Affirmative action no more?

Guest post by Dennis Deslippe

The long-standing call to replace race-sensitive programs with class-sensitive ones has taken on fresh meaning in the wake of oral arguments in the University of Texas case (Fisher v. Texas) at the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week. Although the justices can cast unexpected votes (think Chief Justice John Roberts’ vote in the health care reform case this past spring), it seems likely that the justices will invalidate affirmative action at the nation’s colleges and universities. The arguments for class-based programs are that such a shift in focus would garner favor with white Americans, especially those of modest means who point to the lack of consideration for their disadvantaged status, and it would address in a more wholesale fashion educational inequality.

There is much to commend this move. Its success, however, will depend on advocates bringing together organizations with resources and influence in equal employment policy-making, much as civil rights and feminist organizations did decades ago for our current affirmative action programs. Little work to this end has been done thus far.

The history of affirmative action suggests that class-based affirmative action will face significant opposition. Affirmative action critics—and a fair number of supporters—have long rejected the consideration of socioeconomic background in admissions decision making. When the heads of “white ethnic” organizations of Polish and Italian Americans suggested it in the late 1960s, they were rebuffed by both sides. Affirmative action backers viewed the creation of new categories of recipients as diminishing the claims of racial minorities who, they argued, experienced unique and structural forms of discrimination.

Then, as they do now, opponents endorsed an idyllic meritocracy and rejected any criteria that considered an individual’s race, gender, or economic background. “We are a little down on advantaged people by preferring the disadvantaged,” George Roche, Hillsdale College’s president, grumbled at a government hearing in the 1970s. The amicus briefs filed in support of Abigail Fisher by such organizations as the Pacific Legal Foundation, National Association of Scholars, and the Center for Equal Opportunity question whether diversity can be shown to be a “compelling state interest” or even a legitimate and measurable factor. They will deploy these same claims against class-based programs.

Class-based affirmative action will need policy makers, activists, and resources to counter this opposition. The organizational and activist pressure brought to bear in the early years on the government, employers, and higher education institutions to create affirmative action has been absent for this new approach. Much has been made of the role of sympathetic public officials and judges who served as the midwives to affirmative action. It was grassroots protests by civil rights activists in cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Seattle that forced labor unions and government officials to issue the first affirmative action hiring plans with timetables. So too did feminist activists on campuses join with the National Organization for Women and Women’s Equity Action League to file hundreds of discrimination complaints and lawsuits to protest the lack of women faculty members and graduate students.

With the nation stuck in the economic doldrums and college costs continuing to climb at an alarming rate, the campaign for class-based affirmative action will be a difficult one indeed. Some colleges and university administrators and trustees, alarmed by the fact that the nation’s most prestigious institutions are home to a mostly affluent student body, have moved toward creating a more economically diverse campus. This has resulted in only modest improvement. In the face of falling state support for public higher education and austerity politics dominating our political process, new organizations and a cadre of activists must attempt to do what civil rights activists and feminists did forty years ago.

Perhaps surprisingly, the one group that looks favorably on this class-based approach is the public. Although a string of voter referendums across the country in the past dozen years has yielded victories for the opposition position, polling data suggests that white Americans are more sympathetic to programs that would address persistent discrimination and inequality across the racial lines. During his 2008 campaign, President Obama weighed in on the question of who should receive affirmative action. He endorsed current plans “as a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination.” The then-candidate went on to acknowledge that “white resentment” was “grounded in legitimate concern” and wondered if his daughters, who had “a pretty good deal,” should not be eligible for such programs.

Still, there is cause for class-based supporters’ optimism. Although the debate over affirmative action has long become calcified, Americans are more aware than they were at its origins in the 1960s of the multiple considerations that go into admissions decisions. If legacy preferences, athletic scholarships, regional considerations, and donor and faculty connections all play a role in assessing college applications, Americans should permit a class-sensitive criteria to ensure equal opportunity.

Dennis Deslippe teaches at Franklin & Marshall College and is the author of Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after the Civil Rights Revolution.