Friday, February 1, 2013

Affirmative action

Whites may agree in the abstract that blacks are citizens and are entitled to constitutional protection against racial discrimination, but few are willing to recognize that racial segregation is much more than a series of quaint customs that can be remedied effectively without altering the status of whites. The extent of this unwillingness is illustrated by the controversy over affirmative action programs, particularly those where identifiable whites must step aside for blacks they deem less qualified or less deserving. Whites simply cannot envision the personal responsibility and the potential sacrifice inherent in Black’s conclusion that true equality for blacks will require the surrender of racism-granted privileges for whites.
            -Derrick A. Bell Jr., “Brown v. Board of Education and the Inherent Convergence Dilemma” (p. 22)

Derrick Bell’s statement is quite simply bold. There is much truth in his statement as there is surprise. Both elements strike any reader because the statement addresses a cold, hard fact in America that many of us are not willing to acknowledge or discuss: we live in a color-blind society. To be color-blind though, as Nikhil Pal Singh writes in his book, Black is a Country, does not equate to equality though because it ignores the historical past and identity inherent in the African-American. Yet, this is the trend among American politics, law, and society, and it’s showing potently among white resentment towards affirmative action, as Derrick Bell notes even in 1980.

The three main counter-arguments that I hear among whites, who criticize affirmative action is that first, it places less-hardworking and less-intelligent minorities into positions that otherwise a white person was more qualified for taking the position (either in college or in work); second, it does not promote equality because it places minorities one step ahead of whites; lastly, it ignores the real underlying problem in our country: the high-cost of education and the poverty among all races.

All three counter-arguments bear logic, in my opinion, but they discredit the history and the current situation in our country. America is not in a post-racial society. The high incarceration rates of blacks and Latinos give evidence to this, as well as the high number of minorities who do not complete high school and/or do not go to college. They are a product of an environment that we live in and are responsible for creating, and I think the failure of whites to acknowledge these aspects of American life is one way to diverge from the larger problem in America. Affirmative action places minorities on the same starting line as whites because the fact is, many (not all though) are born and live in an environment that holds them 10 ft. back from the starting line simply because they were born with a certain skin color. Whites struggle to grasp this concept because it's 2013. We live in an modern age where racism should sound like a word that one uses to describe pre-1960's, not 2013. We are ashamed to admit that this situation does not exist; whites are especially guilty of this, and I believe that's why many deny the usefulness of affirmative action. The consequence, unfortunately, is that the minorities are not being affirmed. 


  1. While I agree with the larger part of your argument, I think that it is important to provide origin or reason alongside the statistics. For example, simply stating that a large number of African Americans aren't graduating high school or attending college, or in jail for that matter implies that they are in fact under qualified. And perhaps what I'm asking you to do requires a bit of research or maybe even traveling across the city to simply SEE the difference, but why are these statistics reading this way?

    1. Dear Dayna,

      Sorry for taking so long to reply to this. I'm just now seeing this. My statistics are localized to the city of New Orleans, which isn't fair I must admit, but they are also statistics that I hear generalized repeatedly from the media.
      I did do a quick google search on African Americans in prison, and the NAACP did provide statistics on the disparities of blacks in prison (found here: Louisiana is much worse with regards to this issue because the prison system is supposed to be run at full capacity because the state receives money for the number of people in prison from the private corporation that owns the prison. In turn, police officers have a stronger incentive to jail people who would be marked with petty offenses, and the fact of the matter is, many of these people are chosen because of the color of their skin. The media further pronounces the race issue because it makes note to show the faces of the criminals on TV, and often, these criminals are black.
      To answer your last question, I would say because placing race as the main factor for incarceration rates, high school graduation rates, and college attendance rates is far easier than evaluating society further. It's a very de-humanizing tactic, but too few, from the academic establishment and society in general, voice criticism for this tactic.

