My University Under Attack: The Anti-Affirmative Action Brigade Comes to Virginia

My University Under Attack:
The Anti-Affirmative Action Brigade Comes to Virginia
By Paul Gaston

Vol. 21, No. 2, 1999, pp. 10-11

You never quite know how strongly you will feel about a great public issue until it shows up in your yard. I felt the force of that truism when Linda Chavez came to town in March to talk about a study her Center for Equal Opportunity had released. What it said was that the University of Virginia was guilty of racial discrimination. Our affirmative action program, according to her study, violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause just as the segregation laws once had.

Before she arrived for her talk, the Center for Individual Rights announced that it was likely to file a lawsuit against us, based on the findings of Chavez’s study. It had already won a case against the University of Texas and was hot in pursuit of the University of Michigan. After all the years of struggle here to overcome our racist heritage-a struggle we have every right to be proud of-it now appeared that our new enemy was to be not from within but from without, an enemy boasting, without irony or embarrassment, to stand for equal opportunity and individual rights.

The large auditorium was packed, with many students standing. They heard Ms. Chavez tell them that you don’t “end discrimination by discriminating against new groups of people.” Our admissions policy, she claimed, “smacks of the kind of racism that has long plagued this nation.” We must not “continue to judge people based on the color of their skin.” Then she told us that Martin King’s legacy was on her side, not ours, because he believed in a color-blind society and wanted to judge people only on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Her attempt to claim Dr. King for her side didn’t surprise me. Most “color-blind conservatives” I know distort his words to make them say the opposite of what he meant. It is true that he said that his dream was deeply rooted in the American Dream. But he also said that his nightmare was deeply rooted in the reality of American racism. I recalled that he had said, in his “dream” speech, something about the dream being a promissory note that had come back from the bank of justice marked “insufficient funds.”

In the aftermath of Chavez’s speech one of our student columnists wrote that our policy was to make it easier for blacks, because they are black, to get into the university than it is for whites. “The admissions office should not admit minority students under a different standard than white students,” he wrote. He then added his coup de grace: “This is racial discrimination, plain and simple.”

Of course it is not “racial discrimination,” plain or simple. I suppose the student meant no offense, but his statement seemed grotesque to me, claiming a moral equivalency between two diametrically opposed realities. It strains credulity to believe anyone can really believe that affirmative action and white supremacy are occupants of a common bed of evil. The same is true for the use of such popular terms as “reverse discrimination,” suggesting a turning of the tables by blacks on whites. Such assertions need to be swept away so they may not be used as justifications for the end of affirmative action.

Gearing up for the struggles ahead of us, I sat down to see if I could fashion a metaphorical broom. This is what I came up with.

Racial discrimination, in its historic sense, meant that black people, not individually but as a race, could not:

  • attend schools attended by white people;
  • attend schools equal to those of white people;
  • drink from the same water fountains, relieve themselves in the same toilets, or wash their hands in the same basins used by white people;
  • eat in the same restaurants as white people;
  • sleep in the same motels and hotels; swim at the same pools and beaches as white people;
  • sit next to white people in lecture halls, concerts, or other public auditoriums;
  • sit next to white people on buses or streetcars or other means of public transportation;
  • be born or treated in the same hospitals or buried in the same graveyards as white people;
  • vote or hold public office;
  • expect to live in the same neighborhoods, hold the same jobs, or attain the same standards of living as white people.

These are particular forms of historic racial discrimination. They are well-known for their place in law and as the manifestations of white supremacy the Civil Rights Movement sought to end. But we need also to recall the values and beliefs of the white supremacy culture that gave rise to and justified this racial discrimination, its ultimate reason for being. These included the belief that black people, not individually but as a race, were genetically inferior to white people and that this genetic deficiency was responsible for the fact that black people were: less intelligent than white people; more prone to crime than white people; diseased;

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unclean; untruthful; unreliable; immoral; violent; sexually promiscuous; and sexually threatening, through their men, to white women.

The list could go on. These beliefs also led whites to condone lynch mobs, poverty, malnutrition, and sickness; and invent means beyond counting of handing out insult and injury.

Affirmative action means none of these things. It bears no generic, historic, analogous, or constitutional relationship to racial discrimination and the white supremacy myths that created it. What affirmative action in education does mean is: a broad effort to identify potential black applicants and to encourage them to apply for admission, often in the face of institutional and emotional barriers; judging each applicant holistically as an individual, not as a member of a race; offering admission to black students whose application materials are predictive of their success in the university; offering admission to some black students whose SAT scores and grades are lower than those of some white or Asian or Hispanic applicants who are not offered admission; a systematic program of encouraging successful black applicants to accept their offers of admission; an objective measure of the success of these actions in achieving their goals.

These are the particular forms of today’s affirmative action. They are the manifestations of a philosophy rooted in the American Dream. The values and beliefs that gave rise to and justify affirmative action, its ultimate reason for being, need to be recalled. These include the belief that: black people, not individually but as a race, are not genetically inferior to white people; universities share a national obligation to acknowledge and use their resources to help overcome the effects of historic racial discrimination; Virginia’s obligation is peculiarly enhanced by its long history of slavery, segregation, and the denial of education to Afro-Virginians; the effects of historic racial discrimination are far from having been eliminated in social institutions and individual assumptions; abolition of affirmative action would be a major setback for the university’s effort to overcome the effects of historic racial discrimination; affirmative action neither excludes nor favors any individual solely on the basis of race; affirmative action is a positive, not a negative, action. It harmonizes with and is essential to the university’s overall mission to produce the best educated, most creative, responsible, and public-spirited citizenry possible.

Our admissions dean and his associates try to take a holistic approach, judging each applicant as a whole person, taking into account, in addition to academic ability, the peculiar interests, needs, talents, skills, sex, race, nationality, and place of residence-all these and probably more. The result is that some students from every applying category are rejected: white, black, Hispanic, Asian-as well as male and female, brilliant and not brilliant, rich and poor, athlete and non-athlete, the musician and the tone deaf, leaders and followers, Virginians and non-Virginians. To say that one of these whose application for admission is not successful is a victim of “discrimination” is to empty the word totally of its derogatory meaning-making choices on the basis of class or race or category without regard for individual merit; to show prejudice-and return it to its literal meaning-to make clear distinctions; to make sensible decisions; to judge wisely; to show careful judgment. Understanding the word this way would be a good thing, but it is not likely that an opponent of affirmative action would agree, nor would concede that we have to make choices and that our discriminating judgment should be trusted. And yet that is precisely what a moral and fair university must do to meet its obligations to the citizenry, the national interest, and the students. There is no magic formula, no fixed scale for assigning points for each human characteristic. There is discrimination, good faith, a sense of history, and the vision of a future made better by our colleges and universities.

So Ms. Chavez was wrong when she told her audience here that we are “discriminating against new groups of people.” She was wrong when she said that our admissions policy “smacks of the kind of racism that has long plagued this nation.” She was wrong when she implied that we “continue to judge people based on the color of their skin.” And she was wrong when she told us that Martin Luther King’s legacy was on her side, not ours. We need to hold on to these truths as we prepare for the struggles ahead.

Paul Gaston is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia. He is a Life Fellow and former president of the SRC.This essay is excerpted from his booklet (June, 1999) “Reflections on Affirmative Action:Its Origins, Virtues, Enemies, Champions, and Prospects,” available from the University of Virginia News Service, Booker House, Charlottesville, VA 22903 or on the Southern Regional Council’s website at