If there were some way to guarantee that all American citizens, regardless of race, ZIP code, income, or status, could receive a world-class K-12 education, the racial playing field might become level on its own. If so, we would no longer need programs and policies that offer broad solutions for racial inequality. In the clear absence of such a guarantee, however, we must continue to look to the law as an assurance that racial justice is still possible.
This paraphrase of Randall Kennedy’s contention [subscription required] in his book, For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law captures what is a central tension in university admissions and post-matriculation support. It also underlines how different generations (a perilous analytical paradigm, I concede) view the fairness—and necessity—of affirmative action.
I am convinced that baby boomers see race and ethnicity as “causal” of various inequities. Generation Xers and Millennials (as defined in the 1991 Howe and Strauss classic, Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, 1991) experience phenomena as culture and class outcomes. In some ways their interpretations are more nuanced, forgiving, or naïve, depending on how harshly one judges.
For this reason, and perhaps this age-divided reason alone, that the “younger” among us attribute injustice and lack of opportunity to a mélange of variables beyond color, that indeed bedevil an underclass of all colors. [subscription required] With such a mindset, it is simple to cast patterns of college admissions, enrollments, degree completion, hiring, promotion, and leadership as purely the result of individual differences.
For the younger, group characteristics are only a convenient scapegoat explanation. Indeed, aggregating individual experiences into trends reveals patterns that obscure what really matters: Some are endowed more than others, work harder, and achieve more by dint of their habits, not their ascribed similarity. Meritocracy rules in theory and practice!
Boomers, of course, take a longer view because we’ve lived the horrors of the civil rights movement—on our TVs and in the marches on campuses and town streets. For us, social change lags demographic change, seeming glacially slow and barely discernible. “Post-racial society” is an empty slogan, and movies depicting racial oppression are a melodramatic, but fundamentally accurate, rendering of what was—and is (in 21stcentury garb).
So how do the generations communicate about these differing conceptions and implacable filters? Not well. Rap music may have transcended color lines within a generation, but this has hardly translated into a waning of racism. Neighborhood public schools are re-segregated. Diversity is declared a campus value and diversity officers are installed with the oft-empty title of vice-president. This relieves faculty of the responsibility to alter courses or classroom climate, student attitudes or behaviors.
Much like national politics, the United States is a country divided on race. Subsuming race and ethnicity under culture and class is merely applying a Band-aid to the wound of prejudice and discrimination. No real understanding, compassion, or “taking the role of the other” (as pragmatist sociologist George Herbert Mead put it) has occurred. Instead, stereotypes have rigidified as the generations drift apart on the manifestations and meanings of race in society.
From the vantage of my college awakening to Great Society legislation, I don’t think we’ve learned much in the last 50 years. The younger have repudiated what we see, yet perpetuated how we deal with “difference.” That they see affirmative action as discriminatory against the majority is our failure—and why law that speaks to race is still needed.
In my view, the playing field will not level on its own.