Undermining Racial Justice is an archival exploration of the movement for racial justice that gripped the University of Michigan (henceforth UM) from the 1960s. Divided into eight lucidly written chapters complemented by an introduction and a discerning epilogue, the book documents the black student activists’ struggles to transform higher education at a time when US colleges and universities advocated racial inclusion while symmetrically perpetuating racial inequality. Not being an exception, UM was envisioned to build a distinctive model—a multiracial community. However, its racially attentive policies were always interspersed with discursive practices like racial innocence, dissent annihilation, inclusion bureaucracy and co-optation. In the pursuit of ‘excellence’, they made racial inclusion and inequality compatible and jeopardized the social meaning of a university. While earlier scholarships focused on the origins and purpose of black campus movement, this book is about its legacy. It is about the people who were at UM’s helm and their tactics of black resistance. Johnson attempts to acquaint the readers with the confluence of identity, diversity, and student protest.
Johnson begins with the chapter ‘Bones and Sinews’ where he refers to the historically pervasive and institutionally-embedded hierarchical values at UM. Their leaders wanted to create an ‘elite’ and multi-cultural institution, but throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the varsity embraced some white-supremacist ideas that thwarted racial admixture. Johnson questions their white-centric admission practices and curriculum that were designed to attain elite status, but, at the cost of accessibility and inclusion, creating representative anomalies in the student body and black hostility in the campus.
In the second chapter titled ‘The Origins of Affirmative Action’, the reader is informed about the African American black activism and civil rights movement for racial justice of the 1960s, which compelled UM to embrace affirmative action. It informs us on how the officials moulded the character of inclusion policies to preserve the university’s priorities in the wake of inadequate federal enforcement. While they embraced ‘race’ as a criterion of admission amidst internal resistance, and also instituted black scholarships, black enrolment barely increased. Johnson maintains that this was due to the university’s negative public image among the blacks given, historically speaking, its white character.