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Affirmative Action and the Southern Strategy: A Talk with Professor Carl Livingston

If there’s one thing we should be talking more about after the Supreme Court ended affirmative action this June, it’s the Southern Strategy, says Professor Carl Livingston.

The Southern Strategy has its roots in the 1960s, when strategists and leaders within the Republican Party decided to give up on attempting to appeal to Black voters, instead going all-in with southern whites. Over half a century later, it seems the strategy has paid off. Donald Trump won white voters by 15 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016. His victory allowed him to stack the Supreme Court with young, conservative justices, and they have already handed the conservative movement several big wins.

The most recent of those wins came June 29. The Court ruled that the affirmative action policies of Harvard and the University of North Carolina were unconstitutional, effectively ending the race-conscious admissions practices that have benefited students across the country for decades.

“The decision will most likely result in declines in racial diversity among many public and private postsecondary institutions,” wrote nonpartisan policy research group Brookings Institute.

“Previous state-level affirmative action bans have shown that race-neutral admissions policies are ineffective at improving racial equity in higher education,” Brookings reported. “One study found an immediate 1.6-percentage-point decrease in Black enrollment in the most selective schools after such state-level bans.”

When Livingston — lead professor of Political Science at Seattle Central, local pastor, and an African American — heard about the decision, he confessed, “A pall came over me, a heaviness.” The message from the Court, he says, is that, “The economic plight of the state is important, but not the plight of your people.”

Livingston is currently working on a book, titled, “The Playbook: How Southern Strategy Discrimination Has Affected My American Family” (Classic Day Publishing, set for 2024 release). He says the Southern Strategy is more than a turn by the Republican Party toward white voters.

“It’s a nefarious deal,” he warned. “The deal is you — historically racist people — we’re asking for your vote, but recognize you’re joining the party of Lincoln, so we can’t talk racist, we gotta talk code.”

And what’s the code?

“We’re gonna talk about equality, but we’re gonna undo the legislation and the programs that would provide for an equal society … We’re gonna slow down progress against programs addressing race discrimination.”

Livingston recalled when, in 1982, current Justice Clarence Thomas had been appointed by Ronald Reagan as chairperson of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The Commission’s purpose is to take legal action on behalf of women, Black people, and others who have been discriminated against in the workforce. This often takes the form of class action lawsuits. After all, if an employer, for example, is discriminating against Black people in their hiring process, we would expect to see more than one case of discrimination. Thus, it makes sense for many cases to be brought together, to show widespread, systemic bias against a certain group of people. The Supreme Court noted as much in 1977, finding that “suits alleging racial or ethnic discrimination are often by their nature class suits, involving classwide wrongs.”

But Thomas moved the EEOC in a different direction. PBS Frontline reported this year on Thomas’ history with affirmative action, writing that while he was chairperson of the EEOC “[he] shifted the agency’s efforts from broad, class action race discrimination lawsuits to more narrowly defined bias against individuals.”

“The moves helped Thomas rise within conservative politics throughout the 1980s,” Frontline continued, “and in 1991 former President George H. W. Bush nominated him for the Supreme Court.”

Thomas transitioned the EEOC from an agency focused on, as the Supreme Court put it, “classwide wrongs,” to one focused on individuals — while still, of course, claiming to fight for equality. The Southern Strategy at work. It turns out this was a preview of the direction the Court would move on affirmative action over three decades later. With its recent decision, the Court’s conservatives now want universities to make admission decisions based only on individual applications, with no regard for any “classwide wrongs.” This turn from systemic analysis to individual experience is partly what has allowed some conservatives to argue that race-conscious programs are reverse discrimination.

“Do not let conservatives define the issue,” Livingston responded. “Affirmative action is not preferences based on race, devoid of history. It’s a remedy to address the facts of past discrimination. The remedy has to be proportional to the injury to be just.” 

Livingston says that after hundreds of years of slavery, and nearly a hundred more of segregation, the United States has only had about half a century of affirmative action — and meanwhile the Southern Strategy has been winning Presidencies and Justices for the conservative and reactionary movements. Taking the long view, we see that not nearly enough has been done to remedy the injuries of racism in this country. Livingston referenced the facts that Black Americans still suffer major discrepancies compared to white Americans in areas like life expectancy, college attendance, and income per capita.

In her dissent in defense of affirmative action, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted the same: “Gulf-sized race-based gaps exist with respect to the health, wealth, and well-being of American citizens. They were created in the distant past, but have indisputably been passed down to the present day through the generations.”

How can the Court’s conservatives take the stance that systemic discrimination is entirely a thing of the past, given the overwhelming information otherwise?

“For them, the information is not overwhelming,” Livingston answered. “For them, the information is anecdotal, and non-pervasive.”

In their rush to individualize, and declare, by fiat, that our society is colorblind, Justice Thomas and others are intent on moving on from race — even if the country hasn’t earned it yet. In his concurring opinion on ending affirmative action, Thomas wrote that he considered his perspective to be “an originalist defense of the colorblind Constitution.”

Livingston says we should redefine that word, too. 

“Colorblind should mean color-fair. It should mean a true society based on equal opportunity. The program you’re going after is the very program that will provide a more ‘colorblind’ society,” he said.

Facing these racial realities, Livingston argued, is fundamental to healing. “These things tear at the fabric of who we are, at our authenticity. The system itself is missing the authenticity that it needs, so people can believe in the government, and believe it’s working for them.”

Conservatives have successfully slowed down progress, Livingston observed, so that today African Americans are in a similar position as they were 50 years ago. The Southern Strategy has worked.

But how can we fight back?

“There are things students can do. We can raise our level of advocacy,” Livingston says. “Go look at the discrimination, and go look at the remedy, and see if it’s proportional.”

“It starts with definitions,” he continued. “Sometimes you have to raise the level of education to make the case in the public.”

The best information on the Southern Strategy, according to Livingston, can be found in a 2019 book by Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields, titled, “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics.” He mentioned they include women’s rights, and sexism, as part of their framework.

As for navigating the landscape of the Court’s recent decision, Livingston encouraged students to not give up. “We have to go to experts to ask, ‘Where are the openings in the Court’s own language to help us save affirmative action? Or at least provide programming [to benefit] different people?’”

For example, even with the current decision, specific programs could still be implemented to remedy specific wrongs. Livingston reasoned that “if you can prove discrimination, [you can] tie a program to that evidence. Washington State has some disparity studies that could be the basis of that.”

In fact, there is a case to be made about current discrimination, nationwide, Livingston says.

As Justice Jackson wrote, “Deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

Beyond education and advocacy, every election we face has tremendous consequences — especially now — and our participation matters. “We need two new Justices,” Livingston declared. “It is quite likely that two Justices may be opened up [in the next decade]. So this is a time for voting.”

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