Affirmative Action for Dummies: Explaining the Difference Between Oppression and Opportunity

One of the best things about getting to speak to audiences across the country is the opportunity to engage with them during the question and answer sessions that follow my formal presentations. Although the questions posed are often contentious — no surprise given that the subject is racism and white privilege, and oftentimes white folks are not particularly pleased at hearing about such matters — the questioners are typically polite, if forceful, and I strive to make sure my answers are equally as civil as the challenges thrown my way.

Occasionally, of course, those who take issue with my positions do so to create drama, rather than to engage in a real exchange of ideas. And so it was this past week, when a young man at the University of Idaho tried his best to derail my presentation there. First, he stood outside the doors of the event, handing out a flier which called me an anti-white racist because of my support for affirmative action (and because I have said we should strive to listen to the historical perspectives of all people, rather than just those of white men — imagine!). He also had done some creative editing on a few quotes from past essays I had written,* not to mention failing to actually footnote the quotes so as to let people know where he had gotten them. A scholar he isn’t, but then again, such should hardly be surprising, coming from someone who previously had commandeered a microphone at another campus event to shout that immigrants were destroying the country, and who waded into the previous year’s Take Back the Night March (an annual event to heighten awareness about rape and sexual assault), while shouting that he was “pro-rape.”

As is my practice, whenever people like this show up at my events — even assholes who should have been kicked off campus for their endorsement of sexual violence — I always invite them to ask the first question of the night, and aver that I will allow them a follow-up as well. They will not, in other words, be able to claim that they were censored or unable to speak. They will not get to play victim.

And so, once I was done with my speech I immediately asked the young man if he would like to pose a question. After somewhat sheepishly walking to the mic, he got around to it, asking how I could claim to oppose institutional racism, while still supporting affirmative action, which — as he explained — discriminates against more qualified whites so as to benefit less qualified people of color.

Despite the tone of his printed missive, and his generally obnoxious demeanor around campus, I found the question reasonable, measured, and not uncommon, especially given the misinformation about affirmative action to which we have all been subjected for several decades. And so, after thanking him for the query, I attempted to explain why I feel affirmative action is fundamentally different from institutional racism as it has long been practiced against people of color.

After about 30 seconds or so of my reply — which I began by noting how paltry affirmative action efforts are and how little impact they’ve had on whites collectively — the student interrupted to say I was wrong, and to tell the audience that they should examine the subject themselves so as to find the truth. I agreed with this last part and said they could, for instance, begin by reading my book on the topic, which is filled with footnotes and references to studies all of which demonstrate the truth of my position on the matter. I continued trying to answer the question, to no avail, as he proceeded to interrupt a few more times to insist again that I was wrong and that he knew I would never answer the question. Indeed, answering is difficult when being interrupted.

Although I ultimately forced him to admit that he had no facts, no data, no references, no studies, no anything to which he could refer, which contradicted any of my claims on the subject, at the end of the exchange I felt unsatisfied. Making a college sophomore look foolish is neither particularly difficult nor rewarding. And after all, he had asked a question to which he — and anyone else wondering the same thing — deserved an answer. And so now, unfettered by the imbalanced rantings of an amateur heckler, I will explain what I tried to that night: namely, the difference between institutional racism and affirmative action.

Affirmative Action vs. Old-School Discrimination: Differences in Intent and Function

Although discrimination against people of color and affirmative action both involve race-based considerations, historic and contemporary discrimination against people of color differs from affirmative action in a number of distinct ways, both in terms of intent and the underlying premises of each, and in terms of the impact or consequences of each.

In terms of intent, affirmative action is nothing like old-fashioned or ongoing discrimination against people of color. Discrimination against so-called racial minorities has always been predicated on the belief that whites were more capable than people of color in terms of their abilities, and more deserving of consideration with regard to their rights and place in the nation. So when employers have refused to hire blacks, or have limited them to lower-level positions, this they have done because they view them as being less capable or deserving than whites–as less desirable employees. Likewise, racial profiling is based on pejorative assumptions about black and brown criminality and character. Housing discrimination is rooted in assumptions about folks of color being less desirable as neighbors or tenants.

Affirmative action, on the other hand, does not presume in the reverse that whites are inferior to people of color, or less desirable as workers, students or contractors. In fact, it presumes nothing at all about white abilities, relative to people of color. It merely presumes that whites have been afforded more-than-equal, extra opportunity relative to people of color, and that this arrangement has skewed the opportunity structure for jobs, college slots and contracts. Affirmative action is not predicated on any assumptions about whites, as whites, in terms of our humanity, decency, intelligence or abilities. It is based solely on assumptions about what being white has meant in the larger social structure. It casts judgment upon the social order and its results, not people per se. Although one is free to disagree with the sociological judgment being rendered in this case — that the social structure has produced disparities that require a response — it is intellectually dishonest and vulgar to compare this presumption about the social structure to the presumption that black people are biologically, culturally or behaviorally inferior to whites.

