Political Minutes: Affirmative Action On And Off Campus

The African Students Association hosted its final political round table of the year on Monday, April 16, in Lerner Hall. The event, titled “Affirmative Action Past, Present, and Future: What it is, What it isn’t, and Why it matters,” featured media watchdog Janine Jackson, Columbia Law School professor Ted Shaw, history professor Eric Foner, and Columbia president Lee Bollinger. The topic of affirmative action, and the many ways in which the phrase is used, has become particularly relevant since February, when the Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to hear Fisher vs. Texas. The case challenges the use of race as a factor in admissions to the University of Texas in addition to Texas’s “Top 10 Percent Program,” which grants automatic admission to the top ten percent of high school classes. The use of race as a factor in admissions without a quota system was upheld at the University of Michigan Law School in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), in which both Shaw and Bollinger were involved for Michigan.

On the heels of an announcement earlier this month of  a $30 million initiative to recruit woman and underrepresented minority faculty at Columbia, the event aimed to build upon existing  Columbia campus dialogue on affirmative action. The Political Chair of ASA, Kambi Gathesha, emceed the event and opened the event by reading from a Bwog comment which disparaged Columbia’s initiative, saying that affirmative action is racist.

Janine Jackson, of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, was the first guest to speak. While her specific research on the media and affirmative action is from the late 1990s, Jackson said that many of the trends have not changed. Her analysis of the affirmative action media coverage showed that media narratives inaccurately use the words “affirmative action” and racial “preferences” interchangeably and does not focus on discrimination in admission and hiring practices.

Eric Foner, who has devoted his renowned career as a historian to the Reconstruction era and race relations, pointed to the numerous instances of affirmative action since the Civil War, such as the Freedmen’s Bureau. He stated that affirmative action stems from the redressing of the legacy of slavery. Foner also criticized the legal system and particularly its decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), which changed the rationale for affirmative action away from that of affirmative action as a remedy for societal racism and racial inequality and towards the rationale that was later upheld in Grutter ­ - bringing together a diverse learning environment for educational purposes.

Ted Shaw, who formerly worked as the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also commented on the Bakke decision, saying that Justice Powell, the deciding vote, suffered from “myopia” in his decision and that no one talked about affirmative action in terms of diversity before Bakke. Shaw argued that the approach towards “color blindness” with which some justices approach the 14th Amendment loses track of the “historical reality.”

Given the panel’s positions at Columbia and nation-wide prominence, the event mixed local and the national perspectives. Shaw and Foner also connected the issues of affirmative action to the current state of higher education and to Columbia. “Institutions, especially universities, are beset by inertia,” said Foner.  Foner continued to say that universities remain largely the same without active efforts like the faculty diversity initiative. Shaw later followed up Foner’s statement in saying that black students at institutions such as Columbia are often the children of African and West Indian immigrants, rather than the descendants of those affected by slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

President Lee Bollinger, who had published an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the Supreme Court not to hear Fisher, spoke more about his experience fighting for affirmative action while at Michigan than about affirmative action at Columbia. Bollinger said he tried his best to make Grutter a “society case” because the laws on affirmative action affect not only public universities but also any private school that takes public funding, such as Columbia. Bollinger, who had previously in a World Leaders Forum with Attorney General Eric Holder called the Court’s taking of the case “ominous,” repeated his apprehension. He also noted that the Court in its current makeup has no trouble overturning recent decisions, as it did in Citizens United.

The individual speeches were followed by a question and answer session with students. In response to a question about the possible outcomes if Grutter gets overturned Bollinger said there would be “major consequences” for higher education and pointed to the low numbers of African-American students at places like Berkeley, where race is not taken into account because of California’s Proposition 209.