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The Perils and Possibilities of an America Without Affirmative Action

Those who support affirmative action have to prepare for an America without it.

How much diversity on campus is enough? When it comes to the use of race in college admission policies raised by the case Fisher v. University of Texas, that's the question Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wanted answered during the oral arguments recently presented to the Court. I have a different set of questions: How do those who support affirmative action—and race-conscious policies in general—prepare for an America without them? Secondly, would an America without them be so bad?

Some consider a post-affirmative action America a triumph of post-racialism, some view it as the prelude to a racial apocalypse, and still others fall somewhere in the middle. Whether you are for or against it, the future of affirmative action is questionable at best. While it's true that certain sectors of our society such as business and higher education continue to support the practice, it's less popular among the general public.

A February Rasmussen poll conducted when the Supreme Court took up the Fisher case found that only 24 percent of likely U.S. voters favor applying affirmative action policies to college admissions. Fifty-five percent oppose the use of such policies to determine who is admitted to colleges and universities. More recently, the Huffington Post reported that most people between the ages of 18-25 oppose affirmative action with 47 percent opposing programs that make special efforts to help minority students, compared to 38 percent favoring them.

While attitudes on this issue predictably split along racial lines, the degree of opposition among young people should be a wake-up call to racial equity activists. We are failing to persuade a significant segment of those representing the future of our nation that race-conscious approaches are a defensible and necessary feature of a society committed to achieving a multi-racial democracy. The presidency of our first black head of state is weakening such arguments even further. Affirmative action may prove to be a casualty of the so-called Obama Era.

Some have argued that even if the Supreme Court strikes down the use of race in college admissions policies, they cannot "kill" affirmative action. It will continue to operate off the books as a social value. That’s a persuasive argument, but what if things don't work out that way?

As a parent of a 4-year-old, I cannot assume that policies I benefited from will still be there when my son reaches college age. I want him to be prepared for college, but I'll have to make sure that he is super-prepared to compete for admission to the nation's best colleges against those who have benefited from a lifetime of white privilege.

As an educator, I'll have to prepare a pedagogy that addresses the reality of the hyper-whitening of my classroom demographics. As a citizen, I will need to prepare myself for the consolidation of a white-dominated democracy with an increasingly disenfranchised people of color majority. As an activist, I’ll need to gird myself for a multi-generational struggle against all of these emerging realities.

A post-affirmative action America may also strike some of us with fear. However, we should consider the possibility that this scenario might be an opportunity and not just a catastrophe. Over the past year, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, has sparked a much needed conversation about race and the criminal justice system. What has received less attention, however, is the provocative analysis of affirmative action in her book. Alexander does not just question the preoccupation of civil rights organizations with defending affirmative action while remaining silent on mass incarceration. She suggests that the reason for this is that affirmative action has functioned as a kind of payoff for the acquiescence of middle and upper-middle class black Americans.

If so, the extinction of affirmative action might serve as some tough, but ultimately healing medicine. Elite black folks like me would be forced to make common cause with poor and working class blacks. For the black underclass, or undercaste as Alexander puts it, debates about race in college admissions are essentially irrelevant.

It may also encourage greater interracial collaboration with poor and working class whites for whom affirmative action has functioned as a wedge between them and people of color. This wedge has been skillfully manipulated by moneyed-elites to keep the vast majority of Americans—the 99 percent—in our place. Since Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, multiracial, cross-class coalitions have always been stronger and more effective at challenging the hegemony of the 1 percent.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the Fischer case, affirmative action is under sustained assault. Those of us who believe in it should keep making the case that America is not ready to end it. At the same time, we need urgent and serious discussion of what to do if we fail to effectively make that case. We also need to question the idea that affirmative action’s demise can only represent a step backward. We must face both the perils and the possibilities of an America after affirmative action.

Class asking questions photo via Shutterstock

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