Affirmative Action in a Revisionist SocietyJanuary 21, 1999 |
Affirmative Action in a Revisionist Society
America has always sent the double-binding messages to its Black citizens: Get a good education and work hard, and then you will become the master of your own destiny. Yet at the same time, the doors to a quality education have been largely closed to Black Americans.
But a quality education is the key to opening the door to full participation in an economy based on the principle of free enterprise. So before we abandon the objectives of a broad affirmative action policy in employment and higher education, we should recall some of the factors that moved us toward this now widely disliked policy in the first place.
In 1961, John Kennedy used the phrase “affirmative action” in the context of a discussion about the employment of Black Americans in the nation’s workforce. The use of the word “affirmative” implied that racially motivated “negative” prejudgments about the qualifications of Black candidates should be suspended. Racially motivated negative prejudgments have never been problematic for White Americans — who, in fact, have enjoyed a preferential status since the founding of this country.
Just as Prof. Frank Wu reminded us recently (Black Issues, June 25, 1998 edition), 20 years ago in the Bakke v. University of California case concerning admission to higher education, the Supreme Court recognized that the real issue was a regular and entrenched racial discrimination. In that case, Justice Lewis Powell offered a pragmatic balance between the opposing opinions of the court. Under his opinion, affirmative action was justifiable to promote educational diversity. But in the 1995 case of Adarand, the court was more concerned with the formal, legal logic of its decisions. Lost was the urgency of responding to racial discrimination, or any sense that it might be dealt with systematically.
Although many current African Americans have gained a degree of economic achievement with the help of affirmative action, that achievement pales in comparison to what was achieved by a country that gained its strong economic independence through the control of a captive workforce for nearly three centuries.
A particularly significant outcome of the Civil Rights movement was the demand of African Americans for equality and equitable access to all sectors of employment and education. Access to public facilities and transportation had been won, but the means for attaining self-sufficiency and economic independence had yet to come under the scrutiny of the country. With affirmative action, this final barrier to full participation for African Americans was named and confronted.
But over the past several years, the country seems to have developed a covert and insidious attitude about those individuals who have benefited from affirmative action. It appears that racially motivated “negative” prejudgments about the qualifications of Black candidates have made a comeback. Candidates hired under affirmative action policies are not qualified; and if they are qualified, they certainly are not the best qualified. This attitude has often been engendered by the hiring agency or authority, and in turn, it has contributed to the myth that preferences and quotas are needed to accommodate African Americans.
Unfortunately, our country often finds itself attempting to rectify situations that were predicated on a false set of premises about equality and equity. Thus, when legislative action either grants or rejects the notion of preferences, the fact that the nation has functioned throughout its history on the assumption that Whites should be preferred over non-Whites is conveniently forgotten. This is an illustration of the revisionist arguments used to repeal affirmative action.
Additionally, one of the problems with acting affirmatively to groups historically denied equal access is that new immigrants and others attempting to don the mantle of “minority-hood” desire these same preferences. And as a result, definitions are gradually altered until simply being a member of a group that is not considered in the majority entitles one to the benefits of affirmative action.
Throughout the recent debate, the real reasons behind affirmative action have been obscured by rhetoric over preferences, quotas, and market forces. There has been a lack of acknowledgement that the reason the country created affirmative action programs was to create equitable access to employment and education for Black Americans. But we can fill this void by gathering data to show that affirmative action programs do work. We should be calling for thoughtfulness and research. And when we do this hard work, we will then revise the debate on why America needs affirmative action.
— Dr. Barbara J. Holmes, Associate Professor
Department of Communication , University of Colorado-Denver
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