It’s the Racism, Stupid: Bias, Not Affirmative Action Stigmatizes People of Color

Published as a ZNet Commentary, 12/07/03

Sometimes an argument gets made with such regularity that no matter how silly, it nonetheless requires an answer. Indeed the more often it gets made, the more often it calls for rebuttal, since its repetition indicates someone just isn’t getting it.

Such is the case with the oft-repeated claim, usually by whites, that affirmative action stigmatizes blacks and other persons of color who benefit from its presumed generosity. As such, they note — and owing to their deep concern for the psychological well-being of their dark-skinned brothers and sisters — the elimination of such programs would be in the best interest of those persons they were meant to help.

By casting their opposition to affirmative action in such seemingly altruistic terms, critics seek to avoid the impression that they are motivated by racial resentment at the opening up of opportunities to long-marginalized groups. See, they seem to be saying, we don’t mind black folks. Heck, we love black folks, and just want what’s best for them. And what’s best for them, presumably, is no more “preferential treatment” in college admissions, jobs or contracting.

Putting aside the simple reality that all of this so-called preferential treatment has hardly put a dent in the edifice of white domination — white men still get 93% of all government contract dollars, hold over 90% of top jobs and 85% of tenured professorships — the notion that affirmative action stigmatizes beneficiaries and therefore should be scrapped for the sake of black and brown mental health is disingenuous and even racist on several levels.

First, since affirmative action has opened up opportunities that would otherwise have remained off-limits to people of color (and few deny this, despite the above data indicating that white men are still very much running the show), such arguments seem to imply that people of color would have been better off not to have gotten the jobs, college slots or contracts they received. We are asked to believe that they would have been better off with, say, one percent, instead of three percent of federal contract dollars; or perhaps half-a-percent, instead of four percent of tenured faculty positions.

In other words, we are to believe that less opportunity to demonstrate their abilities would have been better for black and brown self-esteem, while more opportunity thanks to affirmative action was harmful. That few people of color would trade the added opportunities they have received for the sake of their self-image attests to how utterly asinine such an argument really is.

Secondly, this feigned white concern (occasionally parroted by black conservatives whose paychecks are almost always signed by whites) seems especially hypocritical when one considers that the same folks making this argument said nothing when The Bell Curve was published and greeted merrily by the conservative right. After all, here was a book that said blacks were genetically less intelligent than whites, predisposed to crime, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and all forms of social pathology. If the right believes that affirmative action creates self-doubt, or implies that people of color are less capable and need special help to succeed, then how much more harmful must a book like The Bell Curve be, which doesn’t imply that such persons are less capable, but rather screams it quite openly?

Yet, not only did whites not condemn this volume upon its publication — and no prominent conservative said a critical word, while several like William Bennett praised it openly — but indeed white consumers made it a best-seller within weeks and its primary author, Charles Murray, became a media star. Such is white concern for black people’s self-esteem.

Thirdly, that blacks themselves overwhelmingly support affirmative action leaves proponents of the stigma argument with only one of two possible beliefs from which to choose: either that blacks are too stupid to intuit their own interests and too dim-witted to see how badly they are being damaged by affirmative action, or alternately, that blacks are so gullible (and thus also stupid) as to be deceived into supporting affirmative action by scheming civil rights activists. Either way, this argument requires a belief in the ignorance of black people, and their utter inability to think rationally. Such a position is of course flatly racist not to mention utterly vapid.

Additionally, whatever stigma could even theoretically attach to benefiting from affirmative action surely dissipates once one has to prove themselves on the job or in school. Indeed, persons of color know well that they will likely have to work twice as hard to get half as far or be considered half as good as whites; and they have known that since long before affirmative action came around. But at least with affirmative action they get the chance to work twice as hard and demonstrate their capabilities.

What’s more, once given that chance, persons of color rise to the occasion. A comprehensive analysis of over 200 studies on the work performance of affirmative action beneficiaries, published a few years ago in the Journal of Economic Literature, found that said beneficiaries performed just as well and often better than their white male counterparts. So much for stigma. If these workers were given to doubting their own abilities due to having received a bump from affirmative action, surely this self-doubt would have translated to weakened job performance.

Furthermore, to the extent such beneficiaries perform equal to or better than white men on the job, any lingering biases on the part of whites, such as beliefs that blacks are less capable and qualified, can hardly be blamed on affirmative action, but are rather the fault of white ignorance and racism itself.

As for college performance the same is true. Yes, students of color fail to graduate from colleges at the same rate as their white counterparts, but this hardly indicates that they were less qualified and thus came to doubt their abilities once admitted to schools that were “above their level,” thanks to affirmative action. After all, at several top colleges, including all of the Ivy League schools, black and white graduation rates hardly differ. Furthermore, even when the rates of matriculation differ widely there is no reason to suspect stigma or that these students of color were over their heads academically.

For example, even black students with SAT scores of 1400 or better (out of 1600) — academically “qualified” to attend any school — fail to graduate from their chosen colleges at rates that are up to nine times higher than their white counterparts. Since they were clearly capable students, other factors must be to blame, among them, hostile racial climates or feelings of isolation on mostly white campuses (both of which have been documented by years of studies), and financial concerns that are more common for people of color. Indeed, as Dalton Conley documents in his groundbreaking book, Being Black, Living in the Red, once family economic status, including wealth and asset background, is controlled for (and thus, only truly similar black and white students compared), there is no racial difference between blacks and whites in terms of college graduation rates. So whatever graduation gaps do exist can be explained by economics, not stigma associated with affirmative action.

And finally, one has to wonder why no similar concern arises over white self-esteem? After all, the history of white America has been a history of affirmative action; one in which we received non-stop preferential treatment and continue to do so. Yet do those who shed crocodile tears over the stigmatizing effects of affirmative action for people of color likewise argue that whites who benefit from preferences, or have done so in the past, have been stigmatized?

Is George W. Bush stigmatized because his daddy got him into Yale?

Are the white baby-boomers who are currently inheriting nearly $10 trillion of property and wealth from their parents — wealth that was accumulated under conditions of formal apartheid with its attendant preference for whites — stigmatized by receipt of said wealth? If so, when are they going to relinquish the wealth in the name of their mental health, and if not, why not, if “preference” is inherently stigmatizing? Will conservatives now seek to raise the inheritance tax, perhaps to 100%, so as to save trust fund kids years of expensive therapy for their damaged self-concepts?

Bottom line: if black and brown folks are being stigmatized by affirmative action, we whites must be the most self-hating bunch around. Years of racial privilege must surely have brought us to the point of near paralysis, such that it quite literally boggles the mind to contemplate how we manage to persist in our daily routines at all.

But luckily there is a solution; a way for whites to safeguard our self-images, made evident by a recent study, which found that job applicants with white-sounding names are fifty percent more likely to be called in for an interview than those with black-sounding names, even when the applicants are of identical qualifications. Given the unfair preference for those who appear to be white, and the stigma that must therefore assault every Biff, Skyler or Chloe, forced to wonder if they got their jobs due to their lily-white names, perhaps the critics of racial preferences should start a campaign for whites to change our names to Tamika, Shamika, Andre and Tyrone, just to even things out a bit and avoid the damage that would otherwise come from an unfair head start.

Lamont Bush. Yeah, that ought to do it.

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