Past Discrimination and Diversity: A Historical Context for Understanding Race and Affirmative Action

Article excerpt

This article examines the specific historical experiences of minority students at the University of Michigan from 1970 to the late 1990s, in order to provide a context for understanding and appreciating the ways in which affirmative action remedies should address patterns of past discrimination.

In a recent book on Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform, Derrick Bell (2004) points out that Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) is "an affirmative action plan that minimizes the importance of race while offering maximum protection to [Whites]" and thus sustains the racial status quo (p. 151). Consequently, the decision "implies noblesse oblige, not legal duty, and suggests the dispensation of charity rather than the granting of much-deserved relief (p. 140). Specifically, affirmative action is supported for diversity in the classroom and the military, "not the need to address past and continuing racial barriers" (p. 151). To Bell, this construction of affirmative action reflects both the narrowness of the so-called affirmative action victory, its incapacity to protect the long-term interests of students of color and its vulnerability in future litigation. The failure to justify considerations of race in college admissions as a means to remedy long-standing racial barriers leaves students of color as the "fortuitous beneficiaries" of institutional charity, not parties to much-deserved relief from past and continuing racial discrimination. A decision that gives only "passing mention and no weight to the barriers of racial discrimination" Bell continues, "endangers the future of minority admissions" (p. 141).

Throughout the debate over the Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) cases, very little was known to the public about the past experiences of students of color at Michigan. While the historical scholarship on race in America tells us much about societal racism, it discloses little about the historically specific patterns of discrimination in particular institutions of higher education. Indeed, the historical scholarship on American higher education lacks detailed analyses of the experiences of students of color in traditional White universities and colleges. This omission makes it difficult for judges, scholars, higher education leaders, and especially the general public to know what weight to give to the barriers of racial discrimination and the ways in which it has affected the educational experiences of students of color. This article examines the specific historical experiences of minority students at the University of Michigan from 1970 to the late 1990s, in order to provide a context for understanding and appreciating the ways in which affirmative action remedies should address patterns of past discrimination.

THE BLACK ACTION MOVEMENT OF 1970

On February 5, 1970, Michigan's Black Action Movement (BAM) presented demands to President Robben Fleming for the increased recruitment of Black students and faculty, more financial aid and supportive services, and the expansion of the Black Studies program. Reacting strongly to a long history of token enrollment for students of color, BAM spearheaded a movement to increase access for underrepresented students. As of 1968, in a total domestic population of 32,261, Michigan enrolled 797 Black students, 312 "Orientals," 30 "Spanish speaking," and 43 American Indian students (Newell, 1968). President Fleming regarded BAM's proposals on their merits as "reasonable and constructive," but worried about the availability of funds to support such proposals (Fleming, 1996). The Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies also recognized the economic costs of the proposed reforms stating that it adds up to money, of which will have to come out the University's funds. Governor William Milliken endorsed the BAM proposals and the University's faculty legislative assembly, Senate Advisory Committee for University Affairs (SACUA), unanimously approved a resolution urging the University's eighteen schools and colleges to make the admissions and budgetary decisions achieve at least 10% Black enrollment by the 1973-74 academic year. …