There is No University Without Diversity:
Students Continue to Fight for Affirmative Action
Jennifer Lin is director of the Student of Color Campus Diversity Project, U.S. Student Association Foundation
Imagine: You wake up one morning, and suddenly the world has changed. As a person of color, a woman, a student, you are suddenly faced with the prospect that the opportunities you were given -- opportunities fought for by the civil rights movement, the self-determination movement, the equality movements -- are being eroded. Your younger brothers and sisters who are looking to you to keep the doors open for them -- they are getting worried, as are you. The gains fought for in the '60s, of judgement not by discriminatory assumptions based on a dark skin color or a particular gender, are being turned on their head. The fight against discrimination and against the preferences given to whites and to men are being brushed aside, and suddenly the small and modest gains made by people of color and women are being trashed as "preferences" and "reverse discrimination" against whites and against men.
Don't erase the progress, you think. Affirmative action works. It's still necessary. It benefits everyone. It gives an equal opportunity for people to participate in society.
Students across the country have already woken up, and are organizing to protect and expand affirmative action. The scene above is not a dream -- it is reality in the current debate on affirmative action. The resulting consequences for students, communities of color, and women have driven many students to get organized on their campuses.
Nationally, Congress has shied away from challenging affirmative action at the federal level, following a strong showing of support by diverse communities for keeping and protecting such equal opportunity programs. However, more states have become vulnerable to court challenges and referenda aimed at ending affirmative action. By bringing the challenges to the courts and to a referenda process that is increasingly influenced by big money, opponents of affirmative action are attempting to skirt the increasing base of affirmative action supporters. Judges and juries are not supposed to be influenced by grassroots pressure, thus court challenges pose a useful strategy for opponents of affirmative action. The initiative or popular referenda process has distorted its message to confuse people into voting for something they thought would increase accessibility and equality, not end programs like affirmative action. Thus, the initiative process used by opponents of affirmative action has proved successful in states like California and Washington.
Court cases that challenge campus or system affirmative action policies are still pending in Michigan, Georgia, New York, Alabama, North Carolina, and Washington State. States like Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas have had anti-affirmative action legislation proposed this year.
With the battle in the states, students state by state have increased their organizing efforts to win on affirmative action. In California, with a new governor and new members on the Board of Regents, the University of California Student Association (UCSA), representing 170,000 students from 10 campuses, has made repealing SP-1 and SP-2 one of their top priorities for the year. SP-1 and SP-2 were the measures passed by the Regents of the University of California that ended all affirmative action programs in the UC system. It was soon followed by Proposition 209 that ended affirmative action programs statewide.
Students plan on targeting chancellors and pressuring them to support the repeal of SP-1 and SP-2. By educating and building power among students in the UC system, UCSA and students in California are ready to open back up the doors to higher education, and renew the state's commitments to equal access and equal opportunity.
In Michigan, with two pending court cases challenging affirmative action policies in both the undergraduate and law school admissions, students in Michigan have made their position clear: keep affirmative action. With days of action last year sending a strong and clear message that students support affirmative action and equal opportunity programs, students this year are building off their campus coalitions, and making stronger connections with the community to educate and organize with community members on this crucial issue.
Florida students, knowing the reality of a proposition 209-like initiative being launched in their state, have begun to form coalitions and bring a diverse group of students together to organize on this issue. With the signature collections for an anti-affirmative action ballot measure in 2000 building speed, students have started educating their peers and organizing their campuses and communities. Community organizers in the state, including Floridians Representing Equity and Equality (FREE) led by the NAACP, NOW, labor, civil rights, and other progressive groups, have been organizing against the ballot initiative. Pro-affirmative action groups are looking to launch a positive affirmative action ballot measure to give voters an alternative to the destructive, misnamed, and proposition 209-like "Florida Civil Rights Initiative."
In Colorado, following a disappointing decision by the state higher education commission to cut state-wide affirmative action programs, students have pushed for strong campus programs that target recruitment and retention efforts of historically under-represented students, faculty, and staff. Last year, when campus administrators at the University of Colorado at Boulder refused to heed students views on diversity and affirmative action, a broad coalition of students created their own campus diversity plans, and submitted them to the state higher education commission. The student's stronger and more defined plan, the "Bolder Boulder" diversity plan, received recognition from the state commission. It remains to be seen where Colorado will go from here, but students will be watching, and ready to fight for equal access.
North Carolinians, after fending off a system-wide review of affirmative action policies initiated by the system's President Molly Broad last year, are continuing ongoing coalition work and educating and involving students in work to protect affirmative action and provide equal access.
"Alternatives" to affirmative action
In the wake of the challenges to affirmative action, states like California and Texas have attempted to highlight "alternatives" to affirmative action, such as offering admission to the state's top 4% or top 10% of high school graduates. No alternatives, however, have been able to reach the effectiveness and the goals of affirmative action: to open opportunities to all students.
For instance, students have pointed out that if the 4% and 10% plans were to in fact increase diversity, than such plans would have to be implemented among racially segregated communities. For some ethnic groups, such plans are not sufficient because Latinos, for example, have low high school graduation rates and would not inherently benefit from such "top percentage" programs. The much touted "alternatives" have not created the real gains in equal opportunity that affirmative action has provided for the past 30 years.
Day of Action
Students in Michigan and other states are gearing up for a Day of Action October 20th and 21st. Some of the goals are to help highlight the positive messages on affirmative action to the campus, community, and media, and to help establish more structured working and organizing relationships with community groups on this issue. By sponsoring speakers, highlighting personal stories of affirmative action beneficiaries, holding teach-ins, and more, students are ready to make their message known: students support affirmative action, and are ready to organize and fight for it's protection.
Even though the attacks have been focused more in the states, students nationally know that the only way to win is to work with students from other states, supporting their work, learning from others who have fought similar battles, and more. We know our opponents have a unified front-we too must be united in our efforts to protect and expand affirmative action.
|Published in In Motion Magazine September 19, 1999.
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