There is very little substantive discussion about affirmative action these days, because the opposition has successfully distorted the debate in a way that is fundamentally both racist and sexist. This opposition allows for the perpetuation of white-male dominance and the denial of white-female privilege, for the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action policies have been white women. Antagonists of affirmative action skew the discussion from how to address historical discrimination and oppression of categories of people—especially African Americans—to the horrible and countless rejection of white men under the specious rubric of reverse discrimination.
The inception of affirmative action related to the centuries of African slavery and the subsequent near-century of Jim Crow segregation, which existed prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but became legal after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Clearly, the purpose of affirmative action was to account for the long duration of suppression of black people in the United States by ensuring such discrimination and exploitation would not happen again. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower sought to address antidiscrimination in government contracts through executive orders, but it was President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 that pinpointed taking affirmative action to eliminate racial bias and President Johnson’s enforcement thereof with Executive Order 11246 to inject that phrase into the veins of our civilization.
The major, unfortunate problem with these renditions of antiracist hiring policy is the letter did not reflect the intent. For the mandates were not to ignore the history and refuse to make amends for egregious past wrongs; instead, they were to compensate for deliberate obstruction of employment opportunities for generations. By using language that indicated hiring should not occur with race in mind, the presidential orders created the possibility for white people to claim they were being discriminated against based on the very orders intended to improve and increase the chances of people of color to be gainfully employed! Those words, “without regard to race,” eventually became the precise impediment to redressing the historical lockout that plagued the African American population for centuries.
The arguments pleading reverse discrimination failed to appreciate past oppression. All of a sudden, opponents of affirmative action wanted to forgive the discrimination of categories of people over time by dismissing such categories in favor of individual or selfish concerns. Thus, from their vantage point, two candidates qualified for a job at a particular institution that practiced racially discriminative hiring could not now hire the black, rather than the white, applicant because of the former’s belonging to a racial category heretofore deemed unemployable by that institution. Supposedly, the white candidate would be treated unfairly by being denied employment as a member of the white race—a category nevertheless privileged over blacks for centuries! This type of thinking disrespects history and turns upside down the intent of affirmative action.
The initial executive orders did not include sex and gender as protected classes so to speak. Gender was added in 1967. With this addition, affirmative action garnered some support, because it softened singularly advantaging persons of color. By the late 1970s, however, along with the coincident white backlash after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., affirmative action was being publically lambasted and attained status with the Bakke decision, which attacked the use of quotas.
Another turning point in the affirmative action debate came with the shifting of the burden of proof from defendants to plaintiffs. Many plaintiffs seeking legal redress for being discriminated against had, as a result, to research and present the evidence with the necessary help of a costly attorney. They simply did not have the means and wherewithal to challenge unfair practices. The continuous assault against affirmative action sullies and hides the fact that institutional racism still exists in this country and employers knowingly and unwittingly perpetuate it.
Affirmative action has never been about hiring unqualified persons. It has always been about alleviating structural racism and its myriad effects by ensuring certain categories of people land jobs and get promoted as they ought and in accordance with or greater than their numbers in the local and county populations. Despite the election of a U.S. president who is biracial and self-identifies as black, and in spite of the fact that his ascendancy has provoked and elicited fantasies about a colorblind society, the terrible fact remains that paucity of opportunities available to employable people of color reveals not only that we have not yet arrived at such a society, but also that we must call into question the validity of such dream in the first place.
The past is very important, and we cannot turn a blind eye to it. The attack on affirmative action is disingenuous, at best, for it continues to dismiss not only the history of racism in the United States, but also the ongoing institutionalized oppression and exploitation of peoples of color throughout all dimensions of life. Apologizing for racism, which is the pernicious categorizing of certain people as inferior, is not enough. It requires, using Christian references, repentance, redemption, and reconciliation: in other words, to make amends to the categories of people adversely affected, to leave and never return to the dehumanizing system, and to regard each member of each category as a complete human being.
Sorry is not good enough!