A recent column in the alumni newsletter of my alma mater, the University of Mississippi, is headlined “We Have Legacies.” The quote is lifted from the column and would ordinarily evoke the world of Southern landed gentry. A photograph on the page, however, shows the author to be an African-American woman, thereby turning another Old South stereotype on its head at a school that already has cast off many symbols of its all-white history. The battle flag of the Confederacy is no longer displayed at Ole Miss football games, for instance, and “Dixie” is no longer sung loudly in the stands.
The author is my former classmate and a member of the Ole Miss student hall of fame, as are her daughter and numerous other African-American alumni. She notes certain responsibilities associated with what she calls legacy status at Ole Miss, such as leadership and humanitarian spirit. She writes passionately about second-generation members of black families now enrolled there and praises those whose courageous sacrifices made it all possible, including “people of various races, backgrounds, and age groups.”
“I am the beneficiary of those sacrifices,” she wrote.
So am I, I thought.
Since its founding in 1848, Ole Miss has reluctantly relinquished traditions; until nearly half a century ago, one such tradition was to exclude blacks from admission. Yet in recent years, despite its racially charged history, the school has strategically employed affirmative action to welcome minority students, and the effort has succeeded. African Americans now make up nearly 15 percent of the student body, three times the enrollment during my time there in the 1970s. The black students on campus—including those walking at the very spot where riots broke out in 1962 when James Meredith integrated the university—are legacies of affirmative action.
To be sure, affirmative action at Ole Miss has not been without its detractors, including members of old-line white-legacy families. That being the case, and now that blacks are part of the school’s alumni establishment, I wonder when debate over the future of affirmative action will begin. For my part, I have started to question a tenet I once resolutely held, taking a position that would make the author of the newsletter column wince. I believe it is time to reconsider affirmative action.
The question is as old as affirmative action itself, which can be traced back to March 6, 1961, when President Kennedy created the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and directed its members to “consider and recommend additional affirmative steps” to eliminate racial discrimination in government employment. Codified as law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action has been upheld by the Supreme Court in University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978) and again in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), which originated at the University of Michigan law school. Both decisions generated countless analyses by legal scholars, political scientists, and sociologists, and I’ve studied many of the arguments through the years while strongly supporting the law. After all, like my Ole Miss classmate, I am one of its beneficiaries. Grutter v. Bollinger and its companion case Gratz v. Bollinger hit especially close to home because I attended the University of Michigan as a graduate student on a minority-student scholarship governed by the admissions policy challenged in the lawsuit.
My time in Michigan introduced me to a world of ideas beyond the provincial South—I had grown up in Mississippi’s closed society—and provided an intellectual transformation that still resounds in my life. I arrived in Ann Arbor when literary-theory debates were active in English departments across the country yet had not made their way to my corner of the South. I followed them with rapt attention. Deconstruction challenged the way we all thought about literature, making us read and recontextualize what we read rather than think strictly in terms of genres of literature. Looking back, I realize that if I had not had a middle-class background and college-educated parents, I would not have thrived at Michigan. But I also know that the ideas I found transformative were considered routine by my fellow graduate students, the white students who had grown up with broader cultural experiences than mine. The gap between my middle-class experience and theirs was bridged in part by affirmative action.
Not long ago, whenever I heard conservative commentators say that the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action system is fatally flawed, that it should be “colorblind,” my reaction, based on my experiences there, was one of emotional rejection. I’d heard that line before, in defense of the separate-but-equal schools that created gaps in my education. But after studying Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion in the 5-4 Michigan case, I began to put my emotions aside. “Race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time,” she wrote, and I have come to believe that although the time may not be the present, preparations must begin now.
Three years ago I began to research and write about the lives of my maternal grandparents, Jim and Edna Richardson, an interracial couple whose Alabama marriage in about 1915 was outlawed by miscegenation laws. In a state where intermarriage was punishable by seven years of hard labor, Jim and Edna left few written traces of their lives and struggles. They kept no diaries, and the family destroyed their letters. I’ve been reconstructing their lives in the context of race and identity by looking at court data and land records and collecting oral histories. Through courthouse records I’ve learned how they dodged Alabama’s legal hurdles regarding property, inheritance, and the transference of assets—laws that were enacted to discourage interracial marriage and families. My grandparents’ lives were richer and fuller than I could ever have imagined, yet a sense of peril hovered over them.