Titus Kaphar, “Shifting the Gaze” (2017), oil on canvas, 83 × 103 1/4 inches (image courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum)

It is surprising to me that anyone would be surprised by the US Supreme Court’s decision last week to ban affirmative action in college admissions. I have been hearing gripes about the policy since I was in high school in the 1970s and was accepted to Brown University, a member of the Ivy League, as a beneficiary of affirmative action. The prevailing assumption is that more deserving White people lose out to less deserving members of minority groups. There is no accompanying acknowledgment of the fact that less than academically stellar children of White donors and alumni are accepted to elite institutions over other applicants with records of greater academic accomplishment. That assumption also ignores the value of the resilience, grit, and resourcefulness of minority students who make it into elite colleges despite having fewer social connections and undervalued cultural capital. The resentment toward affirmative action harbored by many people — mostly White — is not always articulated openly because it is politically delicate for liberals to openly express their elitism and racist bias. Underlying this resentment is the persistent belief that racism is reducible to individual acts of mistreatment, preferably physical and visible. That resentment also bespeaks White people’s refusal to accept the fact that systemic racism affords them privileges, whatever their personal views may be.

It’s easy to point to extreme conservatives and White nationalists as leaders of the multipronged effort to dismantle Civil Rights legislation. But it’s short-sighted to limit one’s vision of resistance to anti-racist efforts to these groups. The elite schools at the center of this case are dominated by liberals and have been for a long time. So is the art world, despite the fact that some of its money comes from conservative individuals. America’s liberal elites are so narcissistic and so convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority that they can only accept affirmative action as a favor it is entitled to bestow on others, because it still allows its members to hold on to power. Therein lies the root of the “White savior” complex that puts members of the elite in the position of choosing what kind of minority person to champion. It produces the endless search for a student of color from the most economically and socially marginal sectors who has miraculously managed to be considered for admission to elite universities without guidance, SAT prep, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, or extracurricular activities. It also generates endless debates over whether the other minority students whose parents have struggled with limited means to secure scholarships to prep schools and special programs for their children, or students who were raised abroad outside the hellish conditions of American public education, should be considered at all for affirmative action programs. Forget about the insular and provincial mindset of most Americans and the potential benefits they can gain from learning about the rest of the world with people whose cultures, histories, and living conditions are different from theirs. These conditions are not applied to White applicants.

Similar phenomena appear in the world of art. Studio art and art history departments were much more resistant than other areas of the humanities to affirmative action and multiculturalist scholarship, but the recent success of African-American artists in the art market and the rising power of collectors and institutions across Asia, coupled with the changing demographics of students in universities that now demand courses about non-White artists, have forced these fields to embrace diversity to a limited degree. Younger generations of art historians, regardless of their backgrounds, are now keen to embrace “global art history.” That’s a big shift from my college years, when art history departments limited their coverage of non-Western regions to courses on the arts of antiquity, presented Modernism as the sole property of Europeans and White Americans, and generally treated the work of non-White artists as folk art. There is a lot of self-congratulatory rhetoric flying around these days about the supposed “new era” post Black Lives Matter in which museums show and even acquire more work by African-American artists. The mainstream art media has turned into a cheering squad for those museum efforts, which is particularly ironic if one considers that some of the critics leading the charge were the most arrogantly dismissive of work by artists of color 20 or 30 years ago. I cannot forget that the infamous 1993 Whitney Biennial featuring many artists of color, including myself, was slammed by the art press and despised by blue-chip gallerists who were accustomed to having instant access for their White artists. What the current hoopla masks is the reality that these gains for Black American artists are exclusive to them and underpinned by their induction into the upper echelons of the art market thanks to long-standing efforts by Black curators and philanthropists who have spent decades cultivating private sector support. No other ethnic minority in this country has been the beneficiary of a similar effort.

White liberal resentment of affirmative action has a long history and it’s here to stay. There will always be those who believe that no one other than themselves and their friends deserves access to the benefits of the elite, which in the art world means having one’s efforts recognized as relevant art, rather than an involuntary expression of of an artist’s personal history. 

I remember the sidelong glances from some professors who were expecting me to be inarticulate, and the indifference of those who simply didn’t pay me much attention because they knew I was in no position to donate to a program they wanted to launch. I remember being told by my editor at the Village Voice that he no longer needed a Latina to cover Latino subjects and the Art in America editor who thought it was odd that I would want to write about a British experimental filmmaker and not a Latino one. I also know that after my job interview at Columbia University more than two decades ago, the chair of the committee grumbled that he had already hired a person of color and didn’t see why he had to hire another. In another job interview at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I was told by a committee member that my work wasn’t really art — it was anthropology. I doubt that German artist Lothar Baumgarten, who spent several years making art about ethnographic museums, would have been addressed or evaluated in the same way. I’ve also listened to a commissioning editor at a major European television station tell me that Cubans couldn’t possibly have Postmodernism because they had no experience with Modernism, and I could not afford to correct him. Furthermore, I faced a review committee for my PhD spearheaded by a philosopher who questioned whether postcolonialism, the subject of my thesis, even existed. 

Not a month goes by without me having to deal with some sort of evaluative comment that betrays the prejudices of the speaker, or a stupid question intended to elicit a comment that would render three decades of my artistic practice as a simplistic expression of racial identity — although Latinos do not constitute a race. Of course, this resistance to believing that others are just as intelligent or qualified as you are is also accompanied by ad hominem attacks when detractors lack substantive arguments, as minorities we are often described as too animated, too loud, too strident, too political, or just “too much.” These are all variants of the view that non-White people are less capable of abstract thought and “disinterested” aesthetic judgment, an argument whose origins lie in the writings of Immanuel Kant. What this leaves out are the many ways that White elites have always used violence, political force, and crude ethnocentrism to safeguard their privileges. There’s nothing “disinterested” about that. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more things change, the more they stay the same”).

Coco Fusco is an artist and writer and professor of art at The Cooper Union.

Join the Conversation


  1. Coco Fusco splits the relevant hairs admirably, by which I mean that she articulates the vast nuance of racism that exists with its more brutal manifestations. These subtler expressions of prejudice, however, are in many ways just as brutal as the overt demonstrations because they can be easily denied by those who inflict the thousand cuts, who very likely believe that they aren’t racist because they aren’t setting attack dogs on a Black person.

  2. In an otherwise excellent essay, the author is mistaken in her assertion that affirmative action is a black/brown vs white issue and that “the prevailing assumption is that more deserving White people lose out to less deserving members of minority groups.” In the recent Supreme Court case she cites, it was in fact a minority group (Asian-American students) who proved that Harvard was discriminating against them in the admissions process based on their race – illegal under the Constitution – giving them low marks in “personality” even if they demonstrated the grittiness and determination the author praises by finishing top of their class and achieving high SAT scores despite being first generation children of poor or working class immigrant parents.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *