The morning of the affirmative action workshop at the Rainbow/PUSH coalition conference last month was the very same morning that the Supreme Court released its controversial and divided decisions in the twin University of Michigan affirmative action cases. By now, most readers know the court ruled dividedly that race-based affirmative actions, criteria, and programs are acceptable in some cases.
No matter how divided the Supreme Court’s decisions were, the divisions among us “Black folk” who attended that workshop were at least double the depth.
On one side stood those who believe that affirmative action programs must be continued at all cost even if they are threatened by a slow curtailment. In that view affirmative action provides the only way for some to break free of a discriminatory world. On the other side stood those who believe that even a vibrant affirmative action agenda is nothing more than “aggravated tokenism,” designed to continue the oppression of the masses by offering only carrots to those who are economically oppressed.
So, an esteemed panel of scholars, activists, and lawyers fought it out in Chicago, outlasting the workshop’s scheduled time limits, and ending the discussion just as divided as it began. The debate over affirmative action is the same today as it was generations ago: Will the accomplishments of outstanding individuals up lift an entire people or should the movement focus on the collective rights of communities to define themselves?
Janice Mathis, Esq., of PUSH’s Atlanta Bureau, moderated the discussion, putting the problem bluntly. She described how few gains America’s Black population has made in the past 30 years: economically, unemployment reaches more than 10 percent in most Black communities, nearly one in five Black men have been incarcerated, and barely adequate systems of health care and education are decaying throughout urban and rural America.
Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said it succinctly: “We have to be careful not to over-celebrate [the fact] that there is [only] a vestige of affirmative action left,” he said, noting that the Supreme Court has set an implicit 25-year timetable for the complete dismantling of affirmative action. LaShawn Warren, a legislative counsel for the ACLU, said, “We are calling a victory what we have succeed to hold on to rather than what we have gained.”
Ron Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland, remarked, “They have been organizing for a long time to push us to this point. There really is a right-wing conspiracy, which has taken over the judicial branch” of our government, undermining the entire basis of affirmative race programs. Walters maintained that the demise of affirmative action is not coincidentally linked to right-wing think tanks, which argue for the elevation of an individual-centered First Amendment above the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Walters declared that “the only apparatus for individuals to rise in social status is for their entire social group to rise.” Thus, by undermining the collective-focused Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments the right wing has really undermined the entire legal basis of social equality.
Along with worries about the diminishment of group rights and the dangers of cultural assimilation, Walters also addressed the negative effects of standardized testing. “We are entering an era of ‘testocracy,’” he said. “They will test our kids and our teachers, and [by that] wash many of our Black teachers out.” But a majority of the audience ridiculed Walters’ way of thinking, declaring the undeniable need of Black communities to ensure that our youths get the education they need to perform well on tests.
According to many, affirmative action would not be as needed if it were not true that all levels of education are being re-segregated.
In the end there were some points of agreement about the future of the struggle for equality. These centered on the emergence of a new youth-led civil rights movement, which has already stemmed the tide of the racist backlash. Tanya Troy, representing By Any Means Necessary, a youth advocacy group which has taken the lead in the battle over affirmative action, referred to the huge numbers of youth who have suddenly flexed their political muscle so powerfully and successfully. These are “young people organizing themselves,” she said. “There is a new movement building and young people are its leaders.”
The question remains how this new movement will reconcile the age-old question of whether to focus on outstanding individual accomplishments or the fundamental limits forced on masses. Perhaps they will see room to focus on both.
Brandi Lea Kishner is a young writer living in Chicago. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org