Students and college administrators across the nation awaited the Fisher v University of Texas II decision with bated breath. Most people support affirmative action programs designed to increase minority enrollment in higher education like the University of Texas, but would the Justices?
With the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February and Justice Elena Kagan’s recusal, the court was ideologically evened out. Justice Anthony Kennedy remained the swing vote, but worryingly for affirmative action advocates, Kennedy had shown significant skepticism of Texas’ affirmative action plan the first time Fisher v. University of Texas was on the docket.
What if the Supreme Court had delivered the final blow to race-based affirmative action?
Luckily, due to Kennedy’s vote in favor of affirmative action, this won’t have to be answered for a while.
In the words of Justice Samuel Alito, “Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case.” Fisher II, while definitely a win for affirmative action supporters—although not the biggest—is surprising in light of the significant shift Kennedy made not just in upholding but also in writing the majority opinion in favor of affirmative action.
…This didn’t happen on its own—we have a new generation of student activists from all walks of life to thank for it.
Looking at the changing political climate between Fisher I and II shows us just how far we’ve come in being open to conversations and a new intersectional activism around race and affirmative action, even in the rarefied halls of the Ivy League. But this didn’t happen on its own—we have a new generation of student activists from all walks of life to thank for it.
Trickle Down Change: Fisher II and Activism at Elite Universities
The Supreme Court was designed to be at arm’s length from the masses. Instead of catering to the whims of the mob, the court is supposed to be free to make ostensibly apolitical decisions. However, this hasn’t always been the case, especially not in times of turmoil and crisis.
In the past year, students of color have responded to such a crisis and demanded that their voices be heard through a myriad of protests on campuses across the nation.
From the University of Missouri to Amherst College to Columbia University, students demanded action to address the marginalization of students of color. Even Yale and Harvard students joined in demanding changes from the administration to acknowledge and ameliorate the problem of systemic racism at the campuses. Among the demands were a push for academic support and resources for students of color, improvements to student housing, or, in some cases, demanding a change in the makeup of the administration itself to better represent their concerns.
That some of these institutions were the alma maters of all the Supreme Court Justices might not be a coincidence. The New York Times has gone as far as suggesting that their personal connections to these schools rocked by student activism played a role in their decision to uphold race-based affirmative action in Fisher II.
Map of Colleges/Universities throughout North America participating in protests spurred by the Concerned 1950 in the Fall of 2015
The black markers denote the alma maters of majority of the Justices in the United States Supreme Court.
This reasoning is not far-fetched. Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff, besides addressing her personal experiences of being a Latina and the role of policing in her community, cited the blistering Department of Justice report on Ferguson as well as some of the intellectual influences of campus activists. She even referenced Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow when discussing societal inequities caused by policing urban communities.
Not only did these instances of campus activism and Justice Sotomayor’s dissent demonstrate the importance of diversity through a lens of academia and injustice, it displayed a newfound relationship between the Supreme Court and activism.
The death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri not only invigorated people of color to create the Black Lives Matter movement to address issues such as police violence toward people of color, it also inspired the emergence of campus activism in the form of the University of Missouri’s organizing group, Concerned Student 1950.
Strikingly, the inequities that were addressed by the Concerned Student 1950 went beyond race and targeted long-standing intersectional injustices.
Jonathan Butler, an original member of the Concerned Student 1950, in an interview with a Missouri radio Station KCUR discussed the importance of not focusing on one particular injustice, but embracing the interplay between race, gender, and class to create a new intersectional approach to campus activism. He emphasizes that students are all facing numerous different issues, and “one struggle isn’t greater than the other.”
This was a lesson taken to heart by other activist groups like Next Yale, which pushes for the varied yet interconnected causes of “divestment from fossil fuels, reformed mental health policy, and increased funding to cultural houses.”
First Generation Low-Income Students
The heightened awareness on campuses of intersectional injustices has proved fertile ground for other activist movements, addressing issues such as LGBTQ rights, sexual assault, and socioeconomic class.
The call for class-based justice efforts has been particularly robust. Organizations such as the First Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) have emerged throughout elite universities and have begun making demands for the needs of low-income students.
Stanford University’s FLIP created a social media platform known as Class Confessions that highlighted the lack of resources for low-income and first generation students that would be used at other institutions such as Columbia.
This platform was able to give a voice to students addressing the daily struggles they face as first-generation and low-income students, as well as the need for collaboration between administration and students in better serving their needs on campus.
Class Confessions was successful and inspired many universities with low-income students throughout the United States to use this platform and utilize social media activism.
In 2014 first-generation, low-income students from Ivy League schools began to come together through an annual meeting called 1vyG, which addresses socioeconomic issues faced both on and off campus and has since become an annual event.
The importance of economic status in the lives of low-income students was highlighted through this movement, which is one of many examples affirming the need for class-based affirmative action policies.
Beyond Token Diversity
Fisher II has closed one door and opened another to incorporating class-based affirmative action.
If the outcome had been different and race-based affirmative action was declared unconstitutional, it could have spurred colleges to create alternative policies to increase school diversity. Century Foundation fellow Halley Potter looked at states that banned race-based affirmative action and found that when universities used socioeconomic status instead of race, they were actually more diverse.
Student activism has, and can continue to change the campus climate not only in regards to race, but to other unacknowledged issues—socioeconomic class, in particular—by bringing the unifying tool of intersectionality to student organizing.
However, with current race-based policies remaining constitutional, there is no impetus for colleges to change and include socioeconomic measures in college admissions. Student activism has, and can continue to change the campus climate not only in regards to race, but to other unacknowledged issues—socioeconomic class, in particular—by bringing the unifying tool of intersectionality to student organizing.
We are at a moment in history where there is a growing recognition that issues of class and race are interlocked and activists have welcomed the importance of identities seen through an intersectional lens.
Student activists are not afraid to defy both political and academic institutions to promote change for marginalized groups on campus brought in through the promise of diversity. If universities want true diversity, using class-based affirmative action policies is a necessary alternative approach.
COVER PHOTO: Student Demonstration, Philippe Leroyer