Saturday, September 13, 2008

Is Affirmative Action Unneccesary?

NOW, a show on PBS, had a feature on a movement to end affirmative action which has initiatives on the ballots in three states and was successful 10 years ago in California. The video itself is pretty thorough in the issues it covers and makes for a pretty good introduction to some of the contemporary dimensions of the issue. I want to address some of the objections that have been raised to affirmative action because some i believe are foolhardy and others offer some insights into deeper issues that hopefully someone somewhere will find illuminating.

Affirmative Action is Racial Discrimination: Yes, affirmative action does institute polices which distribute resources based on race. It is institutionalized discrimination. Yes, the Civil Rights Act illegalizes discrimination. Yes this appears to be a contradiction. But, let me offer an analogy. Someone steals your wallet. It is against the law to take money from someone without their consent. The police catch the guy and the courts force him to pay damages. You are receiving money from someone without their consent, but we all know there's no legal contradiction because your getting money from the thief is recompensation for a previous legal wrongdoing. Slavery, Jim Crow, and the systematic neglect and exploitation of the black community have set an extremely damaging hindrance on the opportunaties of the black community. When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, black people did not all of a sudden have the same opportunities. They did not become rich, accepted in any mainstream American culture, get the same treatment by police, or have their schools funded at levels equal to white schools. The civil rights did not offer just compensation. If you don't believe African Americans deserve any recompensation, you either don't have a basic notion of resiprocity or are seriously mistaken about what such laws and social practices do to people. So yes, just as the thief can have money taken from him for stealing, so can race become a factor of discrimination for repaying the debts of discrimination. Should Affirmative Action be a part of social recompensation? That's debatable. However, it is a weak argument to say it should be thrown off the table (at least right now and I'll get to that later) because it's racial discrimination and we illegalized racial discrimination.

Affirmative Action is "Reverse Racism:" I hear this a lot: isn't racism priviliging/exalting or disadvantaging/degrading someone because of race and doesn't affirmative action privilege black people with jobs over whites? Yes. However, privileging an already racially disadvantaged group is not racism, but a mitigation of racism. In a situation where the chances of a black male with standard application material getting a job are the same as a white ex-convict (I'm tired and thus a bit lazy in finding the studies; they interviewed the researchers on CNN's Black in America), we can safely say that discrimination is already in play.

A Black President signifies the end of the need for Affirmative Action?: I never took this too seriously until it was the first segment in the PBS video. I've laughed it off becuase it's the ultimate "Black Friend" argument. "There's a black guy in the White House, this country's totally cool with black people. Oh, that Fiddy Cent." I'm not saying the lack of African Americans in positions of power is because of racism in hiring practices. I don't have to to Jujitsu this idea over the illegitimacy of Tokenization.

Affirmative Action Discriminates against Poor White People: This argument offers a lot of insight into contemporary class politics and the redirection of class struggle. A lot of this is anectdotal stories boiling down to a struggling/poor/small white
business/student trying to land a contract/get into school/get a job and finding that they lost it to Affirmative Action or can only find scholarships for minorities (there's a similar complaint with hispanics). Yes, white people lose spots to blacks because of Affirmative Action and don't have many anti-disadvantage programs. Yes, poor/struggling whites face many of the same barriers as African Americans. Welcome to the F'n United States. Anyone who believes there is universal equal opportunity was not born poor. It's closer to true to say that everyone has an increadibly large range of possibilities. I have the opportunity to be an Astronaut and so does a Black kid from Washington Park. We do not however have the same opportunity as the son of a Air Force General who grew up around jets and has been given every chance to learn how to fly, learn the military ropes, and was essentially born into social connections that can move him up. I did not have the same opportunity to go to Harvard as a graduate from Phillips Academy. And yes, poor, struggling white folks should be feeling miffed about not having those same resources or resources that help you get there. But do not look at African Americans and say "you're taking away my opportunity." You look at the wealthy and say "how can you pretend I have equal opportunity?" You look to government and you say, "where's the help to overcome the disadvantages of being raised poor?" Why aren't there poor scholarships? Why aren't there hiring quotas for the poor? At least in Affirmative Action there is the recognition that poverty is a disadvantage and something is being done. There absolutely should be more done to mitigate those disadvantages, but taking away Affirmative Action is not going to help any poor. Ending hiring quotas will do absolutely nothing to help overcome the disadvantages of a destitute primary and secondary education, of not having parents around because they're working their second job, of not being able to go to afterschool activities because you don't have transportation. The problem of poverty is not black and white. It's rich and poor.

I'm not saying Affirmative Action is the solution or a primary solution, but I am saying that the objections often raised to it are woefully ahistorical, unrealistic, or misdirections away from the real problems


The Rooster said...

I feel like Affirmative Action puts a band-aid on a deep wound. It redresses past injustices (not really) but it does not bring us significantly closer to what Rawls called "fair equality of opportunity": the idea that positions should be open to everyone not just in a formal sense, but that everyone with the relevant skills and ambitions should have an equal chance of attaining them.

Jason said...

I agree that Affirmative Action is by no means a widespread solution to racial discrimination and disadvantage. In my mind, it's a late stage tactic. Starting with schools, daycare, health care, and other familial supports will do much more. One of the biggest affects of AA though is exactly the power of representation. Research has consistently shown that regular interaction between disparate groups reduces tensions, misunderstandings, and conflict. This does not always happen, but interaction is necessary.