As a white student sues a university for alleged racial discrimination, is this the end of affirmative action?

An educational system that has historically been set up to reinforce inequalities will take a lot of work to dismantle, says Lola Adesioye.

In 2008, high school graduate Abigail Fisher of Sugar Land, Texas, was disappointed to find that her application to the University of Texas at Austin, a leading public college, had been rejected.

If Miss Fisher had finished in the top ten percent of her year, which she didn’t, she would have been granted automatic admission to the university under Texas’ merit-based top 10 per cent rule, which admits to the public university system any high school student in the state who finishes in the top ten percent of his or her graduating class.

Fisher’s application, on the other hand, went into a pool in which a variety of factors are taken into consideration. Fisher – who is white - believes that her application to the University of Texas was denied because of her race.

On Wednesday, her case against the University of Texas, which she claims violated her rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, will go up before the Supreme Court for review.

Although Fisher's case has already been seen by lower federal courts, and the constitutionality of UT's actions upheld, it is possible that this case could result in an overturning of a landmark 2003 ruling which allowed the University of Michigan’s Law School to use race in a "narrowly tailored" way to "further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body" and which set the precedent for UT.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the judges who presided over the 2003 case, stated at the time that:

The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.

However, if Fisher and her lawyers have their way the disbanding of affirmative action may happen far sooner than Justice O’Connor predicted.

This potential smackdown of affirmative action is good news for those who believe that racial diversity can be achieved through race-neutral policies alone. In a report released last week researcher Richard Kahlenberg claims that "universities [in states in which race-conscious admissions are prohibited] have implemented creative methods of assuring diversity."

However, this is not what the University of California – which is the largest selective higher education institution in America and operates a race-neutral admissions process and  – says about its own experiences. A case study released this summer revealed that

Although applications to the flagship campuses have doubled since 1995,and all groups have seen reductions in the percent of applicants offeredadmission, African American and Latino admittees have been reduced by 70 to 75 percent at UCLA and UC Berkeley, compared to just 35 and 40 percent for Asian and white applicants.

It goes on to say:

This disproportionate decline reflects the inequalities in the California educational system that fails to prepare African American, Native American and Latino students for highly competitive selection processes irrespective of their intellectual ability or likelihood of succeeding in their studies.

In fact, in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Texas in this case, the University of California makes it clear that it does not believe that race-neutral policies are sufficient:

"[our] experience establishes that in California, and likely elsewhere, at present the compelling government interest in student body diversity cannot be fully realized at selective institutions without taking race into account inundergraduate admissions decisions…"

While race-neutrality sounds good in theory, I am not convinced that it is even possible in a country which is permeated by racial inequality, and in which racial disparities in the education system remain so stark. How is it possible to measure students in a race-neutral way if race plays such a role in educational outcomes and achievements? In order to have an effective race-neutral process at the top of the education chain, surely that would also require that there is race-neutrality from the outset?

Yet, the fact is that the inequalities that affirmative action originally sought to redress still remain. For example, while segregation in education is no longer legal, it is still ongoing, with some suggesting that it is even worse today than it was in the 1950s. This is partly as a result of continued residential segregation. In New York City, for example, it has been found that:

A student’s educational outcomes and opportunity to learn are statistically more determined by where he or she lives than their abilities.

In America, the achievement gap in education begins before kindergarten and continues through high school where African American and Latino students lag far behind their white counterparts. It would seem strange for there to be no policies at a higher education level which seek to take into account these ongoing racially-based structural imbalances. 

Education has long been considered the pathway to social mobility and in a world that requires better educated and more knowledgeable workers, not having equal opportunity of access to that education presents not only an issue for the individuals, who are more likely to find themselves consigned to lower-income work that requires lower skills, but also for the country which must maintain its competitiveness in the global marketplace.    

Unless more effective policies are put in place to address the deeper issues – racial inequalities, poverty, poor schools and low expectations, decaying urban areas, residential segregation and more – the result of stopping affirmative action can only be decreased chances for minority students and an increasingly unequal society.

Addressing these fundamental issues would have to go far beyond affirmative action in higher education, to a thorough review, revision and reform of the very nature of American society, as regards its minority citizens. It would actually require America to put in a great deal of work to ensure that from the very environment that the minority child is born into is a nurturing and more expansive one.

High poverty areas – in which African-American, American Indian and Latino children are six to nine times more likely than to live than white children – would need to be transformed. There would need to be a deeper level of commitment from the government to the eradication of poverty, which appears to have been overlooked in this election cycle with the focus being on the middle class and wealthy.

Ironically, the more one thinks about what is needed, the more it is clear that lack of educational opportunity and access is itself the main barrier to the solution of these issues. But an educational system that has historically been set up to reinforce inequalities will take a lot of work to dismantle.  

Some have suggested that class-based affirmative action would be a better, or perhaps more palatable, alternative to race-conscious affirmative action. Of course, there are minority students who are not from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and white students who are. President Obama has said that his daughters, for example, would not need the benefit of a race-based affirmative action. 

However, although the inclusion of class is welcomed and necessary in order to facilitate and formulate a more nuanced look at the various factors that affect opportunity and achievement, this is inadequate on its own. Race and class intersect, yet they are not the same thing and therefore one cannot be replaced with another. Research also suggests that the effect of this would be to increase the number of low-income white students and would not make up for racial inequality. Research from the University of California’s case, has found that:

While African American and Latino youth are much more likely to come from low-income homes than either whites or Asians (53 per cent of African American and 59 per cent of Latino youth are low-income compared to just 22 per cent of white and 28 per cent of Asian youth in California), less than half of the low-income students admitted to the freshman class in 2011 at UC were from underrepresented groups.

I am of the opinion that for as long as race continues to affect people's chances in life, it must be considered as a factor, because it is indeed a factor.

Perhaps if affirmative action is struck down, this would shine more of a spotlight on America’s education system as a whole and more work will be done to narrow the achievement and opportunity gaps between white Americans and minorities from an earlier age. Affirmative action may go away, but the reasons for its implementation still, unfortunately, remain. 

Although all eyes are on the forthcoming presidential election, the case of Fisher v University of Texas has the potential  to usher in a new reality into America and to change the course of this nation. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court justices make the right decision.

The clock tower of the University of Texas at Austin. Photograph: Getty Images

Lola Adesioye is a British-born commentator, writer and broadcaster of Nigerian heritage. She has been described as “one of Nigeria’s top 10 wordsmiths”, “an emerging face to watch” and “one of 11 sharp black commentators in America”.

Lola’s written work – mostly commentary and features on topical UK, US and African social, political and cultural issues - has been published in a variety of international publications.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.