With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

SCOTUS's Affirmative Action Ruling no Coincidence; Court Seeks to Preserve Power of Small Elite

On Thursday, in a 6-3 decision, the US supreme court ruled against affirmative action in American colleges and universities. The obvious concern now is whether the ruling will significantly reduce the number of Black, Latinx and Indigenous students enrolled at elite institutions. But a more dire reality undergirds the court’s decision: it reflects a decades-long drive to return higher education to white, elite control.

That movement predates affirmative action by at least a century, because no entity impacts American life more than higher education. During the Reconstruction era following emancipation, Black people were allowed to advance in political and various other roles, but white powerbrokers drew a hard line at higher education. On 28 September 1870 the chancellor of the University of Mississippi, John Newton Waddel, declared: “The university will continue to be, what it always has been, an institution exclusively for the education of the white race.”

Waddel was not alone in his appraisal. Following the civil war, many white academic leaders and faculty members believed higher education was designed solely to educate white people. Waddel and other white academics maintained that the University of Mississippi’s faculty “never, for a moment, conceived it possible or proper that a Negro should be admitted to its classes, graduated with its honors, or presented with its diplomas”.

Over the past century, Black Americans’ struggles to secure equal educational opportunity have always been met with white resistance. The recent lawsuits filed by Students for Fair Admissions – an organization led by anti-affirmative-action activist Edward Blum – against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are not about academic merit or even the mistreatment of white or Asian American students; they are an extension of this movement to ensure American higher education can be used to maintain social norms.

This is why, in defending affirmative action, the argument for campus diversity falls short. Rather than make wealthy, majority-white campuses more diverse, affirmative action was intended to acknowledge and address the nation’s history of racism and atone for past racial harms that disproportionately affected descendants of enslaved Black people.

This was made plain in 1963 – one of the most racially tumultuous years of the civil rights movement. By summer, John F Kennedy – a Harvard University alumnus in his third year in the White House – was forced to take immediate action about racial segregation, in part because it had become a foreign policy embarrassment to the United States that belied the nation’s stated commitment to democracy.

Read entire article at The Guardian