Wednesday, April 23, 2014


On the Affirmative Action Ban in Michigan

From the New York Times:

In a fractured decision that revealed deep divisions over what role the judiciary should play in protecting racial and ethnic minorities, the Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities. The 6-to-2 ruling effectively endorsed similar measures in seven other states. It may also encourage more states to enact measures banning the use of race in admissions or to consider race-neutral alternatives to ensure diversity.

States that forbid affirmative action in higher education, like Florida and California, as well as Michigan, have seen a significant drop in the enrollment of black and Hispanic students in their most selective colleges and universities.

For the past year I've been teaching at University of Michigan and watching students from all backgrounds try to force the school to deal with what it means that black undergraduates are now at 5% of the student body (a number noticeably off from state demographics: 14% of Michiganders are black). All year people have been agitating ferociously for an educational environment where administrators would not immediately sound disingenuous when saying the word "diversity," but the peculiar proto-justice that Jennifer Gratz hath brought upon us shall hold. Gratz, the (white) original plaintiff in the 1996 case, recently challenged a black Detroit high school senior to a public debate over affirmative action and stated, “Should we have a limit on how many Asians we admit? The government should be out of the race issue." She has called the Supreme Court decision a "great victory."

Michigan, whose online "ethnicity reports" are laughably half-assed and whose legacy-preference admissions policies are well intact, has otherwise acknowledged the ongoing protest by pledging to refurbish the multicultural center and consider digitizing some old civil rights documents, which one Huffington Post writer gives as evidence that "the University of Michigan Black Student Union's work for increased tolerance and diversity has paid off." Their work for tolerance! What a word, what a word.

I don't know. I'm from a neighborhood in Texas that is 93% white and went K-12 in the same demographic and even though I tutored in my neighborhood for long enough to become quite accustomed to hearing white people tell me about how they're the worst-off when it comes to college admissions, the racial atmosphere on campus here still reads insanely weird to me; this is still by far the most homogenous environment I've ever experienced in my life. I talked to my (nearly all white) students about race pretty often and oh boy did their voices grow awkward if they ever tried to discuss discrimination, which is what they called all that regrettable stuff America had done once upon a time long ago to people who were African-American, which is a word a lot of them said formally, in that "what had happened was" style; many of them couldn't say the word "black" without hesitation; in my one class with a black girl half the kids stared at her every time we talked about rap, poverty or crime.

Last night I was rereading Kartina Richardson's amazing essay "How Can White Americans Be Free?", which includes an incredible theoretical reading of none other than Spring Breakers:

The absence of time makes for a very spiritual place indeed, and Faith, whose spirituality is the clearest as a Christian, says she wants to pause time and calls it “the most spiritual place,” a place where everyone is the same. Faith proclaims her love of this uniformity again and again. Everyone is “like us,” she says (young, beautiful and white). They are all the same. And that means no one exists to remind them of their external identity.

To be isolated from history in a hall of mirrors is heaven to a young person, and the bliss of this collective, amnesiac atemporality on some campuses extends way beyond spring break. Richardson's piece is so remarkable because this all leads her to a point of clear-sighted compassion: "I realize that the obviousness of racism against brown people is a grace for us," she writes, "a grace because it is so clear and tangible. While that which oppresses whites is harder to see and is not discussed."

In order for white suffering to have a voice, white people must realize the largest and most invisible way in which they benefit from their white privilege, and it’s the same thing that’s causing their frustration being The Default. If Person A is actively supporting and benefiting from a system that oppresses Person B, it is very hard for Person B to hear Person A say, “But I’m hurt too!” However, if Person A is actively working to dismantle the system they benefit from but which oppresses Person B, then Person B is finally seen — and Person A’s pain can be embraced. In order to see a person you must see the truth of their pain. If you deny their pain, you refuse to see them. This is what makes black people invisible. And black invisibility is what makes white pain invisible to black people.

And so we live our lives never seeing each other.

And so it goes in these states, and likely more to come.

9 Comments / Post A Comment


ugh, the contempt for affirmative action bums me the fuck out. when my college students (in junior-level literature courses) would read ANYTHING that depicted the injustice of white male privilege, be it a slave narrative or kate chopin, their responses were nearly always framed in past tense - "this story is about how african americans used to be treated" - and they nearly always asked "why do we STILL HAVE TO hear about this?!" which stems from feelings of guilt/shame/discomfort but also total denial of current systems of injustice. i always found this so incredibly heartbreaking, but i suppose college is precisely for educating people out of these harmful viewpoints. but that's made a lot more difficult when POCs are not able to BE IN COLLEGE WITH those students who are so ignorant and full of prejudice. blah.
i have lots to say on this subject, but i also want to point my fellow 'pinners to justice sotomayor's beautifully-composed dissent: "In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter."


@tofuswalkman Hooray for Justice Sotomayor! But this decision is really disheartening. I moved back to northern Michigan 2 yrs ago after many years elsewhere, and am constantly picking up my jaw off the floor at things even "liberal" people here say about race. Where do you even begin?


You are so awesome. I love you.@a


I've seen a lot of people I went to school with at UofM (who are white) make a lot of comments about this that really sadden me. I'm an Ann Arbor native, and the lack of diversity at the U is pretty concerning. My undergrad experience was that I had mostly white classmates and friends, which had not been the case in high school. However, graduate school was a lot more diverse in terms of race. (Also my high school had a huge achievement gap problem, and the administration was pretty clueless as to how to accurately address it). Thanks Jia writing about this.


@sammysayalot Agreed, thanks Jia. I spent some time in Ann Arbor and found it, like Boston, to be extremely self-segregated and, like Boston, full of liberal whites who were concerned about racial prejudice and their own privilege, but had virtually no friends or colleagues of color. There exists a tacit frustration in this dynamic; these white people, well-meaning to a fault, WANTED friends and colleagues of color and were very self-conscious about their lack thereof. Meanwhile, a lot of white Michigan natives who are otherwise progressive liberals, have come to loathe affirmative action in the same way they've come to loathe the UAW. Michigan is a bizarre state.


I was at UM in the early 2000s (finished undergrad in 03) and I can tell you this was 100% NOT my experience and it sucks that it's the reality now. I'm not sure what the numbers were then, but I do know that my classes were pretty diverse and I really appreciated learning in that environment. I got to cross paths with a lot people of different backgrounds (some of whom grew up only a few miles away from me in the Detroit area) who were all at the top of their class--it's just that the class was not necessarily in an elite private or suburban school.

The university also defended affirmative action pretty vigorously and for a lot of years. I sincerely hope this is still an institutional value that someone (maybe talk to all those sociology and statistics grads) finds a way to address.


Thank you for linking to the riveting Katrina Richardson article. It feels like one of those things that, after reading, I might never forget, which would be a good thing for this white man.

By the way, I didn't go to U of M, but I grew up there - all 18 years in Ann Arbor; I attended a high school that today is roughly 50% white, 20% black, 20% Asian, 10% Hispanic and other races (those numbers feel about right for back then in the 90s, too). I think it would be a great thing for the University to find a way to better reflect the state's population.

up cubed

@szajic: This might be too personal, but I wondered which of Jia's race/privileged articles resonate with you the most? I've been trying to talk to a wealthy white guy about this stuff and trying not to get frustrate at pointing out stuff that seems obvious. I don't want to make it seem like a personal attack, so I've been trying to share interesting articles. Thanks!


Actions speaks louder than words, that's what they usually said. - Connie Sellecca

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