The Southern Strategy was a way for Republicans to win over the Southern white vote in the 1970s. The rhetoric rang of coded racial words like “forced busing” and “affirmative action,” but the message was clear: newly enfranchised black Americans had gotten a bit too big for their britches, and they were taking that which belonged to law-abiding, tax-paying white Americans. Today, a large part of our national conversation still revolves around taxes and jobs and university seats being taken by some undeserving “other,” and the recent death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia makes the fight for the future of affirmative action even more contentious.
Arguments against affirmative action primarily revolve around questions of preparedness for college and the fairness of the policy. Justice Scalia himself had recently proclaimed that perhaps black students simply belonged in “slower track” schools, where they would have a better chance of achieving than at highly selective colleges and universities. This argument is one I will not directly debunk in this article, but that, quite frankly, rings of a harrowingly dark eugenicist thought process that has and continues to fuel some of the most horrific crimes against humanity the world has ever seen, both inside and out of the United States. On the question of fairness, many people are skeptical. As will be argued before the Supreme Court in the case Texas v. Fisher, some believe affirmative action gives black and Latino students an unfair and unconstitutional advantage in the increasingly competitive college admissions process. To truly get at the heart of who has benefited most from affirmative action, though, it is important to look at the program’s history and the history of this country.
Affirmative action was first mentioned by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and came to fruition under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. It was recognized as the proper measure to make up for centuries of discrimination — discrimination that built the wealth of the United States on the backs of a stolen and exploited people. (To put this into perspective, black bodies were worth more than the entire rest of the U.S. economy combined during the Civil War.) While white America got rich, black America was trapped in an intentionally cyclical system of poverty, imprisonment, disenfranchisement, subpar education and exclusion. From 1619 to 1865, legalized slavery kept blacks in physical bondage, in which they had no legal rights, were purposely kept uneducated and often separated from their families; in this time their labor provided the economic foundation for an infant country. From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the 1960s, convict leasing, Black Codes, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, poll taxes and redlining were just some of the ways in which African-Americans were politically silenced and taken advantage of economically. Current manifestations of the cycle are present in mass incarceration, inequitable drug policies, de facto segregated schools and housing, police brutality, job discrimination and the targeting of black families for faulty loans leading up to the 2008 recession.
Affirmative action was supposed to accelerate the speed at which blacks in the United States could come back from centuries of intentional oppression — it was a policy with good intentions that began to be stripped bare a mere 12 years after its inception with the 1978 Bakke v. California Supreme Court decision.
It is not just ignorance of the history of affirmative action or the oppression of black people that reveal white supremacy and entitlement on these grounds, but the audacity with which many denounce 50 years of affirmative action meant to benefit blacks without ever questioning the centuries of affirmative action that created the strength of white America. Unless one wants to disavow the Homestead Act and the GI Bill and the literal and intentional creation of the suburbs in the mid-20th century to build a white middle class which blacks were systematically excluded from accessing, then do not question whether I deserve to be educated at the university level. Unless one devalues the degrees of their fathers and grandfathers who did not have to compete with anywhere close to the entirety of the population to get into schools or graduate from them, then do not devalue the work of people who look like me. Unless one wonders what the SAT scores were of their white legacy counterparts at the University when my father would have likely been barred from attending U.Va. when he turned 18 in 1963, then do not wonder what my test scores were.
There is surely an inequity in the affirmative action that has been given out in this country, and that inequity is that while whites were being given land and mortgages and competing only amongst themselves for centuries, my family was shut out of those opportunities. If you don’t feel undeserving of your affirmative action, or you’re not willing to give up the many generational and quantifiable perks of it, then don’t tell me to give up mine.
Aryn Frazier is a contributing writer for The Cavalier Daily and Black Student Alliance’s bi-weekly “What’s the Word” column.