Additionally, discrimination against people of color has always had the intent of creating and protecting a system of inequality, and maintaining unearned white advantage. Affirmative action does not seek to create a system of unearned black and brown advantage, but merely to shrink unearned white advantage. In other words, unless one presumes there is no difference between policies that maximize inequality and those that seek to minimize it, it is impossible to compare affirmative action to discrimination against people of color, in the past or present.

Affirmative Action vs. Old-School Discrimination: Differences in Impact and Outcome

In terms of impact, affirmative action and discrimination against people of color are completely different. Discrimination against people of color, historically and today, deprives those people of color of the right to equal consideration for various opportunities on equitable terms. While some may think affirmative action does the same thing to whites, in fact this is untrue. Affirmative action programs only deprive whites, in effect, of the ability to continue banking our extra consideration, and the credentials and advantages we have accumulated under a system of unfairness, which afforded us more-than-equal opportunities. There is no moral entitlement to the use of such advantages, since they have not come about in a free and fair competition. History — and ongoing racial bias against people of color — have served as “thumbs on the scale” for whites, so to speak. Or even more so, as the equivalent of a “Warp Speed” button on a video game. Merely removing one’s finger from the warp speed button cannot address the head start accumulated over many generations, nor the mentality that developed as a justification for that head start: a mentality that has sought to rationalize and legitimize the resulting inequities passed down through the generations. So affirmative action is tantamount to hitting a warp speed button for people of color, in an attempt to even out those unearned head starts, and allow everyone to compete on as level a playing field as possible. To not do so would be to cement the head start that has been obtained by whites, and especially white men, in the economic and educational realms. It would be like having an 8-lap relay race, in which one runner has had a 5-lap head start, and instead of placing the second runner at the same point as the first, so as to see who really is faster, we were to merely proclaim the race fair and implore the runner who had been held back to “run faster” and try harder, fairness be damned.

Finally, discrimination against people of color, historically, has had the real social impact of creating profound imbalances, inequities and disparities in life chances between whites and people of color. In other words, the consequences of that history have been visible: it has led to wealth gaps of more than 10:1 between whites and blacks, for instance (and 8:1 between whites and Latinos). It has led to major disparities in occupational status, educational attainment, poverty rates, earnings ratios, and rates of home ownership. Affirmative action has barely made a dent in these structural inequities, in large part because the programs and policies have been so weakly enforced, scattershot, and pared back over the past twenty years. So despite affirmative action, whites continue (as I document in my books, Colorblind, and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White) to receive over 90 percent of government contracts, to hold over 90 percent of tenured faculty positions, to hold over 85 percent of management level jobs in the private sector workforce, to be half as likely as blacks to be unemployed (even when only comparing whites and blacks with college degrees), and to get into their college of first choice at higher rates than African Americans or Latinos.

In other words, when institutional racism is operating, we can actually see the results. We can see the after-effects in terms of social disparities that favor the group receiving all the preferences. But affirmative action has produced no such disparities, in reverse. It hasn’t even really closed the existing ones all that much. So if anything, a proper critique of affirmative action would insist that it hasn’t gone far enough, or been enforced enough to break the grip of white institutional privilege.

The Racist Underpinning of Anti-Affirmative Action Sentiment

Although not all who oppose affirmative action are racists who purposely seek to maintain institutionalized white advantage, the underlying premise of the anti-affirmative action position comes dangerously close to being intrinsically racist in nature. After all, affirmative action rests on the premise that, in the absence of institutional obstacles to equal opportunity — both past and present — people of color would have obtained positions across the occupational structure, and throughout academia and business, roughly equal to their percentages of the national population. So, on this view, affirmative action merely seeks to create a distribution of jobs, college enrollments and contract opportunities more similar to that which would have obtained anyway in a just society. To reject this premise is to believe, virtually by definition, that people of color are inferior, and that they would have lagged significantly behind whites anyway, even if equal opportunity had ruled the day. Either because of biological or cultural inadequacy, black and brown folks would simply have failed to obtain a much better outcome than they did under conditions of formal apartheid and oppression. Therefore, to this way of thinking, affirmative action artificially elevates those who would have failed if left to their own devices — at least, relative to whites — and injures whites who naturally would have ended up on top, and who because of their merits deserve to do so.

