“Please Stop Talking About Race,” II

Here (below) is the next and only other chapter from my aborted past race manuscript (see my last post) that I want to put up. It’s about the loaded class-race issue of affirmative action and you will notice again I do not think you can fully understand race or class alone — without the other — in the American experience…. For what it’s worth, I will be talking about race (and class and empire/foreign policy and gender and…) in my next position as a visiting history professor. I do all the unjust authority structures and their interrelatedness…a far and radical cry from the narrow “identity politics” of which I am so falsely accused…..


Understood to mean special hiring and school-admission preferences for racial and ethnic minorites and women, affirmative action has sparked more political controversy than any other Amercian racial policy during the last 35 years. From its emergence as a consequence of and elite response to the civil rights struggles and urban race riots of the mid-and late-1960s, affirmative action has provided something of a litmus test for measuring Americans’ perspective on race and race relations in the United States. Those who believe that racism continues to provide a major obstacle to black equality tend to be in favor of affirmative action for African-Americans. Those who think that the US has essentially achieved color-blind equality of opportunity for its black citizens tend to oppose affirmative actin for blacks.

Not surprisingly given the racial perception gap mentioned in the last chapter, public opinion for or against affirmative action tends to divide sharply along racial lines. A poll conducted by CBS and the New York Times in December 1997, for example, asked 1,258 Americans what they thought should happen to affirmative action programs for women and minorities over the next few years. Eighty percent of the 173 black respondents said that affirmative action but there was a sharp racial divide. Eighty percent of the 173 black respondents but just 35 percent of the 933 whites polled said that affirmative action programs should be continued. An additional 45 percent of whites felt that affirmative action programs should be phased out and 13 percent said the programs should be ended immediately.

Still, American public opinion on affirmative action is far from black and white, either racially or ideologically. A considerable number of American whites support the policy. More than a few African-Americans, including one current justice on the U.S. Supreme Court (Clarence Thomas), oppose affirmative action. Many who believe that blacks are still significantly victimized by racism see affirmative action as counterproductive and misguided policy that actually deepens black subordination and the the social and economic stigma of race. Others are sympathetic to affirmative action for African-Americans but think that the policy should be at once broadened and decolorized to include special preferences for people of economically disadvantaged backgrounds regardless of their race, ethnicity, language or nationality.

The phrase affirmative action dates from the centuries-old legal concept of equity. Under that concept, justice is often best achieved not by rigidly following strict legal rules in all cases but my implementing what is fair in each particular situation. The phrase affirmative action first appeared in American policy history as part of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. In that important piece of labor legislation, it meant than an employer found to be discriminating against union members would have to stop discriminating and also take affirmative action to employ the victims of discrimination in the positions they would have held without the employer’s anti-union bias.

In the spheres of American race relations and civil rights policy, the term affirmative action first appeared in an executive order that was issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and slightly revised by President Johnson in 1965. This order required that businesses holding contracts with federal government not discriminate and also take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” An important section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act empowered courts to order affirmative action in cases where an employers was intentionally engaged in the denial of employment and promotion on the basis of race.

As originally formulated in these federal rules, affirmative action was not connected to the idea of special preferences for African-Americans or any other disadvantaged group. It meant only that government would direct employers to undertake corrective actions to ensure that their employment policies were technically color-blind and that employers rewarded and punished employees solely on the basis of workers’ individual attributes without regard to race and other group distinctions. It was concerned mainly with cases of intentional racial discrimination on the part of employers.

As it developed in the courts, workplaces, colleges, and in federal civil rights agencies, however, affirmative action came to mean race-conscious rather than color-blind policy. Affirmative action came to refer to a model of hiring and higher-educational admissions whereby employers and unviersitites hire, promote, and admit with an awareness that race is a real and relevant group distinction. It meant that employers would recruit, hire, retain, and promote an adequate “representative” number of racial minorities rather than just treat each prospective worker or student as an individual. Affirmative action de-emphasizes concern with discriminatory racist intent on the part of individual employers or academic and to empahsize the achievement of proportionate overall representation of minorities in workplaces, occupations, and educational institutions. It has tended to de-emphasize or at least qualify accepted standards and traditional “white” and “middle class” concepts of merit.

Affirmative action’s advocates have tended to argue that these race-conscious departures from standard color-blind ideals are necessary to compensate African-Americans for the crippling legacy of institutional and cultural racism in the US – the long history of negative and hardly color-blind anti-preferential treatment that blacks have received at the hands of the majority population. They have also tended to note that many special preferences continue to exist in American society (hiring preferences for veterans and admissions preferences to the children of alumni at prestigious Ivy League schools for example) and generate nothing like the cloud of controversy that surrounds affirmative action for blacks.

Legally, affirmative action for blacks has been on the defensive for at least the last 13 years. The policy was first upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1978 case Bakke v. The Regents of the University of California. While the decision ruled against the use of numerical quotas to reserve a specific number of seats for blacks, it accepted the use of racial preferences for minorities in university admissions. The Bakke ruling maintained that the inclusion of black and other minority students would Ten years later in City of Richmond v. Croson, however, the Court concluded that affirmative action was “a highly suspect tool” for enforcing equal opportunity. In responding to a lawsuit challenging Richmond, Virginia’s practice of setting aside 30% of the city construction funds for black owned firms, the Court ruled that affirmative action must be subject to “strict scrutiny,” meaning that it is unconstitutional unless racial discrimination can be definitely proven to be “widespread throughout a particular industry.”

