End Game: The Rise and Fall of Affirmative Action in Higher Education

Article excerpt

You mean that, halfway through, With the game all but over, you'd like To change the rules of play?

- Primo Levi (1988: 70)

It was time but somehow we missed it. I don't see how.

- Caryl Churchill (1996: 61)

Introduction

On November 5, 1996, some 56% of California voters decided to endorse Proposition 209, the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, which, if upheld by the courts, will eliminate what is left of state-based affirmative action policies. The day after the elections, Mario Savio died. The two events are quite interrelated, not only because Mario's last effort was to co-write with his son Nadav a defense of affirmative action and a critique of Proposition 209, but also because his life of activism corresponded with an extraordinary period of U.S. history (Savio and Savio, 1996). Future historians might very well note 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, and 1996 as the markers of the rise and fall of the post-World War II Civil Rights Movement, the end of a historically specific phase in the struggle for social equality.

Much has been written in recent years about the merits and problems of affirmative action as a specific policy for rectifying inequality.(1) In this article I will try to locate this debate in a larger historical context. First, I argue for a broader interpretation of affirmative action that rescues it from the mostly racialized imagery in which it has been projected for at least the last decade.(2) Second, I propose that the expanded use of affirmative action in the 1960s and 1970s should be understood as one component of a far-reaching movement to attack the root causes of inequality in the United States. In particular, I will focus on the role it played in beginning to democratize both access to and the organizational culture of higher education. Third, I will discuss the varied reasons for the demise of affirmative action as we have known it.

Revisioning Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is typically associated with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the struggle of African Americans to break through the barriers of segregation and exclusion. Yet as a government policy, it has much deeper roots, going back in name to the 1935 Wagner Act, which authorized the National Labor Relations Board to correct unfair labor practices. In one sense, affirmative action of the 1960s continued a long tradition of Progressive Era and New Deal regulatory commissions, from the 1915 Federal Trade Commission to New York's 1945 State Commission Against Discrimination (Graham, 1992). Today's critics of affirmative action, who represent this policy primarily in racialized terms, choose to forget this aspect of its history (see, for example, Herrnstein and Murray, 1994: Chapter 19).

By affirmative action, I am referring to government-supported interventions to stop injustices against individuals or groups whose suffering is not self-inflicted; to correct the injustices caused by systemic discrimination; and to prevent its recurrence. This broad definition encompasses people who by virtue of their birth into a particular class, ethnicity, racial designation, gender, or sexuality are excluded or denied rights and entitlements that would typically be theirs if they were born white, male, and middle or upper class.

As a result of the institutional weaknesses of the labor movement and the lack of a sustained tradition of third parties, the United States of the last 150 years has the greatest class polarization and economic disparities of any comparable Western nation (Carnoy, 1994). As Gary Wills (1996:13) has noted, wealth in the United States is "concentrated in fewer hands than at any time in our past - and in fewer hands than any other modern democracy tolerates." Still, during the last century, we can find several examples of class-based entitlement programs that used the power of government to open doors to previously excluded groups and to redistribute resources, jobs, and tax benefits. …

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