on the hysteria of anti-affirmative actions
Music: M83: Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (2003)
Recently I was at a happy hour with two neighbors, a good friend and her friend, an acquaintance. After a flight of “infused vodkas” we discussed our recent travels, which is when I lamented one of the disappointments of visiting my parents was the racist attitudes of their suburban community (their community voted some years ago to block mass transit extending out to their area because it would “bring in more crime,” which is to say, more diversity). The acquaintance then explained she did not know what racism was until moving to Austin.
The statement surprised me because I often think of Austin as a progressive city, although I should not have been surprised. Working at the university, I know I am often insulated from the harsher realities of discrimination (even though we have those problems, too) and often blind to the benefits that my white maleness affords me here. I’m also thankful to my colleagues for gently pointing out when the benefit is afforded me.
Nevertheless, the acquaintance continued by relating a story: she had just moved to Austin and was at a service station on the east side, which was staffed by folks of color. She explained her shock when she waited for what seemed like an eternity while other non-white patrons were served. She was deliberately ignored, she said, and got offended. This story bled into others about her mistreatment because she was white.
While enduring these stories I thought about the history of Austin: its formation is unusual because of its uncharacteristically large African American population after emancipation; the whites segregated the city into “east” and “west”; the eastside developed into a thriving community until the 80s and 90s; now white people are moving into the east side with condos and developments and displacing the centuries old community that has lived there. The “real estate” racism is pretty pronounced and largely ignored . . . But I dare not mention this to my new acquaintance.
“It’s not personal,” I said aloud. “Can you expect a community who has been mistreated by whites to embrace a white person? Maybe it’s not fair to expect a warm welcome? It’s not about you, it’s about those who came before us.” The acquaintance looked incredulous and I apparently offended her. Again. She stared at me for what seemed like five minutes without saying a word.
“There is no excuse to be rude because of my skin color,” she finally said, in a defiant tone.
The irony was not lost to me, but in conversations like these, one is always better served by pointing to structure. “Uh, the institution of slavery?” I said.
“Slavery ended! I am not responsible for slavery,” she retorted angrily.
But she is. I am. We are. Not personally, of course, but as a people and a community. Clearly this conversation was not going to end in a meeting of minds (certainly not values). She noted she has become “more conservative” in her aging, which I often interpret as voting Republican and watching Antiques Roadshow and taking no issue with “chow mart” type eateries like Luby’s and Golden Corral. How is such an interpretation of “more conservative” different from the “more conservative” views on race? I can think of a dozen answers, many self-serving.
Still, I thought to shift our conversation from her personal experiences to the argument in favor of affirmative action in higher education. Whatever one’s experience, I said, there is a larger social inequality among racially identified groups that needs to be addressed. Only education and a widespread embrace of diversity, I noted, will end the kind of discrimination she finds objectionable (I thought to mention the common account of the birth of democracy as a consequence of international travel, then I thought about how women and foreigners were treated in ancient Athens, and then thought against it). I’m not sure I remember this point of the conversation well, as I was “excited.” I implied her logic indexed the common denominator of “the same,” whereas I would prefer an acceptance of difference, even though this is pretty hard to do. Still, I only implied the distinction, I did not say it: one rarely achieves anything other than Othering with new people by pointing out fundamental differences in values. Build on common ground, I thought. Build on common ground.
While my impulse to not push things too much with my new acquaintance probably kept the evening from turning ugly, I realize the rage writ large: my “mundane” conversation about race condenses, I think, a national issue currently dressed as “immigration reform.” And it was not coincidental that I had this conversation about race just shortly before the Supremes heard arguments from the firm hired by my employer, the University of Texas at Austin, defending affirmative action. In 2008 Abigail Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas. She sued, claiming that lesser qualified students of color were admitted instead of her. She lost her case and the appeal, however, the Supremes agreed to hear the case and this week it went.
My university has a rather long history of race relations, with the legal challenges to its admission policies beginning over thirty years ago. A thoroughly racist institution (look up the history of its most powerful regent, George Littlefield), the university has struggled to get its morality right. Currently a variation of the “10%” rule is in effect, which holds that if you graduate in the top of your high school class in Texas you can be admitted. This policy was adopted to increase diversity in the student population. Yet, the university also noted this policy did not encourage enough diversity, and so it currently considers race as a factor during the admissions process. While there are no doubt problems, I support this approach to admissions. So do most of my colleagues.
That said, in higher education we are usually taught to distinguish between the logic of the rule of law and the dictates (or conscience) of morality. One is not the other, although the two are inextricably linked in the foundation of value. Reading over the discussion of the court from Wednesday, I see Justice Roberts is keen to insist on the distinction. The moral justifications for affirmative action are many, among the most common: (1) the need for reparation and redress; (2) the prevalence systemic inequality; and (3) the value of diversity. The arguments against affirmative action are also familiar: (1) reverse racism; (2) no one should bear the responsibility of history; (3) it promotes of mediocrity; and so on.
These are important arguments to continuously engage; while the Roberts court would insist on a strict separation of legal precedent and moral consideration, we should not buy for a minute that his “flank” of the Supremes is not legislating morality with their decision. There is no post-ideological world, and arguments to this effect—legal or otherwise—are running cover for whiteness. Make no mistake.
I cannot shake the hysterical character of the conversation I had with the new acquaintance, nor the suspicion that it undergirds the “conservative” disposition of those Supremes who seek to end affirmative action in higher education. Joan Copjec brilliantly explains this character by referencing the fantasy of U.S. democracy:
America’s sense of its own ‘radical innocence’ has its most profound origins in this belief that there is a basic humanity unaltered by the diversity of its citizens who share it. Democracy is the universal quantifier by which America—the “melting pot,” the “nation of immigrants”—constitutes itself as a nation. If all our citizens can be said to be Americans, this is not because we share any positive characteristics but rather because we have been given the right to shed these characteristics, to present ourselves as disembodied before the law. I divest myself of positive identity, therefore I am a citizen.
The democratic fantasy of divestiture is ensconced in the figure of a blindfolded justice, or the presumed anonymity of the voting booth, or as Copjec observes, in the paradox of universal suffrage. And in a sense this ideal underscores the paradoxes of Fisher’s case: she demands a blind equality but attention to her unique credentials. What has race got to do with the fact she has a higher GPA than others admitted?
Copjec notes that such fantasy also creates a demand for a “master” (in analytic terms), but paradoxically one “without means”—an impotent Other. Why? Because “if all the Other’s responses prove inadequate, then our difference is saved, it survives intact . . . .” A curious affective logic, to be certain. Still, I’m not quite certain how Copjec’s psychoanalytic argument works out in reference to affirmative action and the problems our country—”our country, our sevles”—has with race. I recognize how the retreat from the systemic responsibility into individual uniqueness by self-proclaimed “conservatives” resembles her diagnosis: we have a “black President.” Perhaps the conditions for ending affirmative action in higher education have never been more favorable? I hope not. I hope not.
I have faith in Sonia Sotomayor’s ability to persuade. We must.
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- 02.01.13 / 2pm