exams, provided at least some opportunity to talk about racial exclusion in fire departments throughout the U.S.