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The Wygant Case:
Impositions of Meritocracy

October, 2021


The Implications of Wygant et. al v. Jackson Board of Education:

Impositions of Meritocracy


       After the symbolic decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), integration was the focus of the NAACP and other civil rights groups in the United States of America. The slowly changing educational demographics and systematic dismantling of predominantly black schools led to a slight increase in the number of minority teachers entering predominantly white schools to teach. White teachers tolerated these BIPOC educators, though they made no attempt to offer seniority or protection against layoffs for them. This behavior was challenged in the case of Wygant et. al. v. Jackson Board of Education et. al. (1986) and was eventually found to be in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Before delving into the meaning, interpretation, and history of this case, I want to state that this behavior still continues today in private institutions, colleges, and public institutions (sometimes institutionally, but often socially and bureaucratically). We will be understanding this case using the context and philosophies of Silent Covenants by Derrick Bell and The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 by James D. Anderson.


       Michigan is often thought of as a predominantly white space. Not only is this insulting to the Potawatomi and Erie Tribes, but it also disregards the more recent population's inclusion of a diverse group of POC.

       In 1953, the first black teacher was hired by Jackson, Michigan's Public School system. Once Brown v. Board was decided, integration efforts increased marginally. By 1969, 3.2% of the teaching staff for Jackson was black; however, 15.2% of the student-age population was black. The teaching staff of Jackson did not properly represent their students. To address this disparity, the Union surveyed teachers in 1972 about whether they would prefer protections against layoffs of minority teachers or a seniority system. 96% of the teachers surveyed preferred the tenure system that had been present prior. (Justia, 2020). Though incidental, the percentage surveyed that preferred protections against minority layoffs was close to the percentage of minority teachers present in the teaching staff at the time.


       Despite considerable opposition, the provision to protect against layoffs of minority teachers was immortalized in Article XII of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the Union and the Jackson Board of Education. A "CBA" is denoted as a voluntary agreement between both the Union of employees and the employer (in this case the Board) concerning work conditions and hiring practices. In 1974, the Board broke the CBA by laying off two minority teachers and retaining tenured, white staff.

The Union swiftly commenced a suit against the Board in Federal District Court; thus began Jackson I. The Union argued that the layoffs were in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also nominally argued that the CBA had been broken. The Board argued that Article XII of the CBA was exerting a "racial preference" and violated the Michigan Teacher Tenure Act (1937).

       The Court decided that no discrimination had occurred due to the Union not filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prior to the case being heard. This was a blatant use of bureaucracy to slow and limit the scope of the claims made by the Union. The court essentially avoided making any sort of decision because they believed they lacked jurisdiction over the subject and had no evidence of discrimination prior to 1972 (Blackpast, 2007).


       At this point, the legal documents become unclear: one copy I found describes an immediate filing in State Court while the other describes an immediate filing in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. I am inclined to believe that the hearing in the State Court was either nominal or considered unnecessary, as both recounts ended in the same decision and tell essentially the same story (Blackpast, 2007; Justia, 2020). The Union had seemingly acquired several more laid-off minority teachers (~10 total) between Jackson I and this case, Jackson II.

       The Union had now filed the correct paperwork and both sides were arguing the same points as previously. The Court of Appeals determined that the CBA was permissible, as it did not directly conflict with the Michigan Teacher Tenure Act; this was a small win for the Union that allowed for Article XII to be instituted officially in the lay-off practices of Jackson Public Schools. During the years of 1976 to 1984, the CBA successfully retained minority teachers and laid-off tenured, white teachers. However, the court again refused to pass judgement upon the discrimination claims due to a lack of pre-1972 evidence. The court also stated that the societal discrimination and role model theory were not sufficient to initiate a racial classification system for hiring or lay-offs.


        Though the Union now had Article XII on the books, they decided to take the issue to the Supreme Court in order to obtain a decision on the racial discrimination claims. The court heard the case in 1986 and, in a 5:4 split, decided to reverse the previous decision regarding violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Justice Powell wrote the opinion while Justice O'Connor and Justice White wrote the concurring brief in which they stated that, "the Court is in agreement that, whatever the formulation employed, remedying past or present racial discrimination by a state actor is a sufficiently weighty state interest to warrant the remedial use of a carefully constructed affirmative action program" (Blackpast, 2007). This limited and strict definition for use of affirmative action did help pave the way for other cases and was one of the first times that our modern understanding of Affirmative Action was employed by the courts.


