Earlier this fall, the Supreme Court heard a case about race-based admissions to the University of North Carolina. Conservatives argue that affirmative action programs discriminate against White applicants by giving minorities unfair advantage in admission programs. Now, those same conservatives are challenging a Fellowship designed to recruit minority students into programs studying nutrition. That’s a lot of fodder for aggrieved White people.
The conservatives claim the programs violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race. The people pushing the lawsuits are the ideological progeny of the people who opposed the Civil Rights Act 58 years ago. History really doesn’t distinguish between those who opposed it for ideological reasons and those who opposed it for White supremacy reasons.
In 1969, just five years after the Civil Rights Act passed, my first-grade class was the first fully integrated cohort to go 12 years through school together. Much of the story for the next 50 years of my life was watching Black Americans achieve “firsts” that had been routine for White Americans, sometimes for decades. The first African American contestant in the Miss American pageant. The first African American Mayor of Atlanta. The first African American director of a major motion picture. The first African American inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The first African American astronaut. Just this week, Harvard University announced the first African American president of that prestigious institution.
When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States just 14 years ago, the feat was monumental. A few years before that, I would never have believed his victory possible. Even his opponent, John McCain, graciously acknowledged the historic significance of Obama’s success. Two years into his presidency, an African American friend of mine told me that when Obama came on the television, he still got chills realizing that the Black man on the screen was president of the United States.
In the early 1990s, I chaired the board of a nonprofit daycare center that hired the first Black director of a school where a majority of the children and staff were African American. In the early 2000s, I helped elect Terry Bellamy, the first African American mayor of Asheville. Two years ago, I had the honor of working for Pat Timmons-Goodson, the first Black woman to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court. I say this because I’ve seen, first hand, the struggles many African Americans face just trying get equal opportunities in the recent, not distant, past.
All of these firsts, from the most mundane to the most prestigious, were only beginnings. In many cases, they didn’t throw open the door, they just cracked it. The next generation of African Americans still needed to be exceptional just to compete with their White counterparts who often had better connections to employers and institutions. And we still have a lot of firsts to go.
Before the barriers were broken, other talented Black athletes, actors, politicians, and professionals were denied positions, honors, and awards because of the color of their skin. As a country, we systematically created an underclass populated by Black Americans. Laws prevented them from participating in the same economy and society as White Americans. Customs and prejudices, often masquerading as ideology, kept the descendants of enslaved people from their constitutional right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
While the Civil Rights Act finally made the Jim Crow laws illegal, it did not address the harm done to victims of those laws and it did nothing to repair the damage done to a culture and society. Black citizens, especially in the South but also in many other states, were treated as an inferior class of people and denied access to capital, education, jobs, property, and the ability to build generational wealth taken for granted by White Americans. Today, they have higher poverty rates, less education, lower wages, less homeownership, and a fraction of the wealth of White families.
Affirmative action and tools like Fellowships are attempts to right the wrongs of the past. As a country, we have failed to adequately compensate African Americans for stealing their labor and means of production for more than 250 years and attempts to relegate them to margins of society for 100 years following the end of the Civil War. More than 350 years of systemic discrimination cannot be undone in 50 years. We’re still trying offer opportunities to Black Americans that have routinely been offered to White ones. Ending the practice of that discrimination is the beginning, but repairing the consequences of it will be an ongoing process that lasts for a few more generations.
The conservatives who oppose affirmative action may argue that they are taking an ideological stand, but they share a goal with people who take a racist one. If they want to separate themselves from those who still see America as a country for White people, then they need to offer solutions that will correct the wrongs imposed, not just by individuals, but by the state. Otherwise, they shouldn’t complain when they are confused with people with whom they sleep.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Mills spent 20 years as a political and public affairs consultant. Republished from PoliticsNC.com.