I understand that this is one of those phrases that carries a lot of passion and emotion around it, and that well meaning people may disagree on its advantages or disadvantages. I came across an article recently by Tim Wise, who is no stranger to writing on racially charged topics. He was conducting a Q&A at a college campus when one of the White students asked what was different from Affirmative Action and historical, institutional racism. In the viewpoint of this college student, Affirmative Action discriminates against qualified Whites, and he struggled to understand the difference.
Tim White’s full article can be found here. But WARNING, he is very raw and opinionated when he gives his thoughts on this topic, so if you choose to read it, do so at your own discretion.
The body of the article is around his answer to this question, and that was the part I wanted to copy and paste into my blog. I have had this conversation with a number of White folks in particular who are trying to grasp Affirmative Action in the context of where we are in terms of present day race realities. Whether someone agrees or disagrees that Affirmative Action is the best way to address some of the systemic inequalities that continue to be persistent in our society, I think you will find Wise’s answer to the question helpful. Here is what he says in response to the question:
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.
These were then his summarizing thoughts:
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.
Reactions? Agree? Disagree?