November 3, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Affirmative action isn’t bias. It’s politics that rightwing justices don’t like and will strike down
That’s what we should focus on. Not the question. But the question’s presumption: that the status quo is politically neutral.
The Supreme Court appears ready to end affirmative action, or the use of race in college admissions. If the hoopla among liberals is any indication, the pending decision is a BFD. But let’s pause a minute.
First, consider what the Editorial Board’s Rod Graham said recently. Our neighborhood sociologist said the actual number of college students who’d be affected by a negative ruling is small, because the number admitted as a consequence of affirmative action is small.
Whatever the court decides, Rod said, colleges and universities will continue diversifying the racial constitution of their student bodies because it’s in their interest to. If the court rules against affirmation active, as appears to be the case, admissions officers will carry on. They will, Rod suggested, find other ways of achieving the same goal.
Second, consider the question at the center of the case.
Then dismiss it.
That question is this: Is it discriminatory to use race as a factor in college admissions? The plaintiffs think yes. The rightwing justices seem to think so, too. But that question presumes something.
That’s what we should focus on. Not the question. But the question’s presumption, which is this: the status quo is politically neutral.
The status quo is not “the way things are.” Saying so is itself a political statement. Why? Because, however we choose to define it, the status quo is the sum of history, a product of all decisions made before us, all the choices that arose from the politics of their particular time and place. Politics begets politics begets politics.
To say the status quo is “the way things are” is to say that any attempt to change the status quo – any attempt at politics – is inherently suspect on account of it being abnormal when compared to the normal. Instead of politics versus politics, which is what challenges to the status quo are, it’s the status quo (or “custom and tradition”) versus dark forces threatening God, country and family.
America was founded as a republic for rich white men. Therefore, each generation, brandishing the flag of liberal democracy and wrapping itself in the Declaration of Independence, has had to fight against an entrenched status quo to secure their constitutional rights and privileges. In America, the status quo is white power.
At each juncture, the status quo (white power) tried to depoliticize the fight, first by accusing advocates of liberal democracy of being troublemakers bent on smashing “custom and tradition,” as if custom and tradition were not themselves products of history and politics.
Eventually, defenders of the status quo resort to slander, smears and even sporadic violence. In one case, defenders broke apart the republic. To the confederates, the stakes were just too high to compromise. Slavery was democracy. Free the slaves, as they alleged Abraham Lincoln would, and that enslaves free white men. This wasn’t politics versus politics. This was the end of politics. This was war.
Normally, though, a majority of people – especially, a majority of elite stakeholders – recognize that the status quo, rather than standing up for “customs and traditions,” was standing against liberal democracy – and all the business opportunities that liberal democracy makes possible. Defenders of “customs and traditions” end up reconciling with challengers’ demands, thus establishing a new status quo.
The point here is that one kind of politics battles another kind before they come to terms. It’s politics versus politics, not good versus evil. When it’s politics versus politics, upright citizens can make political choices. When it’s good versus evil, as was the case in the antebellum south, there is no political choice. It’s the end of politics. It’s war.
Some allege that affirmative action is discrimination based in race. That seems right – if you forget about history and all the political choices made in the past that inform the present. In other words, the allegations ring true only if you take the humans out of history. Since that’s impossible, we are then forced to recognize an obvious truth.
Affirmative action is not discrimination.
It’s the opposite.
Indeed, it’s a compromise of one kind of politics (the civil rights movement) fighting and defeating another kind (Jim Crow apartheid). It’s purpose, in the beginning, when Lyndon Baines Johnson initiated the policy, “was to overcome at least some of the accumulated human damage caused by 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow, and to ensure further progress toward equality,” wrote historian Nick Kotz.
Conservatives who trust you’ll forget history have made affirmative action seem like a social evil. Kotz wrote in 2005 that affirmative action programs have been “vigorously attacked in Congress and the federal courts and criticized for ‘discriminating’ against the white majority.” Kotz added: “With conservatives dominating the federal government, civil rights groups and other liberal organizations have waged a mostly defensive battle to protect the gains of the 1960s.”
In other words, the status quo (white power) never liked affirmative action on account of affirmative action challenging the status quo. And until this week, white power had no hope of defeating it.
That hope is now in sight, but only because white power managed to take affirmative action out of the political arena and put it in the courts, where justices who dislike affirmative action are going to say that it’s a social evil, rather than what it is, a product of politics.
Politics begets politics begets politics. So the fight to “ensure further progress toward equality,” as Kotz said, will continue – short of war, it never ended. It will carry on in different shapes driven by different motives. As Rod Graham said, it’s not like the Supreme Court’s decision will stop colleges from doing what’s in their interest to do. They have chosen to defend what is, to them, a new status quo.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.