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Protesting Affirmative Action

The Struggle over Equality after the Civil Rights Revolution

A lightning rod for liberal and conservative opposition alike, affirmative action has proved one of the more divisive issues in the United States over the past five decades. Dennis Deslippe here offers a thoughtful study of early opposition to the nation’s race- and gender-sensitive hiring and promotion programs in higher education and the workplace.

This story begins more than fifteen years before the 1978 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Partisans attacked affirmative action almost immediately after it first appeared in the 1960s. Liberals in the opposition movement played an especially significant role. While not completely against the initiative, liberal opponents strove for "soft" affirmative action (recruitment, financial aid, remedial programs) and against "hard" affirmative action (numerical goals, quotas). In the process of balancing ideals of race and gender equality with competing notions of colorblindness and meritocracy, they even borrowed the language of the civil rights era to make far-reaching claims about equality, justice, and citizenship in their anti–affirmative action rhetoric.

Deslippe traces this conflict through compelling case studies of real people and real jobs. He asks what the introduction of affirmative action meant to the careers and livelihoods of Seattle steelworkers, New York asbestos handlers, St. Louis firemen, Detroit policemen, City University of New York academics, and admissions counselors at the University of Washington Law School. Through their experiences, Deslippe examines the diverse reactions to affirmative action, concluding that workers had legitimate grievances against its hiring and promotion practices.

In studying this phenomenon, Deslippe deepens our understanding of American democracy and neoconservatism in the late twentieth century and shows how the liberals’ often contradictory positions of the 1960s and 1970s reflect the conflicted views about affirmative action many Americans still hold today.

About the Author

Dennis Deslippe is an associate professor of American studies at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Rights, Not Roses: Unions and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism, 1945–80.

Reviews

"A welcome examination of affirmative action opposition in the often-overlooked period before Bakke."

- Choice

"Deslippe's treatment of labor's resistance in particular is balanced, detailed, and nuanced, and he includes an excellent chapter on the precursor of Bakke, DeFunis v. Odegaard (1974)... A valuable discussion that clearly adds to the scholarship on this crucial subject."

- Kevin Yuill - Journal of American History

"Ambitious and timely... The detail Deslippe provides in the creation of a 'reverse populism' that, in effect, made past discrimination into a union principle, is very powerful."

- Bill Barry - Labor Studies Journal

"It is difficult to think of a more timely historical topic: persistent ambivalence about affirmative action again collides with an economic downturn as an increasingly conservative Supreme Court considers landmark cases that may resolve some legal questions but are unlikely to end the almost half-century-old moral and political debate."

- Serena Mayeri - Journal of American Studies

"The detail Deslippe provides in the creation of a "reverse populism" that, in effect, made past discrimination into a union principle, is very powerful."

- Bill Barry - Labor Studies Journal

Endorsements

"Treats the very important subject of affirmative action in a way that respects the various participants in the debate and in a manner that illuminates a critical part of recent American history."

- Edward D. Berkowitz, George Washington University

"In uncovering the murky and complex pre-history of contemporary affirmative action debates, Deslippe shows how changing social and economic circumstances shaped diverse understandings of the meaning of race, sex, opportunity, and disadvantage."

- Katherine Turk - American Studies
Johns Hopkins University Press
Reconfiguring American Political History
2012
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