The High Court and Affirmative Action

By Michael P. Riccards

It appears that the Supreme Court is going to rule that as a novice dean at UMass Boston, I violated the Constitution when I implemented Affirmative Action in my college back in the  1970s. 

Affirmative Action was meant to integrate portions of society that proved to be inherently difficult to recruit and hold on to African Americans.  One of the areas was higher education, which in those days was extremely resistant to racial progress. 

In order to achieve some sort of movement, the federal government began to use quotas or numbers to measure progress in trying to get Black faculty into traditional departments. Already there were attempts to create separate programs or departments that would ameliorate minority concerns with the creation of Black and then minority and then women studies. 

But most of the hiring in any college takes place in the mainline departments, and it was here that I found the most resistance.  My college still referred to courses as the “History of the Negro” and still referred to the Civil War as the War of Succession or the” War of Northern Aggression.” The view of the Civil War and most especially reconstruction was from a perspective that spoke of the” Lost Cause” and regarded the movie “Birth of a Nation” as a masterpiece of explanation of race relations after the war.

That was the environment that an administrator faced at the time, and the most difficult was faculty hiring where the department recommendations were sacrosanct.  For example, in an English department of over 40 people, not a single one was African American, not a single person was Hispanic even in the Spanish Department, and there was no realization that gender perspectives were important. 

I faced that directly when I met with the chairman of the English department, who had five vacancies and spent a good portion of his time also teaching at Wellesley where he was more comfortable than in an urban public university.  I told him that he needed to recruit some Black scholars that year.  He observed that in his judgment African American scholars would not be ready for another generation or so to enter the university ranks.  I told him that he should see my successor for I did not have several generations to wait. 

Fearful of losing those positions, he managed to come up with two extraordinary black women with national reputations.  I soon realized that without  Affirmative Action we would be making no progress.  Without the support of the federal government, I would not have been successful.  

When my campus chancellor and the university president talked over my strategy, they both shrugged and said “Let’s see if he gets in trouble.,”

As the Supreme Court rolls back Affirmative Action, there should be some recognition of the nature of persistent discrimination in the nation.  The Fourteenth Amendment was meant to protect ex-slaves in the reconstruction period.  It was not meant to add to their burdens. 

I oppose discrimination, and I have been the subject of it, so I understand the sensibilities involved.  No one wants to go back to the Jewish quotas of the 1930s at Cornell, Harvard and Columbia.  But we must recognize that administrators need some weapons to use in the battle for racial justice.  It is not being woke to recognize that hundreds of years of racial discrimination do not vanish because a Supreme Court full of Ivy League, privileged judges take some unrealistic concern.  As Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, we are faced with not theories but facts.

Michael P. Riccards, a former college president. is the author of 30 books, including a two-volume history of the presidency, The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, and the recently published Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief. Riccards wrote this article for the Jandoli Institute.

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Michael Riccards, Politics

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