Are We Post-Racial Yet? Conservatives and Affirmative Action

It appears the US Supreme Court’s non-decision today about affirmative action won’t settle anything. In its 7-1 ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court sent the case back down to lower courts to decide.  This doesn’t rule out university use of affirmative action policies in admissions, but it does not exactly endorse it either.

Significantly, Court conservatives including Justices Scalia and Thomas voted with the majority today, but both indicated they would be willing (eager?) to rule such affirmative-action policies unconstitutional.

Legal and higher-ed policy wonks will have plenty to chew over in coming days.

For me, the recent ruling underscores the ways debates over affirmative action in university admissions policies have become a stand-in for conservative sentiment about race and racism in America.  Though it is too simple to say anything about conservatism as a whole, the last forty years have established a new kind of anti-racist conservatism.  These self-described anti-racists, however, have struggled to convince anyone besides themselves of their sincere dedication to fighting racism and traditional preferences that favor whites.

The recent SCOTUS history alone has given the debate over race and schooling a kick in the pants.  In the late 1970s, in the Bakke case, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of any racial quotas in college admissions.

More recently, in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), SCOTUS decided that race could be used in admissions decisions, as one category among others.  The key element in this decision was that race could be used to further the state’s interest in fostering a diverse learning environment.

One influential strain of opinion among conservatives can be summed up in a pithy statement by Chief Justice Roberts from 2007.  In a case from Seattle, Roberts insisted, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.”

Conservative thinking on this issue has, in some ways, remained remarkably constant for the past generation.  In the mid-1980s, for instance, writing for the Heritage Foundation, Philip Lawler articulated a conservative critique of affirmative action admissions policies that sounds fresh today.  Such policies, Lawler argued, effectively promote racism against African Americans and other historically underrepresented college populations.  Affirmative action degrades true achievement and breeds resentment towards all African Americans.  It also leads to a racist dismissal of the true achievements of some African Americans.

Former US Representative Allen West made similar arguments in his amicus brief filed in the Fisher case.  “Race-conscious policies do not advance – in fact, they harm – the most compelling of all governmental interests: protecting and defending our Nation’s security. This is true whether practiced by colleges and universities (which, together with the Nation’s military academies, produce the majority of the commissioned officers in our country’s military), or by the military itself in the selection and advancement of its officer and enlisted personnel,” West argued.  West, a prominent African American conservative, argued that affirmative action policies degraded all applicants, African Americans most of all.

The problem with these kinds of conservative arguments is that they are often dismissed as mere window dressing.  With important exceptions such as Representative West and Justice Clarence Thomas, most African Americans support affirmative action policies.  The NAACP, for instance, has consistently and energetically supported Texas’ race-conscious admissions policy.  The National Black Law Students Association, in its amicus brief in the Fisher case noted the “systematic racial hierarchy that produces and perpetuates racial disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes.”  Affirmative-action admissions policies, the NBLSA insisted, remained necessary to promote a truly non-racist society.  Conservative insistence that such affirmative action policies actually support anti-black racism tends to fall on deaf ears among the majority of African Americans and whites who consider themselves racial liberals.

Conservative activists and intellectuals—white and black—often express what seems like honest surprise when accused of anti-black racism.  Perhaps one episode that illustrates this kind of conservative anti-racism might be that of Alice Moore and the 1974 Kanawha County textbook protest.  In this battle from the Charleston region of West Virginia, conservative parents and activists protested against a new series of English Language Arts textbooks.  Among the many complaints were protests against the inclusion of authors such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson.  Such militant African American voices, many Kanawha County residents insisted, did not belong in school textbooks.  Conservative leaders insisted that this was not because they were black, but because they were violent and criminal, and apparently proud of it.

Conservative leader Alice Moore came to the 1974 controversy freshly schooled in the ideology of anti-racist conservatism.  She had attended a conference in which conservative African American politician Stephen Jenkins blasted the anti-black implications of multicultural literature.  Such literature collections, Jenkins insisted, implied that the violent, angry, criminal voices of militants such as George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver represented the thinking of African Americans.  Such implications, Jenkins explained, proved that the true racists were the multiculturalists.  By pushing a skewed vision of African American culture, such multicultural textbooks implied that African Americans as a whole were criminal and violent.

Moore embraced this sort of anti-racist conservative ideology.  When she (politely, as always) confronted African American leader Ron English at a heated board of education meeting, Moore seemed honestly flummoxed that the English did not agree with her.  Moore pointed out that voices such as Jackson and Cleaver did not fairly represent the truths of African American life.  But The Reverend English rebutted that such militant voices represented an important part of the American experience, stretching back to Tom Paine.

Moore’s befuddlement in 1974 matches that of anti-racist, anti-affirmative action conservatives today.  Many conservatives feel that their opposition to affirmative action makes them the true anti-racists.  Yet they consistently find themselves accused of racism.  The fight over Fisher never seemed to be changing this dynamic.  Now that the Court has punted, there is even less resolution on offer.  Conservative notions that true anti-racism requires the elimination of race-based considerations in college admissions will likely continue to fall on deaf ears among leading African American advocacy groups.

Governor Haley and the Changing Face of Fundamentalist America

Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina has a new book out.  The cutely titled Can’t Is Not an Option may be a bald-faced bid for the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nomination, but it can also tell us something about the ways Fundamentalist America is changing.  The book itself sounds sugary, but Haley’s personal story is compelling.

Haley is an Indian-American child of immigrants.  The fact that a dark-skinned female politician whose father wears a turban can succeed as a conservative Republican politician in a state known for racism and evangelical Protestantism means a lot. 

Haley joins a small but growing list of non-white conservative heavy hitters: businessman/politician Herman Cainwriter Dinesh D’Souza, politicians Bobby Jindall and Allen West, and jurist Clarence Thomas, among others.  Such a showing, especially among African Americans, makes a good deal of sense from a fundamentalist perspective.

Conservative intellectuals, notably those at the Heritage Foundation, have made a concerted strategic effort to overcome fundamentalism’s traditional connection to white supremacist ideology.

But although it may make strategic sense, it is a tall order politically.  African Americans have been tightly linked to the Democratic Party since the 1930s.  Before that, African American voters stuck just as close to the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln.  For most of American history, the vortex of race and race consciousness has overwhelmed all other identity issues, pushing most African Americans to vote first as African Americans, and only second as conservatives, liberals, secularists, religious, etc.

But beyond party politics, African Americans tend toward a deep fundamentalism.  Gallup polls consistently demonstrate this.  For example, one 2005 poll showed that about seven in ten African Americans called themselves “evangelical” or “born again” Christians.  African Americans, according to a 1999 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll are significantly more likely (85%) to support school prayer than are whites (69%).  This conservative religiosity among African Americans has influenced cultural attitudes among African American young people as well.  A 2002 poll found that only 8% of African American teens say they drink alcohol, compared to 25% of white teens, likely due to higher rates of conservative religiosity.  Among non-whites in general, according to a 2003 poll, only 52% think that premarital sex is morally acceptable, compared to 59% of whites.

Race is a tough issue for fundamentalists.  There are plenty of fundamentalist whites who seem to cling to traditionalism in their white supremacist ideology, just as they cling to traditionalism in religion, education, and culture.  But non-whites, in large majorities, are fundamentalists in everything except party politics.  If more non-whites like Nikki Haley continue to emphasize their cultural conservatism, and if they tie that cultural conservatism to political conservatism, then more and more non-whites may continue to embrace all the meanings of Fundamentalism.