Indeed, it didn’t take long for my critic at the University of Idaho to resort to just such a position last week. Confronted with the facts demonstrating ongoing white advantages throughout the society, despite his insistence that we were now the victims of massive injustice — such as the fact that even with affirmative action, whites receive over 90 percent of government contract dollars — his only possible reply (and one that was entirely predictable, though less blatantly racist types typically refuse to offer it publicly) was that perhaps this outcome reflected the “fact” that whites are just that much better than everyone else: perhaps, in this case, they were 90 percent or more of the most qualified people for those contracts.

Despite the fact that this is simply absurd — and the research here is clear, indicating that contract dollars flow to old boy’s networks largely unrelated to objective merit — on a purely philosophical and analytical level as well, this argument is nonsensical.

Fact is, even were we to accept the fundamentally racist notion that whites as a group really are superior in terms of ability, intelligence, drive and determination relative to blacks and other people of color, and thus, that even in a system without artificial impediments, those people of color would lag behind whites in all areas of human well-being, the fact would remain, there were such impediments, and many of these remain in place today. And those impediments matter, above and beyond whatever “natural” inequities the racist mind might envision existing anyway. And those additional disparities require our attention, no matter what one may think about the inherent inequities between so-called racal groups.

By way of analogy, consider the following: Imagine that tennis stars, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick were to play 100 matches: roughly two a week, for the next year. Statistically, Nadal is the stronger player. He is, simply, better than Roddick. But yet, the better player doesn’t always win every competition, despite their advantage. So we might expect, rather than winning every time, that Nadal would emerge victorious, say, 70 times. But imagine now that we were to place ankle weights on Roddick, or prohibit him, by rule, from using backhand strokes, thererby forcing him to run around every Nadal groundstroke to his backhand court. Needless to say, given such artificial limitations, Roddick would now lose nearly every time, certainly more often than nine in ten matches. The fact that Nadal would have won most of the time anyway says nothing about how unfair the artificial impediments placed upon Roddick would be in this instance. And had those impediments not been there, the results, though uneven, would not have been nearly as lopsided as they were. Surely, even someone who starts from the racist assumption that whites would have naturally beaten out people of color for most of the best jobs, contracts and college slots, cannot help but admit that if “only” nature had been operating — rather than nature plus artificially imposed obstacles for people of color and artificial boosts for whites — whatever gaps emerged would, by necessity, be smaller than the ones we see now.

So in order to create a just society, in which people can prove themselves on their merits, we must have as close to an equal footing for all as possible. Even if the racists were right — and they are not — that some groups are simply “better” than others, there would be no way to tell which of the individuals in those various groups were the superior or inferior ones, unless all are afforded the chance to prove themselves, without the artificial burdens imposed by the society. If affirmative action were eliminated, we would not have the equal and fair race. We would have institutionalized white advantage, unchecked by a countervailing force.

In the end, we really shouldn’t think of affirmative action as a matter of racial preference, so much as a preference based on a recognition of what race means, and what racism has meant in American life. It is a preference that takes into consideration the simple and indisputable fact that people of color have not been afforded truly equal opportunity. Whereas old-school discrimination against people of color was (and is) predicated on actual value judgments about the ability, character, and value of black and brown folks, affirmative action is predicated on no personal or group-based judgments whatsoever, but rather, upon the judgment that the social structure has produced inequities that require our attention and redress.

We can deal with that reality or not. But for those who would rather not, at least know that this is where the rest of us are coming from. Calling affirmative action a form of institutional racism doesn’t make it so. Not in print, or at a microphone. Not anywhere.

* The creative editing reference is in regard to one of the quotes the student cribbed from an old essay of mine, written in 2000. The essay, which can be read in its entirety here is quite obviously a parody, in which I am composing an open letter to the notoriously racist Pioneer Fund, which for years funded white supremacist research. In the letter, I am asking them to fund my latest research project, in which I would examine the reasons (perhaps genetic?) why whites abuse alcohol and drugs more often than blacks and Latinos. Indeed the data (especially for youth) makes it clear that this disproportionate white drug and booze problem is real, and since Pioneer (and white racists everywhere) presume any disproportionate deviance among black folks is evidence of biological inferiority, I was jokingly turning the tables, to suggest that surely they would want to get to the bottom of white deviance as well! Therein, I write:

“Just as you have lavishly financed those whose work demonstrates the intellectual deficiencies of blacks, so too must we examine the reasons for the disproportionate drug use, binge drinking, and propensity for serial murder that are hallmarks of the Caucasian population.”

Not only did the student deliberately misrepresent my facetious intent, which literally drips from every paragraph of the column, but he also inserted internal ellipses and changed the word order in the above quote, making it read as follows: “disproportionate drug use, binge drinking, and propensity for serial murder…are the hallmarks of the Caucasian population,” as if this were my literal position, and as if I were ascribing these traits to whites because of some genetic propensity.

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