Is affirmative action racist?

Posted: November 5, 2012

Since affirmative action programs consider race as a factor in decisions such as hiring and college admissions, I often hear from whites who consider it to be a racist practice. Especially given the state of the economy and the distress this has caused millions of people who are trying not only to get ahead but often just to hold on to what they have, it’s not surprising that many whites might feel this way. And so it’s worth taking a look at.

by Allan G. Johnson

A place to begin is with the question of what affirmative action is and where it came from. It can be thought of as a response to two problems.

The first problem is that racial discrimination is alive and well in the United States as documented by abundant research, especially in hiring, housing, and the financial industry. African Americans, for example, were systematically targeted for subprime mortgages regardless of income level, and they suffered devastating losses as a result, far greater than the white population. Studies also show that job applications submitted by people whose resumes differ only in the name at the top, are far more likely to result in job interviews if the applicant’s name is one typical of white people rather than typical of African Americans or Latino/as (Bob Jones vs. Jamal Jones, for example).

In addition, a great deal of racial discrimination is difficult to prove because the decisions involved are often subjective and not open to any kind of scrutiny, as when interviewers form personal impressions of applicants. And the higher the position, the more subjective the decision becomes.

Bias is also difficult to prove because it often operates below the level of conscious awareness, so that the person making the decision is unaware that race is playing a role. This is a phenomenon identified by researchers as ‘implicit racism,’ which you can find out more about by following the link at the bottom of this article.

The second problem to which affirmative action responds is that discrimination against people of color and corresponding affirmative action in favor of whites have been going on for hundreds of years. This means that unearned white advantage is not simply a result of current practices but has been accumulating across many generations. The average net wealth of white households, for example, is now roughly 20 times that of African American and Latino households, which has a profound effect on things such as being able to send your children to college. The situation is far worse for many Native Americans who continue to live on the impoverished reservations into which they were forced more than a century ago.

So, the question is, what to do in response to this? To simply say, “Whites won’t discriminate against people of color from now on,” ignores the problem in both its aspects. It ignores the implicit and unconscious nature of much racial discrimination and does nothing to overcome the cumulative effect of centuries of unearned white advantage.

Enter affirmative action, a federal program begun by President John F. Kennedy in 1965. Its purpose was to combat the exclusion of disadvantaged groups from occupations, and to help undo the effects of the long U.S. history of prejudice and discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and national origin.

Most of the objections I hear focus on race. The charge is often made that anything that takes race into account must be racist. One problem with this argument is that it is simply not possible to remedy a problem based on race while at the same time acting as if race doesn’t matter. This means that affirmative action of course must take race explicitly into account. This doesn’t mean that being a person of color is all you need in order to get the job or be accepted into college. What it does mean is that race is considered as one of a long list of criteria, with the goal of doing something, however imperfectly, to respond to the problem of racism as both a current and historical problem.

It is also not possible to undo centuries of prejudice and discrimination directed at people of color without affecting outcomes for individual whites. In a competitive society, anything that increases the odds of success for people of color will decrease the odds of success for white people. It is simply a matter of doing the math. Complaints from whites that this is unfair ignore the fact that the odds of success for white people have for hundreds of years been artificially boosted by the systematic disadvantaging of everyone else.

In the case of college admissions, the complaint that affirmative action is unfair to individuals also doesn’t take into account the fact that as social institutions, the purpose of schools is more than meeting the needs of individuals. Schools also play a major role in reproducing and shaping society itself. As such, the decisions made about who will be given the opportunity for higher education affect not only individuals, but the kind of society we will have in the future. If we are to move toward a society in which inclusion and equal opportunity are the rule, then admissions decisions have a role to play in undoing the long history of white privilege. That this will sometimes conflict with the needs of individual whites is unavoidable because meeting those needs is not the only reason that universities exist.

None of this means that white people are being discriminated against simply because they are white or that affirmative action is racist. For one thing, discrimination against people of color has been and continues to be based not simply on color itself, but on negative cultural beliefs about people of color – what kind of people they are and what they’re capable of – that portray them as inferior to whites, as undeserving, unworthy, and undesirable.

But when affirmative action programs go out of their way to identify and recruit people of color, there is no implied judgement of the white people who are turned away. Universities and employers do not reject white applicants in favor of affirmative action admissions and hires because they think whites are inferior or undeserving. They are not saying, “We don’t want you here because you’re white.” Far from it. Whiteness is still the norm almost everywhere in America, the cultural standard of what it is to be a normal human being. And ‘color’ is still the mark of an outsider who can never be entirely sure that they belong.

But the most important reason to reject the argument that affirmative action is racist is that it ignores what racism actually is. The whole point of any racist practice is to preserve and enforce the privilege – the dominance and unearned advantage – of the dominant group by systematically excluding and oppressing members of the subordinate group. This has never been the purpose of affirmative action, either in theory or in practice. It has been just the opposite – a modest attempt to shift the odds away from being so heavily loaded in favor of whites in an environment that is still overwhelmingly white dominated, identified, and centered.

The result has been a relatively small number of people of color admitted to college or getting jobs in business or fire and police departments, opportunities that would otherwise be closed to them. Over time, this has helped foster a small middle class among various peoples of color.

At the same time, it is of course true that some individual white people will be turned away from opportunities because of affirmative action decisions, and this certainly has real consequences for their lives. But one of those is not that they have been discriminated against and rejected as a racist action designed to oppress whites in relation to people of color.

If there is an enemy in the struggle of white families to make a living or go to college, it is not the easy target of affirmative action, or of people of color who are, after all, only trying to do the same thing as best they can. The real problem, as recent history makes painfully clear, is an industrial capitalist economic system in which the interests of working families of all races have always been secondary to the accumulation of wealth and power by the upper classes.

All of this reminds me of the game of musical chairs in which the players are kept so busy worrying about the person on their left or right who might take the chair they need for ourselves, that they never stop to ask, Why aren’t there enough chairs to go around? Where are all the chairs?

[To learn more about implicit racism, click here.]


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