Yesterday the African Students Association hosted their last political round table of the year on the topic of affirmative action. Panelists included University President Lee Bollinger, Professor Eric Foner, Professor Ted Shaw from the Law School, and Janine Jackson, program director at FAIR. Packed to capacity from 9 pm till 11 pm, Lerner C555 provided the venue for extended comments from this all-star panel of speakers. Foner Fan Alex Jones was there.

ASA Political Chair Kambi Gathesha, GS ’13, commenced the round table with a justificatory caveat explaining the purpose of the discussion. First and most obviously, Kambi cited the Supreme Court’s recent decision to hear Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which questions Grutter v. Bollinger qua the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Kambi continued by citing the importance of broad historical and legal context while discussing affirmative action, as the issue can often be surrounded by nuanced and misunderstood language. He then pointed to the University’s announcement of a $30 million Faculty Diversity Initiative and resulting Bwog comments as evidence that this campus is want for a healthy examination of the principles underlying the policies that it practices. Kambi read aloud—”not for shock value”—a Bwog comment suggesting, “how bout instead of hiring based on the hue of one’s flesh, we emphasize *actual* competence and hire based on skill instead!” The shock was lost on me, but then I’ve never been a student of affirmative action. Who am I to question intellectual magnums like PrezBo and Foner?

Ms. Jackson first shared her experiences researching media bias and ineptitude while covering affirmative action. According to her research of news coverage from the first 6 months of 1998, she claimed the issue was almost exclusively framed as black and white. 2% of coverage dealt extensively with the issue in terms of women, and only 19% of media coverage mentioned women at all. Perhaps the most damning statistic, Jackson claimed, was that only 15% of coverage made reference to the history of discrimination in the United States. Yet it is this cruel history that lends affirmative action its purpose and justification.

Professor Foner (a Pulitzer Prize winner himself), presented a wealth of fact and interpretation of the history of discrimination wanted by Jackson. Foner bemoaned both the “legal discourse [that] has muddied the water” with legalistic, over-specific definitions, and the casual interchangeability of “preference,” “bias,” and “affirmative action.”

Imprecise discussion is often met with hostility, he claimed, but despite these problems, we also must be cognizant of the historical context for the times we live in. “This meeting could not have taken place” back in the 50’s when Foner was a student at Columbia College. At the time, there were only one or two black students in his entire class. Turning the tradition on its head, Foner pointed out that even in the 1950’s, affirmative action was widely practiced—for whites. Whites were over-represented despite often arriving on campus “barely literate.”

The crux of Foner’s presentation was his criticism of the Supreme Court’s impact on the framework of the affirmative action debate. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke established that the sole foundation for affirmative action was to foster student body diversity. Foner’s summary—that this is, “basically helping out white people by putting black people in the classroom with them”—was met with a chorus of snaps and muffled applause. The Court’s decision to provide affirmative action with a unitary foundation, he went on, “obfuscated the point. It’s about racism.” The Court refuses to acknowledge racism in America, and has forced a naive practice of color-blindness on the entire legal system.

Law Professor Ted Shaw spent a few minutes explaining his involvement in the University of Michigan case with PrezBo, and then sermonized about the length and magnitude of the civil rights struggle. His most interesting observation, which was carefully caveated so as not to offend those present, was that despite well-intentioned affirmative action policies at Columbia, “largely the students that are here are sons and daughters,” of recent immigrants. “We don’t have the sons and daughters of the generations who endured Jim Crow,” and the whole history of racism and prejudice in America. It would seem, then, that affirmative action practices at Columbia have indeed given preference to “skin hue” and to not broader historical and cultural context, as outlined by Foner, Jackson, and Shaw. At the same time, and this is doubtless one of the reasons Shaw so carefully introduced his observation, Kambi argued in his introduction that American bigotry is inescapable for all people of color in America.

Bollinger spent most of his time telling the long legal story behind his 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, but that history, though interesting, is not critical to the central topic here. Returning to Columbia, Bollinger noted that most students come to Columbia from nearly all white or all black high schools. Columbia might well be the first place that many students experience robust diversity. That observation seemed good and all, but it played perfectly into the problematic divide between traditional and legal justifications for affirmative action described by Foner. This is understandable coming from a lawyer involved in that case, but it makes one wonder how many BrickBreaker levels PrezBo got through during Foner’s speech.

Bollinger dubbed the upcoming Fisher case “ominous.” Jurisprudence dictates that the court not overturn recent rulings, but PrezBo observed that with Citizens United no such restraint existed. It’s possible, he argued, that the Court might make a limited decision about the specific type of affirmative action implemented by The University of Texas at Austin, but it’s not usual for the Supreme Court to take a case for a limited reason. As Shaw concluded, “there is no turning the clock back, but there can be damage done.”

Justice via ACS Law