Commentary: Affirmative Action by Any Means Necessary

The Supreme Court's decision shows that the majority of the justices don't believe prejudice is a big deal.

Posted: 04/22/2014 03:23 PM EDT

After the Supreme Court's 2003 decision limited some forms of affirmative action in Michigan higher education, voters in that state adopted a constitutional amendment in 2006 to ban affirmative action altogether. About 2.1 million residents voted to eliminate affirmative action, while 1.5 million voted to keep it.

Just two years later, Barack Obama received nearly 2.9 million votes in the Michigan presidential election while his opponent, John McCain, received only 2 million.

The anti-affirmative action initiative passed with help from the part of Michigan's white population that was least exposed to people of color. While 86 percent of big-city dwellers and 53 percent of smaller-city residents opposed the ban on affirmative action, two-thirds of suburban and small-town residents voted for the ban. The suburbanites and small townsfolk made up 61 percent of the vote.

The contrast was also clear along racial lines. While 64 percent of whites voted for the ban, 86 percent of Blacks opposed it. Not surprisingly, white men were the most supportive of the ban, with 70 percent of them voting. But 59 percent of white women also voted for the ban, even though white women have historically been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action.

What all this means is that the vote to ban affirmative action would have been a lot closer, and might not have passed at all, if it had taken place during the 2008 presidential election instead of the 2006 midterms. Midterms tend to attract whiter, older, and more conservative voters to the polls, and that's precisely the reason why Republicans take advantage of these elections to push their conservative agenda. And that's exactly why progressives should be aggressively registering young people and people of color to vote in the 2014 midterm elections this November.

When the Supreme Court upheld Michigan's affirmative action ban today, it did so in a case where one of the two parties involved was a group called BAMN, a coalition to defend affirmative action "by any means necessary." That phrase is widely associated with Malcolm X, but it represents a simple idea. Black people can't rely on well-meaning judges and lawmakers to rescue us. We have to take every available measure to save ourselves. That includes voting, even in midterms and off-year elections.

Today's decision demonstrates why we can't rely on the courts. Along with last year's court decisions expanding gay marriage and limiting the Voting Rights Act, the Roberts court seems increasingly willing to strike down discrimination against LGBT Americans but allow it against African-Americans. It's as though the majority of the court believes prejudice against Blacks is of no great concern anymore. 

And while the high court turns a blind eye, conservatives are busy dismantling decades of civil rights laws and making life worse for Black people. Since Michigan's ban on affirmative action went into effect, the minority population at its colleges and universities dropped from 12 percent to 9.5 percent. The proportion of Black freshmen also declined from 7 to 5 percent, even though the proportion of Black college-aged young people in Michigan increased from 16 to 19 percent.

While some pretend the world is color blind, Justice Sotomayor provided the perfect response in her dissenting opinion today.

Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process...Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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