  2. Maria,
    You have isolated such a compelling passage from Bell’s argument, a passage that indeed, as you note, is bold and requires a great deal of further parsing and examination. What I find interesting about this passage is its discussion of sacrifice and exclusion. Sacrifice is an idea that we are thinking through on a somewhat grand scale as a culture in the past few years, or even post-2008. Often Americans are discussed as a group of people who are greedy, and deep in debt due to this greed and need to quench powerful urges to consume, whether it is food, Apple computers or other luxury goods, or even jobs. Thus, there is a narrative that some of us must sacrifice for the larger good. In post-2008 America, those of us who must sacrifice are increasingly the poor as funding for so-called “safety net” programs and entitlements are cut while other sorts of exclusions are applied so that the wealth of the wealthy remains safe and untouched for fairer redistribution. I think you are making an interesting and urgent call for us to recognize the fact that the “post-racial” ideology is a very dangerous one.
    I disagree that all three of the most common arguments against Affirmative Action that you cite bear logic. I think several of these assumptions are based upon the most insidious forms of racism that continue to proliferate and affect every level of institutional and institutionalized life in the U.S. from higher education to real estate to public education and the legal system, and so on. The idea that Affirmative Action programs are about sacrifice for white job seekers or students is another faulty claim and an ignorance about the ways that white privilege operate in tandem with a concerted, effortful blindness toward history and structural inequality. I do agree with you that these arguments “discredit history and the current situation” as you say.
    I would like to also pick up on your final point—that of affirmation. What does or can a politics of affirmation mean for us as a country? How can a politics of affirmation be implemented? This politics makes the case dramatically for a more inclusive and diverse legislative body. I don’t know if you recall the image of who provided testimony on women’s issues in front of the Senate committee hearing the debates about provided health care coverage for women’s health issues and birth control. Only white men in their 50’s and 60s were present. This image has left a searing impression on my mind’s eye since largely young women, poor women, and women of color in this country are impacted by these decisions. Affirmative Action legislation and follow through are terrifying prospects for many because they question the very assumptions and structures that undergird power and how it is achieved and passed on in this country.
    Dayna asks a very important question about how we distribute knowledge and rely upon quantitative figures/”facts” to justify certain beliefs. What assumptions underlie the way that we even read figures, data, statistics as a stand in for human lives and material reality?

    1. Dear Elizabeth,

      I think what I was trying to say when writing that all three arguments bear logic is that they contain a cause and effect argument. Logic was not the right word choice.
      To answer your questions in the last paragraph, well this is difficult. I certainly do believe we should have a politics of affirmation because Congress has the power to instill policies around the nation that some would argue are not right. As to how Congress can instill these policies and more so, how can the politics of affirmation be implemented, this too is difficult for me to answer as I'm not very knowledgable about the in's and out's of Congress. One way is to produce fines for the institutions or the state that break the laws, as well as hold back funding to pressure the state. While this is not the perfect example, it's one that I can remember acutely. During the Obama Administration's campaign to pass the health care bill, Senator Mary Landrieu (Democrat) signed the law, only after she was promised that Louisiana would receive an additional $300 million for its Medicaid and Medicare program.
      Your observation of the older, white males definitely rings an image in my mind. It's a large frustration that I hear from many women (especially pro-choice women), but it all goes back to who voted these men in, and the answer is us. This is drawback I believe in the case for affirmative action because these persons are not recipients to the program, so how can they grasp its effects and benefits?

  3. Response by Denise Francis:
    Thank you, Maria for writing this post. All too often affirmative action is taken out of context and being made as unqualified added advantages for minorities. In fact, I don’t believe that many people can give a solid definition of what affirmative action is or how it works in practice. It is important that we- the nation as a collective- does a better job or having tough conversations and address the misunderstanding in issues like this. I believe that affirmative action is necessary in some circumstances and can be very useful for both the individual and the employer.
    Affirmative action can reverse several biased actions. In today’s society it’s not always about what you know but who you know. In the ever growing segregated society that we live in today, many people-minorities especially- are excluded from these conversations and potential opportunities. Affirmative helps to ensure that qualified individuals who are left out of this sphere have the opportunity to advance in society like everyone else.
    Affirmative action also helps to reevaluate practices like the “seniority system”. The system gives individuals who have been long term employees of the company securing if the company needs to downsize. The most recent employees to be hired are the first to be fired. Sounds fair right? However, we know that minorities and white women weren’t given jobs in many companies in prestige positions. If one didn’t have the same opportunity to apply for jobs like white men, they also wouldn’t be eligible to gain seniority.
    Take into account history and affirmative action’s place, and then make your own judgments.


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