         Legally, the result of the case of Wygant et. al. v. Jackson Board of Education was primarily symbolic. The discrimination claims had little effect on the widespread practice of laying-off minority teachers due to the strict language that refused to actually address the racial sacrifice of black teachers/role models that had occurred in Jackson. Justice Powell and the court he was a part of had a history of strict definitions and high standards of evidence for considering any kind of justice for racialized crimes. According to Derrick Bell, "The Court, speaking through Justice Powell in a close 5 to 4 decision, did not question the accuracy of the statistical evidence, but set an evidentiary standard impossible to meet" (Bell, 2004). This usage of impossible standards mired the obvious racial biases in legalese that attempted to place an "objective" filter over the necessarily subjective crime of discrimination.

          I argue that this high standard for evidence was a ploy to place blame on the black prosecutors in the case. They had gone through all the official channels once they had reached the supreme court. They had a CBA that had clearly not been followed (which even the court of appeals admitted). Those that had been laid-off were POC whilst they had been supposedly protected by the CBA. The case is clear as day, yet the court falls back on high standards? Even though they found that violation of the Equal Protection Clause had occurred, they balked at truly addressing the issue at hand.

          The court obsessed over the potential disadvantages that may be felt by "non-minority" groups (Blackpast, 2007). This showed that self-interest dominated the framing of the issue into a white perspective. This was especially true for the four dissenting judges on the court.

          Although the court made clear its commitment to diversity in a broad context, they really only gave Public School Unions the cursory ability of negotiating affirmative action programs with their Boards. This does not remedy the situation fully, but instead fixes one issue in one place. The root cause of the issue is never considered. Furthermore, Public School Unions may be unable to convince their board to actually implement an affirmative action program and thus never have it in the CBA.


          The Role Model Theory that was posited by the Union to the court, was struck down utterly. The concurring brief even decried the court of appeals and the district court for giving the theory credence at all. No evidence was cited when this theory was dismissed. To combat this notion, I will demonstrate that history from the postbellum period in the American South suggests otherwise. James Anderson writes, "In July 1866 he [Alvord] reported 'that the surprising efforts of our colored population to obtain and [sic] education are not spasmodic.' 'They are growing to a habit,’ he continued, 'crystalizing into a system, and each succeeding school-term shows their organization more and more complete and permanent.'" (Anderson, 1988).

           The historical record indicates that schools formed by and for their own community are quite organized and bring many members of that community into its doors. "According to historian Henry Allen Bullock, fourteen southern states had established 575 schools by 1865, and these schools were employing 1,171 teachers for the 71,779 Negro and white children in regular attendance" (Anderson, 1988). The black population has eagerly participated in education and done well when "role models" are running their schools and teaching their kids; this is apparent from the high attendance rate of black students when going to their community schools in comparison with schools run by systems stemming from white people.


            Ultimately, Wygant et. al. v. Jackson Board of Education et. al. moved the dial only marginally for preventing racial discrimination; however, it is emblematic of the court-based attempts to suppress and delegitimize social justice efforts via the use of the constructed, objective lens and self-interest.                      Meritocracies in any form are dangerous. They impose unrealistic standards on all the people that are forced to take part in them. They impose a system of trivial ladder-climbing that obfuscates the ways in which rich, white people skip to the top. They impose seniority systems that only benefit those that run the system itself, not the average person or the persons most suffering from the system's myriad injustices. If we are to ever move on towards a new world of acceptance and celebration of diversity, we must dispel the need to only accept certain standards of evidence for discrimination cases. If we are to ever be an equitable society, meritocracies in all forms (as well as caste systems) must be struck from our governments and other public services. 



Works Cited

Anderson, JD. (1988) The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.

University of North Carolina Press.

Bell, D. (2004, April 19) Silent Covenants. Oxford University Press.

BlackPast, B. (2007, January 21) (1986) Wygant Et. Al. v. Jackson Board of Education Et. Al..

Retrieved from

Justia, UL. (Accessed on 2020, October 14)

Wygant v. Jackson Bd. of Educ., 546 F. Supp. 1195

(E.D. Mich. 1982). Justia US Law.

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