From Our Archives: Affirmative Action

“Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall,” the first eBook in the Progressive's Hidden History series, is available for purchase, and a second is on its way! To commemorate the occasion, we're featuring some of the best writing our archives have to offer on our website.

Today, the Supreme Court consented to hear Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a case that questions the practice of race-conscious affirmative action in Michigan public universities. Recently, the Court heard arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, another instance of a legal challenge to affirmative action in university admissions.

The following passages from “Color-Conscious, Colorblind” by G.W. Foster, Jr. from our March 1966 issue, were written about public K-12 education. However, they still resonate strongly when put in the context of these recent challenges to affirmative action:

On November 16, 1965, President Johnson announced he had asked the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to "develop a firm foundation of facts on which local and state governments can build a school system that is color-blind."

Hopefully, the Commission is going to report that first all kinds of color-conscious steps will have to be taken before the President's ultimate objective of a color-blind school system can be achieved.

Today, a "color-blind" school system which keeps no racial records lacks the very information needed to determine whether discrimination is practiced in its name. When criticism comes—and these days it comes frequently—the system must either gather the needed information or brush away complaints without having facts adequate to make an informed judgment. Nor is the need for color-consciousness confined to education: In employment, in housing, in public accommodations, indeed, in the whole range of societal relations, surveillance against possible discrimination calls for continuing knowledge of racial facts.

Drawing distinctions based on race runs counter to the grain of traditional liberal philosophy, and certainly the use of racial distinctions at any time should be subject to the most careful scrutiny. There are, however, countless situations in which color-consciousness is essential for the elimination of invidious discrimination.

The seeming anomaly of having to resort to color-conscious actions to achieve a world in which color is irrelevant should serve as a constant reminder that the use of racial distinctions should never be placed above suspicion. Anyone using them should be prepared to justify his purpose in terms of alternatives and ultimate objectives. But given existing problems and present knowledge, overtly racial stratagems, even racial quotas—something long-viewed with the gravest doubts and skepticism—may be indispensable short-run tools, simply because no better alternatives yet exist for eradicating barriers to a colorblind society.

Want to read more? The Hidden History series of eBooks unearths many more buried treasures from our archives. For more information, check out progressive.org/ebooks or email ebooks@progressive.org!

Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern at The Progressive.