Who’s Afraid of Affirmative Action?

“The rich diversity at Harvard and other colleges and universities and the benefits that flow from that diversity,” argued Massachusetts Federal District Judge ...

“The rich diversity at Harvard and other colleges and universities and the benefits that flow from that diversity,” argued Massachusetts Federal District Judge Allison D. Burroughs, in 2019, “will foster the tolerance, acceptance and understanding that will ultimately make race conscious admissions obsolete.” Judge Burroughs obviously understood the historic import of her words. The case in question, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, revolved around a lawsuit (filed by a group called Students for Fair Admissions) that accused the university of directly disadvantaging Asian Americans at the expense of enrolling black and Latino students. In reality, the lawsuit reached far beyond the transient specifics of Harvard or any one single affected student. At stake—in Judge Burroughs’s own words—were the very principles of affirmative action and, with them, the future of American race relations.

Given the stakes involved, it’s easy to ask, who even opposes affirmative action? Yet as this case shows, and as is further illuminated by Virginia Commonwealth University law professor and legal author Melvin I. Urofsky’s The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History from Reconstruction to Today, the history of opposition to affirmative action is long, and its opponents appear in unlikely places. The case of Students for Fair Admissions is nominally concerned with Asian Americans. But, as Urofsky shows, affirmative action has been opposed by people who traditionally align with the political left: white college professors, Jewish students, and unionized blue-collar workers.

While much of the modern debate surrounding affirmative action can, at the surface, resemble yet one more political wedge issue, concerns over affirmative action’s implementations—and in some cases even its core principles—transcend basic party politics.

Understanding the unlikely opponents of affirmative action is the first step to making affirmative action stronger, and better. While Urofsky provides valuable guidance, he hesitates to fully support the most direct, and most aggressive, forms of affirmative action today. And he sidesteps the most important question of all: Do those who wholesale oppose affirmative action have valid concerns?

“I know a lot of bad things happened in history to minority groups,” an anonymous white student explained to journalist Ellis Cose. “But … my generation did not inflict any of this on your generation. I really believe that [college admissions] should be based on meritocracy … on who’s more qualified.” Urofsky quotes this student to illustrate one of the most common critiques of affirmative action: that college admissions are meritocratic (which is not true), and that such a meritocracy—if it were possible—is desirable. While such a belief might make sense to individuals, it isn’t what is driving headline-grabbing lawsuits like Students for Fair Admissions.

In fact, the Students for Fair Admissions organization, while seemingly arguing on the side of Asian Americans, is spearheaded by the 67-year-old white conservative activist Edward Blum. For years, Blum has used deep-pocket financing from conservative groups to roll back just about every piece of civil rights legislation he can find.

Blum was right there, in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act. Three years later, he tried and failed to win a  reverse discrimination affirmative action case at the University of Texas. In total, according to the New York Times, Blum has “orchestrated more than two dozen lawsuits challenging affirmative action practices and voting rights laws across the country.” Up until now, almost every one of Blum’s cases placed the idea of the white victim front and center.

Blum, like many other modern incarnations of affirmative action dissenters (the type that might be seen jockeying on a segment of Tucker Carlson or writing in the Daily Caller), relies on several familiar refrains. Namely, he says that race conscious admissions, or affirmative action for minority students, is unnecessary and unfair to white students. For decades, white observers have warned of the impending threat of “reverse racism.” They’ve also claimed that minority admissions lower the quality of universities. Blum has argued that the consideration of race is actually antithetical to the core tenants of the Founding Father’s vision for a supposedly meritocratic America.

These arguments, which collectively cherry-pick American history to discount the profound advantages awarded to those lucky enough to come from an ancestry not hobbled by shackles, are often misguided at best and are, increasingly, being waged in bad faith. Blum has succeeded, more than anyone else, in identifying legitimate questions about certain elements of affirmative action and weaponizing them to legitimize his views and place the needs of white students above those of anyone else.

