In much of recent memory, battles over education reform have been portrayed as pitting Republican governors against teachers’ unions. Lately, though, we’ve also seen hard-line reform-minded Democrats going against the party’s traditional base of labor liberals, exemplified by the Chicago Teachers Union's two-week strike to oppose (among other things) Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to tie compensation to student improvement. But new research shows that there might be something else going on than simple union-versus-education-reform infighting. Instead, battles over education may be tied to a much deeper issue: race.
The reason affirmative action matters is not because of the possible educational benefits of diversity but because it raises a more fundamental question: do raise-conscious admissions policies amount to unjustifiable discrimination against white people or are they an appropriate response to both past and present discrimination against black people? But even though racism against blacks and Latinos remains a real issue in American society (the idea that whites are also its victims is a joke the Supreme Court has never gotten), the fundamental inequalities in American life today—the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer—are not produced by discrimination and cannot be resolved by anti-discrimination. And affirmative action—whether class-based or race-based—is only a way of buttressing those inequalities. As is, indeed, the entire emphasis on education as the key to a more economically just society. In other words, the reason both affirmative action and education matter in the way they do is not because they solve the problem we actually have but because they conceal it. And the increasingly popular idea that we can fix affirmative action by making it work for poor people as well as or instead of for people of color is just another turn of the neoliberal screw. The problem is not unequal access to the elite; it’s the very idea of the elite.
Although many liberals have expressed initial relief that the Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas did not kill affirmative action outright, when the dust settles it will become clear that the ruling made it substantially harder to justify race-based affirmative action programs. The Supreme Court adopted a new, higher standard, requiring that judges "must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity." Unlike the earlier ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court won't simply take the word of universities that race is a necessary consideration; universities will receive "no deference" on that issue, the Fisher court ruled. Procedurally, the justices simply sent the case back to the lower court, but make no mistake, the ability to use race as a qualification for admission has been scaled back by this decision.
For the Supreme Court, the key question in Fisher v. University of Texas was this: “Is diversity in college admissions a compelling interest for the government, and are race-conscious policies a legitimate way of pursuing that interest?”
Put another way, is racism over and do we still have to deal with it?
To my—and many other’s—surprise, the Court decided to sidestep this question. Rather than support UT’s claim that its race-conscious policies fall within the Court’s standards for affirmative action, or Fisher’s claim that race-consciousness has no place in the business of college admissions, the Supreme Court—in a 7–1 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy—sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on a technicality.
The last week or so has seen several polls on the popularity of affirmative action, as a preface (of sorts) to the Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas. But major differences between the polls make it difficult to judge where Americans stand on racial preferences
When it comes to education policy, inconstancy is the only constant. During the past generation, self-styled reformers have pitched such nostrums as vouchers, charter schools, high-stakes accountability for teachers, and a near-total emphasis on reading and math. Nothing seems to be working, though: American students continue to lag on international tests and racial and ethnic achievement gaps stubbornly persist.
As my colleague Jamelle Bouie noted yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Fisher v. UT Austin, a challenge to the use of affirmative action for undergraduate admissions at the University of Texas. I wish I could make a case for more optimism, but I have to agree with the conventional wisdom that Grutter v.
(“It’s His Fault,” political cartoon, 2003, from Washington Post Writers Group.)
In almost every argument I’ve had about affirmative action in college admissions, someone eventually trots out the idea that the beneficaries of affirmative action are somehow “stealing” spots that rightfully belong to more “deserving” students. Ignoring, for a moment, the implicit assumption—that minority students are somehow less deserving—it’s simply a fact that college admissions don’t work that way. In open-admission pools where no one has a guaranteed spot, universites use a large number of factors to determine whom they accept and whom they deny. Sometimes, it turns on race and ethnicity, and sometimes it doesn’t.