Responding to Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision

My first response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the University of Texas case was to breathe a sigh of relief.  I had been expecting affirmative action to be ruled illegal.  Instead the Court, in effect, said that the University had to prove that non-racial methods were ineffective in creating greater diversity.

We should, however, not be truly relieved by the decision.  Affirmative action has been under attack since the 1970s.  And since then, the objective of the political Right has been to steadily weaken it, in part through an ideological assault suggesting that it is really not necessary.  The results of that ideological assault can be seen in the opinion polls that suggest that only 45% of respondents believe that affirmative action is any longer necessary.

To conclude that affirmative action is no longer necessary one must be looking at a different United States of America.  One must be looking at a country that possesses no racial differential in treatment; one must be looking at a USA that has no dead cities with large concentrations of people of color; one must be looking at a USA where funding for schools is not disproportionately biased against communities of color; one must be looking at a USA that has not witnessed the evaporation of land owned by African American and Latino independent farmers.  To conclude that affirmative action is no longer necessary, therefore, one must have decided to focus more on the fact that there is an African American in the White House rather than looking at the realities facing people of color in the USA on a daily basis.

To some extent it is understandable that in periods of prolonged economic downturns there will be resentment of groups that are perceived as competitors or holding some sort of unfair advantage.  The problem that people of color face, however, is that the advantages are never in our corner.

Take the issue of unemployment as one simple example.  Whether in a period of boom or bust, the unemployment levels for African Americans are always at least twice that of whites.  For this reason the notion that a rising tide raises all boats is not particularly helpful.  There are structural factors that restrict the African American ‘boat’ from rising but so far when the tide comes in.

The task we face, as we come to grips with the Supreme Court’s decision, is the task that has faced progressives in the USA for some time:  there needs to be the construction of a movement for social and economic transformation that recognizes that race and racism will not disappear on their own.  Addressing economic and social injustice as a whole goes nowhere to the extent to which race and racism are ignored.

This means that a discussion of building struggles for economic justice must include an introduction of the often unsettling question of the manner in which race and racism have not only pitted groups against one another, but how it has been used to suppress the hopes and aspirations of entire populations.  There is no way of successfully avoiding the question of race.

Yes, one can believe that affirmative action is no longer necessary and that we have ‘overcome’ historic racist oppression, but then again, one can believe any number of things.  As a matter of fact, have you heard that there is a bridge for sale in New York?  I can get it for you cheaply…


Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an Editorial Board member and columnist for and a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and a founder of the Black Radical Congress.

Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press). He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO. Prior the George Meany Center, Fletcher served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.

Fletcher got his start in the labor movement as a rank and file member of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. Combining labor and community work, he was also involved in ongoing efforts to desegregate the Boston building trades. He later served in leadership and staff positions in District 65-United Auto Workers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Fletcher is a graduate of Harvard University and has authored numerous articles and speaks widely on domestic and international topics, racial justice and labor issues.

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