NAACP President Kweisi Mfume hailed the Supreme Court’s June 22 ruling upholding the University of Michigan law school admissions program, calling it a “major victory” for affirmative action.
“The Michigan model now becomes the operative model for both graduate and undergraduate affirmative action programs,” Mfume said, noting that the decision invalidated the University of Texas so-called “color-blind” admissions plan. It also set straight a 2001 appeals court ruling that rejected a University of Georgia affirmative action plan. Mfume was one of many civil rights leaders who hailed the court’s 5 – 4 ruling, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in it, she gave a ringing endorsement of “racial diversity” as a “compelling state interest.”
Yet some say the court gave with one hand and took away with the other in ruling 6 – 3 to throw out the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions program. That program automatically awarded points to African American, Latino, and Native American Indian students. O’Connor and Justice Stephen Breyer switched and voted with the right-wing bloc to kill the undergraduate plan.
In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg defended the point system. Youth of color “continue to experience class-based discrimination to this day,” she wrote. “The stain of generations of racial oppression is still visible in our society and the determination to hasten its removal remains vital.”
Ginsberg saw no defect in the undergraduate plan’s concrete goals and targets. Without those objective criteria for measuring gains, we will never overcome discrimination, she said. She cited statistics showing that African Americans die younger than whites, and suffer infant mortality, poverty and unemployment rates nearly twice those of whites.
Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors, said, “The Supreme Court’s rulings on affirmative action are a mixed blessing, at best. The supporters of justice and equity should be sobered by the narrow margins in both cases. We should recall how we celebrated Bakke as a victory 25 years ago, despite its obvious retreat from the goal of insuring fairness in American life. For now, let us reaffirm our commitment to affirmative action as a remedy for past and present day discrimination and celebrate the Supreme Court’s endorsement of diversity.”
Bond is arguing that there is a difference between diversity and equity. A society can be diverse and still practice discrimination that leaves people of color in conditions of economic and political subjugation. An argument could be made that plantations were “diverse” in that both masters and slaves were found there.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s rulings, no matter how limited and circumscribed, were a huge blow against the extreme right and a victory for the democratic movements of the people. We should not forget that George W. Bush used a speech at the University of Alabama on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday to call on the Supreme Court to use the University of Michigan case to kill affirmative action as unconstitutional. Attorney General John Ashcroft filed a legal brief calling on the court to strike down affirmative action. Instead, the court heard the outcry of 50,000 people, including many NAACP members, who rallied outside its chambers April 1.
The court’s affirmative action rulings were followed two days later by its 6 – 3 decision upholding the rights of gays and lesbians to the same privacy rights as heterosexuals. Justice Antonin Scalia raved that the court majority was “taking sides in the culture wars” and “advancing the homosexual agenda.”
Remember Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” tirade at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston? The ultra-right GOP, he vowed, would fight “street-by-street” to defend America from the rising tide of immigrants, people of color, liberated women and homosexuals. Buchanan’s bigotry was so outrageous, the GOP was forced, hypocritically, to distance itself from his views, spouting clichés about “diversity” while in practice working to destroy affirmative action and, in Bush’s case, stripping Black voters in Florida of their right to vote in the 2000 election. These extremists have sent word to Bush that only fanatical ultra-rightists like Scalia are acceptable when a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court affirmed that we are a multiracial, multicultural society. We are Black, Latino, American Indian, Asian, and white, gay and straight, men and women. I agree foursquare that diversity is a “compelling state interest,” a view embraced even by retired military officers and some corporations. But we should go beyond diversity, seeking to build multiracial unity in the struggle for full equality. One of the great advantages of socialism is that it would lay the basis for the eradication of all forms of discrimination and the creation of a truly egalitarian society.
But, for now, the main line of defense against the right wing’s corporate agenda is to oust George W. Bush from office in November 2004.
Tim Wheeler is Washington correspondent and a member of the editorial board of the People’s Weekly World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org