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Backsliding on Education Equality

‘I feel compelled to respond’

5/21/2014, 12:06 p.m.
Brianna Montague

I believe that landmark Supreme Court rulings like Brown v. Board of Education gave me a better chance to get a great education and to reach my potential.

And I am very thankful for everything Civil Rights leaders accomplished — big and small. Their struggle made it easier for people of color like me to get equal access to opportunities and receive a higher education. I have a bachelor’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from DePaul University, and I attended a relatively integrated high school in a respected district in Maryland.

So, imagine my surprise and anger when the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s affirmative action ban.

The April 22 ruling dealt with the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (also known as Proposal 2), which passed in 2006. The proposal changed Michigan’s constitution to make affirmative action illegal in public employment, education, and contracting.

In 2012, the case was appealed, and the voter-approved amendment was ruled unconstitutional for a short time. The Supreme Court’s 6-2 ruling upheld the ban.

The implications are ominous because the United States still has a segregation problem.

It is evident in the disproportionate closing of K-12 public schools that serve black communities. It isn’t fair to punish children for poor tests scores and building violations when the cities and counties where they live should address these problems.

It is evident when you look at what happened when the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After the decision was made, Texas announced that a previously blocked voter ID law would go into effect immediately. That state’s authorities also declared that any future redistricting of Texan electoral districts would no longer require federal approval.

It is evident when you look at the backsliding we’ve faced. In the 1970s, black enrollment was very low at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, at around 3.8 percent. During that time, protesters called for 10 percent black enrollment, effectively demanding affirmative action. As a result, black enrollment rose to 9 percent by the mid-1990s, until a white female student sued the University for “racial discrimination.”

Now, the numbers hover between 4 and 5 percent, figures with depressing similarity to the 1970s. The thought that this ban could spark a spiral dropping below 3.8 percent is alarming but possible.

Modern racism in the United States has a different twist. Many Americans believe we have attained racial equality due to the rise of celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey, and politicians, like President Barack Obama.

However, the goal of affirmative action was never to just have a few black people attain positions of great power.

Affirmative action has always been about helping minorities access publicly funded schools and get jobs without being discriminated against for their race, national origin, or ethnicity.

Currently, around 40 percent of white people ages 25-29 graduate from college, compared with 15 percent for Latinos and 23 percent for African Americans. The United States won’t deliver equal opportunities to people of color if other states follow in Michigan’s footsteps.

Already California, Texas, Florida, and Washington have all had some kind of ban on affirmative action in their states with major gaps in minority representation in public institutions.

If you truly believe our nation should aim for authentic equality, check out your state’s affirmative action laws. Find out whether they have affirmative action bans or if any are pending. Contact your local and state representatives and get involved in efforts to maintain affirmative action in education, government employment, and contracts.

In short, speak up and make yourself heard.

As a black woman armed with a bachelor’s degree, I feel compelled to respond. As the poet and activist Audre Lorde once said, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

Brianna Montague is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a graduate of DePaul University.