I was born in 1962. Before I graduated from the 1st Grade, several important pieces of public policy were enacted that fundamentally shaped the difference between the opportunities I was fortunate to use in building my life from those of my parents and grandparents. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 established an atmosphere of redress for centuries of harm inflicted on Black people in this country. More aggressive and far-reaching than the Reconstruction Period, that atmosphere created a window of opportunity in this country that had never existed before. There was an interest in tackling the root causes of discrimination. But reality set in, or a fear of upsetting the status quo. Although these programs were designed to address more than 300 years of discrimination written into this country’s laws and social fabric, they sometimes were only half measures. Affirmative action was one of these remedies.
Affirmative action was established to work around inherent bias in decision-making that prohibited African-Americans, women, and other marginalized communities from having a fair shot at achieving their life’s potential. You know, that inalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness” we talk about every July 4th. It was never meant to eliminate bias from the system. That would require a solution aimed directly at the root cause, the biased people in charge of making the decisions.
I am a proud beneficiary of affirmative action programs. I don’t think it makes my achievements less remarkable. I don’t think it somehow paints me as inferior. I know I earned everything I’ve accomplished in life through the skills and training I was able to access. I say that because I know of the obstacles that stood in my parents and grandparents’ way. Insufficient or incomplete schooling. Discriminatory hiring practices. Racist lending practices. Redlining of Black neighborhoods weakened the worth of Black homeownership and destroyed the generation of wealth. No access to government programs, such as the GI Bill, designed to help people get back on their feet. Any advantage I received from affirmative action was nothing but a small installment payment for decades of public and private policies that hampered my family from acquiring the skills they needed to achieve on their own, creating wealth they could pass down to my brother and me. But they had next to nothing. I received $500 from my grandparents during my freshman year of college. That money went to cover the cost of textbooks for the fall and winter semesters. That’s it.
Before affirmation action was banned here in Michigan, the University of Michigan had a Black enrollment of 9%. That is a pathetic number considering the state’s other top 4-year universities recorded almost twice that number during the same period. Today, it’s been cut in half to 4.3%, similar to the level of Black enrollment in 1954. At best, affirmative action has helped a few people like me break through the barriers placed in their way. It’s given a helping hand to people who had the potential and drive but not the financial resources for college. As it is now, a student’s access to financial resources is a better way to gauge who gets in and who doesn’t.
President George W. Bush went to Harvard not because he was an excellent student but because his father and grandfather had gone there before him. He’s joked publicly about his poor academic skills and stated that despite them, he still became President.
It’s called a legacy admission.
The daughter of Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre went to his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, on a volleyball scholarship funded partly by a $130,000 donation from her father. At the same time, Favre participated in a scandal where $5 million in state welfare funds were diverted to USM to build a volleyball stadium where his daughter played.
This, too, is called a legacy admission. The diverting of public funds to build the volleyball stadium is a fraud and a crime.
Finally, the daughters of “Full House” star Lori Loughlin and “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman were enrolled in the University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon University, respectively, because their parents paid someone else to take their college admission exams.
This, too, is a crime.
These three examples show how mediocrity is overcome by money. The unqualified have always been admitted to a college or political office based on a famous family name or celebrity status. In fact, at Harvard, one of the schools named in the Supreme Court case, 43% of white students are either legacy admissions, athletes, or related to a donor or staff member. That discriminatory admission policy didn’t end with the Supreme Court decision last week. The colorblind society the six conservative justices want us to believe we live in doesn’t exist because whiteness and wealth have always won the day. What did change with their decision, and what has been slowly changing for more than 40 years, is the willingness to redress the harms of the past with initiatives designed to foster more significant equity.
A qualified Black student who was admitted to a university through affirmative action has never stopped any eligible Asian American student from also being accepted. It was a mediocre white student with influence that did that. But the way they want to shape the perception of affirmative action’s impact is to pit one community of color against another. That way, it keeps the attention off the reality of racial bias in America. It is a tool used to sustain white dominance, creating an apartheid system to hold on to the reigns of power that are slipping away with each new census study.
As our nation becomes more diverse, some Americans are becoming more intolerant and insensitive to differences. Bans towards people of certain religions and nations of origin have been prescribed as an approach to immigration. Intentional cruelty permeates our law enforcement, education, and economic policies. Case in point: the decision in the student loan forgiveness case. Left unchecked, the dominance of wealth and power will lead this nation to a new level of historic inequalities. It’s possible America in 2023 could make America in 1923 look like an oasis of Progressiveness. As an artist and as a beneficiary of affirmative action, I cannot sit by and let that happen.
Plowshares Theatre Company was founded on a social justice mission. We give a stage to stories that never had one and amplify voices that would otherwise be silent. In light of these recent events, we will redouble our efforts to be a place where issues of equity, diversity, and progressive change will be presented without filter or compromise. I owe it to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren that they should not have to live in a world with fewer freedoms than my grandparents and great-grandparents had. We have to fight for the principles this country was founded upon, even if this country has forgotten what they are.
Our Response to the SCOTUS Decision on Affirmative Action