Blum’s recent coalition with Asian Americans shows his keen understanding of past opposition to affirmative action. But most importantly, it shows his own moral detachment, which allows him to “advocate” for a single minority group while actually stacking the chips against the majority of nonwhite groups in the long term. Basically, if a casual observer was looking for an explicitly objectionable character to help moralize their stance in defense of affirmative action, they need look no farther than Blum.

Yet, to view Blum, the caricature, as a stand-in for all dissenters of affirmative action would be a mistake. Though Blum may represent the most prominent face of affirmative action objections, some of his fundamental views were molded and shaped by an array of objectors, and often by groups one might not expect. Even some of the most traditionally “liberal” groups have found themselves at odds with affirmative action for their own reasons.

The history of opposition to affirmative action is long, and its opponents appear in unlikely places.

Understanding the unlikely opponents of affirmative action is made easier by Urofsky’s analysis. At issue for most people, Urofsky argues, is not really the question of affirmative action per se, but of a particular type of affirmative action. Urofsky begins his 472-page legal history with this divide between “soft” and “hard” affirmative action—a binary that has divided Americans since at least the civil rights era.

The soft version of affirmative action involves dismantling barriers that actively prevent individuals from participating in society. In practice, this looks like desegregating schools, ending racial discrimination in workplaces, and providing equal pay and equal opportunity for equal work, regardless of race. These are steps, Urofsky says, “that all but the most rabid bigots would have conceded to be not only fair but necessary as well.” And yet, as Urofsky’s own history details, often the reasons and rationales for opposing affirmative action are complex, and come from groups motivated not by hate, but by communal self-interest.

“Hard” affirmative action, by contrast, goes a step further. Advocates for this version say the deep wounds cut by America’s racist past have injured the suffering group so severely that merely refraining from discriminating further does not suffice. Instead, active measures should be taken—must be taken—to lift up the disadvantaged group. In practice, this looks like aggressive recruiting of minority students and employees, and racial and gender quotas. These measures, dating back to affirmative action’s origins, have been viewed with uncertainty by a far wider array of critics, including Urofsky himself.


Is College Worth It?

By Mitchell L. Stevens

As any reader of history would expect, even the slightest attempts at integration and the softest affirmative action have faced opposition from the nation’s cadre of racists hell-bent on stymieing minorities. Less known, though, is that traditionally progressive groups have also opposed affirmative action, albeit for more complex reasons. Foremost among those groups has been organized labor.

While blue-collar labor jobs, like construction and plumbing, seemed prime areas for racial integration during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, they were actually some of the most exclusionary. Urofsky details a desperate letter written by one black man, who was a worker during the 1970s and moved north to flee the legacy of Jim Crow, to then President Nixon, asking for much-needed help. According to one observer quoted by Urofsky, “There [were] fewer Negro plumbers or electricians than Negro Ph.D.s.”

This exclusion was the fault of blue-collar unions, traditional pillars of the political left. While most of these union workers were indeed white, Urofsky explains their explicit exclusion of minorities not so much in terms of racism but more as an act of self-preservation. “The pattern itself goes back to the guilds of the Middle Ages,” Urofsky writes, “when skilled craftsmen, whose only ‘property’ consisted of their knowledge, would pass down their expertise from father to son.”

Union rules didn’t only exclude minorities. But, through affirmative action, more minorities than ever were attempting to land those low-skill jobs, brewing an inevitable conflict. Affirmative action promised to dismantle barriers and incorporate minorities into labor, but for union workers who had already spent years climbing the ranks, the sudden change seemed akin to theft. Urofsky, pondering this tension, cites a common refrain by union workers of the time: “Some of us waited half our lives for a job, and they want jobs now” (my emphasis added).

The idea here—that the concept of seniority finds itself at odds with the principles of affirmative action—presents itself in another area that directly affects higher education diversity efforts: tenure. Between 1972 and 1973, according to a Council on Education report cited by Urofsky, over half of all male university faculty were tenured professors and the vast majority of those professors were white.

