Brown in the Balance
Students rally to protect affirmative action.
Field Report, Keith White, University of Virginia, Dec. 5
Students rally to protect affirmative action.
By Keith White, University of Virginia
Thousands of students from across the nation rallied at the Supreme Court Monday, voicing their support for civil rights in America’s classrooms. The event, spearheaded by By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), sought to unify a diverse set of progressive voices in support of affirmative action and school integration on a day when the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. The event also comes after Michigan voters repudiated the state’s affirmative action programs in state universities, following the example of California and Washington.
The case, Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS) v. Seattle School District, has the justices deciding how far school districts can go to achieve diverse classrooms. PICS supporters argue that students should not be forced out of their neighborhood schools for the sole reason of diversity. Opponents fear that policy would effectively lead to re- segregated schools, undermining the court’s 1954 decision in Brown. The court must now mediate between two opposing principles: the value of diverse schools and concerns about students being judged solely by their race in educational decisions. Press accounts of the oral argument before the Court suggest that a court majority is leaning in favor of PICS, though to what extent will not be known for months.
BAMN National Spokesperson Shanta Driver told supporters that they represent a “new civil rights movement” and promised that “victory will be ours,” before leading the crowd to the Lincoln Memorial—the final stop in a rally that started at Howard University early in the morning.
The enthusiastic crowd cheered on Driver’s message, chanting, “Separate is unequal, unequal is unjust,” and “This racism has got to go.”
Matthew Taylor, a Howard University sophomore who said he was thrilled by the “absolutely great turnout” hoped the rally would remind people of the “problem of race in education that still exists.”
Nai Kalema, a student at George Washington University and member of her school’s NAACP chapter blamed “poor understanding of the systemic problems that blacks and other minorities face in education” for fueling the arguments against both school integration and affirmative action.
“Problems of race still exist,” Kalema said, emphasizing the need for affirmative action. “Look at the low rates of black students that are getting hired or in law school in California and other states that have removed affirmative action. While people may see one reality of being a person of color today, the numbers speak to something rather different.”
Many experts agree with Kalema. California, where Proposition 209 eliminated affirmative action in1996, has witnessed a steep decline in minority enrollment at the state’s top universities, particularly at the graduate and law school levels. Eliot Cose, a Newsweek contributing editor and author of Killing Affirmative Action, recently reported on California’s 10-year experience with Prop. 209, lamenting the decrease of minority owned businesses and noting the failure of Prop. 209 to foster economic diversity—the supposed stand-in for racial diversity—on California’s public college campuses.
“Affirmative action definitely needs to exist,” said Lolly Berger, a Tufts University student and member of Education Action—an organization promoting education services in war-engulfed countries. “While there are pros and cons to affirmative action,” Berger said, “[it is] necessary for people to remember that there is educational inequality throughout our nation.”
The “pros and cons” of affirmative action were discussed at length by a group of Morehouse College students who traveled from Georgia to attend the rally. Students William A. Hamick and Richardo Saxon defended the need for race-conscious programs such as affirmative action, pointing to America’s legacy of slavery.
“Why is it such a shock that African Americans need this leg up?” asked Hamick. “You don’t go from slavery to educated overnight.”
“Groups have to come together, form communities, and unite to defend these policies, our civil rights,” Saxon said. “We have fought too long and too hard for them to be taken away.”
Hamick also saw affirmative action as a “counterbalance to legacy,” criticizing school admission policies that favor the children of past students, noting that “these students are historically white.”
Tony C. Anderson, fellow Morehouse student and student body vice president, portrayed affirmative action more in terms of economics, not race.
“The reality is that affirmative action is not completely understood. It is a positive action to help economically disadvantaged groups. Too many see affirmative action as a race issue, but it’s an economic issue. Four-hundred years of indentured servitude cannot be made up in 40 years. Affirmative action works to bring social mobility to all Americans.”
But Hamick said, “You can’t fight racism by pretending it doesn’t exist. Race still matters today.”
Such discussions highlight the divides among young progressives over the best way to discuss affirmative action today, especially in light of the recent anti-affirmative action ballot initiative victory in Michigan.
While the rally did not end that debate, it did succeed in giving a new generation a taste of activism.
For Gwen Withrow, a high school senior from California, the rally—her first—cemented her commitment toward bringing about progressive change. “Our generation must be active when it comes to civil rights,” Withrow argued. “While many may see us as passive, I came here to show my active support for these programs.”
Photos by Madhuri Singh