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Why Affirmative Action is Acceptable to the Elite

— June 28, 2016

Last Thursday the Supreme Court denied a challenge to the University of Texas at Austin’s affirmative action policy. The decision was met with relief by colleges and universities across the country with similar programs and hailed in the media as “a major victory” for supporters of affirmative action. What goes unspoken on college campuses and in the media, however, is just why affirmative action is acceptable to the elite.

The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, was decided by a 4-3 majority, with the opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Voting with Kennedy were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because she had worked on the case in her former role as solicitor general, though she almost certainly would have sided with the majority. Justice Samuel Alito read a scathing dissent from the bench and was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas.

The Texas admission program admits most of the university’s in-state students under a so-called “top ten program” whereby admission is guaranteed to the top students from every high school in the state. The remainder of the student body is admitted through a program that takes into account race and ethnicity along with academic achievement and other factors. The university made the case that, while the top ten program does contribute to the student body’s diversity, that program alone is insufficient to meet its goals regarding diversity.

Noting that a university is in part defined by intangible qualities, Kennedy wrote that “[c]onsiderable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” He cautioned, though, that “it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”

Alito, arguing that the university had met its burden of showing a compelling purpose for its program, said, “This is affirmative action gone berserk.” Although he may have been making a cynical case, Alito rightly made the point that the university’s race-sensitive program benefited wealthy students and disadvantaged poor ones. Neither Alito nor Kennedy, however, would be interested in pursuing the implications of what Kennedy called “the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”

It is abundantly clear that equal access to excellent education, let alone higher education, is not a priority for the elite who run the institutions of this country. The push by corporate forces for for-profit charter schools, abetted as it is by the Obama administration (as as it will by whatever administration comes next) demonstrates the subordination of children’s education to corporate interests. As the Pentagon’s budget continues to dwarf that of any other nation and Obama embarks on his trillion-dollar refurbishment of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Detroit teachers and schoolchildren must hold demonstrations to draw attention to their rat-infested, moldy buildings.

What corporate America does demand from education is a sufficiently trained management class. Engineers, lawyers, managers, professors, doctors, accountants and IT personnel are needed to keep the system running, and for the most part that management class is drawn from the upper and upper middle classes. That is, it is an inherited class. The cost of higher education has, in the past decade of increasing wealth disparity, become prohibitive for more and more qualified high school graduates. And so Alito is right, inasmuch as he makes the point that race-sensitive affirmative action programs do little to add to the economic diversity of a college. But an educated population is not desirable for a country headed for increasingly grim economic times and an increasingly repressive government.

So why is a racially diverse educated class desirable for the elite? After all, not only the Obama administration but also a group of 36 military leaders and a group calling itself “Fortune 100 and Other Leading American Businesses” filed amicus briefs supporting the university’s affirmative action program. Sadly, but predictably, it is all about appearances. A more racially diverse management class, the logic runs, will carry more credibility with the population as a whole, lending credibility to the economic and political systems themselves. The majority’s opinion in Fisher, in fact, refers to the government’s “compelling interest” in “cultivating leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry.”

The logic is the same as that which promotes a reactionary like Hillary Clinton for president because of her sex.

Perhaps the Obama administration’s brief put it most clearly, if bluntly, in its reference to the “fragging” of officers that took place in the Vietnam War, about which the brief says, “[T]he disparity between the overwhelmingly white officer corps and the highly diverse enlisted ranks threatened the integrity and performance of the military.” Whatever the motives at work in any individual instance of fragging during the Vietnam War, the practice was not invented in Vietnam. Nor does fragging require racial or ethnic difference between officers and enlisted men. It has much more to do with officers who represent the mortal danger of war to the enlisted men under their, sometimes incompetent, command.

“The absence of diversity in the officer corps,” the administration’s brief goes on, “also undermined the military’ legitimacy by fueling popular perceptions of racial/ethnic minorities serving as ‘cannon fodder’ for white military leaders.” Those pesky popular perceptions.

A brief filed on behalf of 36 military leaders supported affirmative action with the argument that black officers are valuable for recruiting in black neighborhoods.

In a statement to reporters at the White House, Obama praised the Court’s decision. “We are not a country that guarantees equal outcomes,” the president said, “but we do strive to provide an equal shot to everybody.” The president did not elaborate on just how his government strives to provide such a universal equal shot and at the same time oversees the greatest disparity in wealth in the country’s history. Presumably, a family’s wealth is an “outcome” and has no bearing on opportunity.

Such are the venal purposes and cynical poses of a capitalist system as it manipulates the population with its government apparatus. Affirmative action, which once had the purpose of redressing the harms done to a disadvantaged people, is now sold as bringing diversity to colleges, as being profitable, and as bringing more, and more tractable, blacks and Hispanics into the armed forces. Thus capitalism perverts both education and equality, turning the finest human aspirations on their heads.

Sources: “Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Program at University of Texas” Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin et al. “Divided Supreme Court rejects challenge to affirmative action”

Photo source:  centerdigitaled

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