This left universities in a difficult position. Unless an economic downturn were to suddenly occur and force the closure of an entire department, these professors couldn’t really be fired, making the odds of hiring a significant number of new, talented minority academics very low.

Certainly, the reality of tenure does not prevent universities from aggressively hiring new professors with diversity in mind, but it shows how structures like seniority can unintentionally create roadblocks for integration and make progress in particular fields painfully slow.

Understanding the unlikely opponents of affirmative action is the first step to making affirmative action stronger, and better.

Urofsky also explores the opposition, starting largely in the 1960s, from Jewish Americans. Unlike racists who opposed affirmative action precisely because of the benefit it would provide to other races, some in the politically active Jewish community had often found themselves shoulder to shoulder with their black neighbors. Rabbis, including Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Eisendrath, played prominent roles during the civil rights era and even marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War. With the specter of the Holocaust still hovering, many Jews felt compelled to stand up for black rights. Support continued during desegregation and other “soft” affirmative action measures but ceased the moment quotas got involved.

Why the divide? Urofsky traces the Jewish abhorrence of quotas back to 20th-century European and American schools, which employed numerus clausus, a scheme meant to limit the total number of Jews accepted into universities through a quota system. The Anti-Defamation League, a leading activist voice in the Jewish community, has actually come out in support of lawsuits issued against universities for considering race in their admissions decisions.

In many ways, the Jewish reaction to quotas outlined in The Affirmative Action Puzzle mirrors the anxieties expressed by Asian American students today in states like California. While there’s no evidence that modern universities have a codified “maximum number” of Asians allowed entry, the push for schools to enroll more black and Latino students can have the unintentional effect of making Asians feel that admissions is a zero-sum game in which they are, inevitably, the losers.

Urofsky leaves little unexplored in terms of affirmative action’s struggles and victories over the past six decades, and he doesn’t shy away from condemning those who vehemently oppose the narrowest forms of affirmative action. But he stops short of calling for a radical adoption of quotas and other “hard” measures.

For those looking to reduce inequality, promote prosperity, and inch the species forward in any quasi-humanist way, it is apparent that affirmative action in higher education and within the workplace has caused measurable good for some minority groups. While Urofsky points out cases of surprising opposition to affirmative action through history, he provides caveats alongside each of those examples in the form of bevies of research showing the indisputable good affirmative action admission has done for disadvantaged minority beneficiaries.

And yet, despite all that, affirmative action finds itself in one of its most precarious positions in decades. If Blum’s Students for Fair Admissions appeals its case to the Supreme Court (which they’ve already signaled they would do), it will face a line of conservative justices who actively oppose not just the extremes of hard affirmative action but some of affirmative action’s fundamental elements, which date back to the civil rights era.

Even if affirmative action in higher education survives a Supreme Court challenge, such a ruling would only be a temporary respite from a larger, more pervasive miscommunication underpinning this decades-long divide. “It should be clear by now that the real problem, and one which affirmative action cannot solve, is the deep-seated racism in this country,” Urofsky writes. That problem, he adds, won’t be solved until both political parties admit the country’s racist past.

And yet, faced with one of affirmative action’s greatest legal challenges to date, America’s history of racism only explains so much. While it’s no stretch to say that Blum is personally motivated by race, his argument is built on the backs of decades of nonracist concerns and is supported by a not insignificant cohort of Asian Americans. If one believes affirmative action is a principle worth fighting for, then it’s worth meditating on the lessons taught by history of those who’ve felt alienated by the process—and articulating a future that works toward equity while heeding those cries of unfairness. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before the next incarnation of Blum appears to twist fears of affirmative action into weapons to be used against communities most in need of a leg up.


This article was commissioned by Carolyn Devericon

Featured image: Hull Gate, University of Chicago (2014). Photograph by Justin Kern / Flickr