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The new affirmative action

May 1, 2002

May 1, 2002

The New Affirmative Action

Lost in the near euphoria following the recent Supreme Court decision is a harsh reality: the new version of affirmative action has absolutely nothing to do with either the redress of past wrongs or a policy designed to advance the chronically underdeveloped Black community. In fact, the Bollinger decision ushers in a new era in which affirmative action exists not for the purpose of advancing the Black community, but to better provide for whites.

Since the 1950s, the affirmative action debate has revolved around the central question of how best to redress the past and present affects of racial discrimination. Over the years the very framework of the debate shifted so fundamentally, that the term "affirmative action" literally does not mean the same today as it meant even a decade ago.

This transformed framework turns long held assumptions on their head, as the Bollinger case failed to consider the matter of racial discrimination, except in concluding the traditional practice of affirmative action is discriminatory against whites. Instead, according to the majority opinion, the Court case sought to resolve its real "question of national importance: Whether diversity is a compelling interest that can justify the narrowly tailored use of race in selecting applications for admission to public universities." Under these terms, affirmative action no longer serves as a weapon to rebuff racial discrimination, but is a tool reconstituted solely for the purpose of achieving glorious diversity.

This newly emergent "national compelling interest" is not rooted in a commitment to social justice, but, in essence, is a by-product of market-based corporate considerations. The majority opinion decreed diversity compelling because "major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints."

Even the form and function of "diversity" was divined principally in the context of how that diversity benefits white students, not the historic and contemporary victims of racism. Today, appropriate legal implementation of affirmative action neither offers redress for the history of active racial discrimination, nor ends the racial disparities directly resulting from that racism, Instead, it provides white students of exclusive universities, overwhelmingly the offspring of well-to-do legacies and corporate leadership, with the career enhancing opportunity to interact with a set of Blacks decent enough to make it into the school, but not quite good enough to gain entry to the private country club. Under the terms of the new affirmative action, then, the primary role of Blacks is not as benefactors of the policy, but as diversity servants, catering to the cultural experience of white students.

As if to further underline the point, the practice of applying "flexible" race considerations permitted in the Bollinger case, empowered schools to enhance their own cultural offerings, and, thus enabling Blackness to benefit white students. By contrast, the version of affirmative action in which the applicant's race actually helped the Black student- not the white ones- by granting him or her 20 points towards admission, was shut down. In the final analysis, Blackness is only rewarded where he or she can "contribute to the learning of those around them."

Equally disturbing, the decision does not concern itself with how diversity- the new goal of affirmative action- might impact the Black community, either positively or negatively. Does the inclusion of more Blacks in law school promote the end of the vicious cycle of race-based class determination? Does diversity directly impact the Black community at all? Does anyone care?

Further, there are no assurances that the invoked clichés of "cross-racial understanding" and the "break down [of] racial stereotypes" will result in any benefits to Blacks in the form of less racist bosses, real estate agents, bankers, or, for that matter, college admissions officers, elected officials or even judges.

Taken as a whole, centuries of racism, vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow, the continued racial disparities in education, employment, income, healthcare and political power and the critical role education plays in advancing poor communities are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant in the new affirmative action.

This newly adopted framework ushers in a fundamental reversal in the relationship between two omnipresent factors of affirmative action: Where race-based admission considerations were at one point primary and causal, with diversity serving as an almost unintended consequence, today, diversity is the cornerstone of affirmative action, of which race-based considerations are but an evil means of limited utility, which is reluctantly employed to achieve the glorious ends of diversity.

At this point, even the option of reviving the argument that Blacks should spend more of our collective time and energy on qualifying children for college on the front end instead of fighting for more seats on the back end, grows increasingly remote as social services and schools which serve our community face massive budgets cuts.

At the end of the day, schools are left contemplating a "flexible" way to consider race in admissions, not because of their own institutional history of racial discrimination or even as a holistic means of addressing, at the university level, the impact of race-based social inequities, as revealed in racially disparate test scores, but in order to achieve diversity for the benefit of the majority white legal and corporate leaders of tomorrow.

The new affirmative action is here, but that is no reason to celebrate.

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