Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on Affirmative Action. While I understand that when most of think about Affirmative Action, we think about how it “forces” potential employers to have a certain amount of percentage of their employee population belong to racial and ethnic groups other then White, and to include a specific percentage of women. But what is it really? Of course there are many resources you can use for your own research on the matter, but as always, I prefer to start simple. And with respect to the simple route, by definition, Affirmative Action is:
“(noun) an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination, especially in relation to employment or education; positive discrimination.”
Pretty simple right? Now let’s talk about the history of Affirmative Action so you can be fully informed about why this is such an important part of American history and how we interact with each other in our diverse, global community.
Once upon a time Black people were slaves and considered only partially human and thus undeserving of rights, and women were thought of as a man’s property–whether her father or her husband–to be governed and lead because she was too weak physically and mentally to do much more than bear children and “keep house.” Then, Black people weren’t slaves and were considered wholly human, and women were suddenly acknowledged and intelligent people and both could do things like read, work and vote. Hooray for personhood right?
Well, as it turns out, just because the law suddenly acknowledges a given set of facts, doesn’t mean that individuals will follow suit. When non-Whites and women applied for things like college and jobs, more often than not, a White man would be chosen for the position. The perception hadn’t caught up with the politics. People, the individuals in charge of making hiring decisions still thought of non-Whites and women as unintelligent, lazy, and unqualified solely based on race and genitalia. It was because of this that one President after another issued Executive orders requiring branches of government and institutions in the public and private sectors to get with the times. Of course this is a gross simplification of the story, and you are welcome to avail yourselves of a more detailed version of it, but I really must get to the point.
I’ve always been torn on the issue of Affirmative Action; arguing that I’d rather know that I was hired because I was the most qualified applicant for a job than just because I might fill some quota. On the other hand, I have to live in the world that we have, and not the one I wish we had. The reality is that We are all judged, both positively and negatively, by our appearance first. For example, the first thing anyone will see and observe about me is that I am Black, the second is that I am female. The content of my character—as is always brought up in this argument—is not apparent at first glance, and unfortunately, by the time an admissions counselor might have occasion to see passed the color of my skin or my gender, they will have already made several judgments and assumptions about my character, one of which will likely include my not being who I represent myself as in their presence. They will have already decided what kind of student I will be, how far I’ll be allowed to achieve and what kind of representative of their student body I might make. They’ll have made assumptions about my interests and tastes, my comportment, social and socio-economic standing, and how far I will be willing to go to achieve the goals (if they believe I have goals at all) I have set for myself. They will have created an entire story, a whole alternate reality about who I am and what I’m about within the first 3-5 seconds of meeting me or seeing my picture. Such is the world we live in.
Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor explained the folly of having upheld the ruling in her dissent (it starts on page 51) yesterday, wherein she said:
“While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals–her, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures. Today, by permitting a majority of voters in Michigan to do what our Constitution forbids, the Court ends the debate over race-sensitive admissions policies in Michigan in a manner that contravenes constitutional protections long recognized in our precedents…
… Today’s decision eviscerates an important strand of our equal protection jurisprudence. For members of historically marginalized groups, which rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights, the decision can hardly bolster hope for a vision of democracy the preserves for all the right to participate meaningfully and equally in self-government.”
Her 58-paged fact-filled, passionate dissent is the reason why I think it important to remember that we cannot afford to allow ourselves to wallow in complacency. Our so-called “post-racial America” is actively–however slowly–regressing to a state where equity and civil rights will be the punch lines of jokes told by a privileged few. Even more unfortunate, I don’t believe that the injustice will stop with non-Whites and women. I believe that if we fail to act labor laws, access to a quality education, wage restrictions, the costs and standard of living and all manner of the proverbial “glass ceiling” limitations will take hold and plunge us all into the kinds of unpleasant situations that have other nations at war with their governments.
Before you change the channel, I am neither calling for civil war, nor am I taking one of those extremist views that we’re all going to be back on plantations and sweat shops. I am however saying that if we don’t start paying attention to the seemingly small victories that the proponents of a ruling top 2% . I am suggesting that we not allow our civil rights and liberties be taken from us one legislative action at a time. I’m saying that we need to learn about and remember our history such that we might avoid repeating it.
Your homework: look into your local government’s proposed or recently passed legislative actions. Does it help or harm your community’s potential for growth and prosperity? Who proposed it? Are they up for reelection? Share your findings with the class and tell us what you want to do about it.
Together, we can effect change… but only once we’ve acknowledged that change is necessary.