Scott Jaschik’s June 29 “Justices deem admissions programs at both Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill to be unconstitutional” and succeeding essays do not address the historical foundations of affirmative action in the equal opportunity campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s nor the decline over time well before late June 2023.
Four U.S. Supreme Court decisions on June 29 and 30 take monumental wrong turns. They deviate from U.S. legal, social and political history; contradict the majority sentiment (when multiple surveys are compared); and fail in logic and common sense. I refer any skeptical readers to the texts of the decisions and dissents. Read for yourself.
With no historical memory in the United States, we now have a Supreme Court majority who are unfamiliar with the U.S. Constitution, case law, and legal as well as general history. I am surprised that affirmative action in any of its many forms lasted as long as it did.
The national attacks began in the mid- to late-1970s. Programs were diluted, distorted, distracted, and canceled over decades. The Bakke decision for the University of California public university system was only one retreat among others, each more misconceived and illogical than its predecessor. Complete reliable data demonstrating discrimination have never been revealed. Not in the late 1970s, and not in the last three years either.
I remember well how the first major campaigns began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Affirmative action meant equal opportunity for all with the greatest to commitment to the underrepresented, marginalized, and subjects of illegal discrimination.
They grew out of the Civil Rights movements—plural—whose modern forms began in the 1930 with Black railroad workers’ unionization and intellectuals gaining voice and recognition. They accelerated in recognition of both service and discrimination during World War II. And began their massive movements after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education anti-school segregation decision, and the 1960s Civil Rights achievements.
I was a heterosexual white male undergraduate and then graduate student who began to fight for the rights of all from the mid-1960s and onward. Because of my convictions and hopes for the United States, I sometimes campaigned against my own narrow self-interests. At that time at least, I was a distinct minority. On occasion, I was vilified by those I supported. But I understood.
At first, this meant access to academic jobs for women and racial and ethnic minorities. Soon, the campaigns—never complete and always filled with contradictions—spread to college admissions, scholarships, and loans defined broadly. And then more widely to jobs and other opportunities.
The battle was for equal rights—under several articles of the Constitution including but not limited to the 14th Amendment. That Civil War landmark is now radically misrepresented by the Court’s right-wing—not conversative—majority including pseudo-conservative John Roberts. Its own grounds were legal, historical and contextual.
We have lost this commitment and spirit over the last half century. The retreat from equal opportunity to a never well-defined diversity was a step backward.
In fact, that move opened the door for the radical right wing’s dishonest manipulation of Asian-American students by Edward Blum’s well-financed Students for (Un)Fair Admissions. That group has never produced the data on which their assertions of reverse discrimination stand. The Court of course does not depend on facts—or the law, history, or logic.
Sadly, non-minorities including many universities, the Democratic Party, and others have been inconsistent public supporters. The contradictions are many. Empty slogans—like those that overflow from throats and opinion essays now—never meet the short or long-term needs.
The future is darkly cloudy, much like our air now.
--Harvey J. Graff
Professor emeritus of English and history
Ohio State University