A legal lightning bolt flashed in March 1996, when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hopwood v. The University of Texas Law School suspended University of Texas’ affirmative action program, ruling that Bakke was invalid and that racial preferences of any sort are unconstitutional. The 5th Circuit Court ruled that racial diversity in education was not a legitimate public goal. The U.S, Supreme Court let the ruling stand by refusing to hear challenges and in 1997 the Texas Attorney General announced that all “Texas public universities [should’ employ race-neutral criteria.” That same year, California voters enacted Proposition 209, which banned all forms of affirmative action in the state and the state of Washington followed with a similar referendum in 1998. Florida Governor Jeb Bush banned race as a factor in college admission at public universities in his state in February 2000.

The highest court in the land has yet to make a definitive post-Bakke ruling on these recent state measures. As this book goes to print, however, it is preparing to rule on racial admission preferences at the University of Michigan. That university has so far received two very different rulings from federal – one upholding affirmative action as a tool for increasing diversity in the university’s undergraduate student body and the other shooting down the use of affirmative for that (or any other purpose) at the university’s law school.

While the policy itself is now very much on the political and legal defensive, the intellectual debate about affirmative action remains alive and well. In what follows, we will view just a few of the key flash points in a remarkably wide-ranging and multi-colored dialogue about one of the most hotly contested social policy issues in United State history.

1. Affirmative action for blacks is politically doomed in the United states because the notion of preferential treatment and targeted outcomes for a specific racially defined group violates basic American values.


The essence of the American value system is a strong belief in open and fair competition between and among individuals regardless of group identification. This American Creed embraces equal opportunity but does not endorse efforts to generate equality of results between and among different different groups.

If there is one universally held idea in American political culture, it is “utilitarian individualism.” This idea holds that the good society emerges from the free competition of self-interested individuals. Americans see their country as a purely individualistic and color-clind land of opportunity in which meritocracy rules: one deserves all that one can attain only on the basis of their purely individual talent and effort. The only legitimate guarantee granted to Americans is a “fair shake” in the competitive pursuit of wealth and happiness.

Because affirmative action violates these core principles it has never received majority support in the U.S. It arose only the very unusual circumstances of the 1960s, as an effort by top policymakers and employers to find a way to quell the racial violence and related urban disorders of that decade the current decline in the policy’s legal status is consistent with its underlying unpopularity, which is rooted in the individualist American Creed.


Beyond the official American story line of color-blind individualism and equal opportunity, American history has witnessed more than 350 years of special negative preference (deprivation) for blacks. That dark history has created black social and economic conditions and capacities so dire that the concept of equal opportunity is simply insufficient for African-Americans. Centuries of discrimination against blacks have called for decades of discrimination in favor of blacks in order to level the playing field. As then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson put it in 1965, “you do not take a person hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say ‘you are free to compete with all the others’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

At the same time, it is disturbing and suggestive of racial double standards on the parts of affirmative action’s critics that other forms of preferential hiring and academic admissions persist relatively free of public criticism. Examples include the relatively uncontroversial practices of giving preferences to military veterans in government hiring, preferential hiring and promotion of family members and relatives (nepotism) in the private sector, and glaringly elitist “legacy admissions” in the nation’s leading colleges and universities. Under standard practice, schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton give special admissions preference to the sons and daughters of their alumni, who happen to very predominantly wealthy and white.

It is perfectlty legitimate and understandable for blacks to think in terms of group demands, grievances, and solutions like affirmative action. Group identity has been essentially imposed on African-Americans by longstanding racism. For most of American history it has worked to blacks’ profound disadvantage and it is only right that for once it work to their advantage.

2. Affirmative action is invalid because it simply replicates through inversion the evil of racial discrimination to which it claims to be opposed.


In America whites once set themselves apart from blacks and claimed special privileges for themselves while denying them to others. Now, through affirmative action, blacks do the same. If it was unfair to treat blacks unfairly, it is equally wrong to give them preference and thereby to treat whites unfairly.

Affirmative action unjustly tilts a by-now-level playing field in African-Americans’ direction. Under its rules, whites are wrongly punished for the social and political sins of earlier generations of whites. It is especially unfair to single out whites for “reverse discrimination” in a period of history when the evil of white racism has been corrected. Now that equal opportunity has been granted to blacks, society has no legitimate for punishing whites. As many whites like to say in criticizing affirmative action, “Why should I suffer? My family didn’t enslave anyone and I’m not a racist.” Two wrongs don’t make a right


It is highly misleading to equate the discrimination that some whites have experienced at the hands of affirmative action during the last three decades with the centuries of discrimination experienced by African-Americans. The two forms of “unfairness” simply aren’t equivalent. Blacks have been subjected to nearly two-and-a-half centuries of enslavement and then more than a century of third-class citizenship. They have suffered rampant legalized discrimination, severe economic exploitation, education deprivation, toxic cultural shaming, and more.

The real-world playing field, moreover, remains heavily tilted for whites and against blacks. Nearly a half century after Brown v. Board of Education, for example, black children tend, through no choice of their own, to attend highly segregated primary and secondary schools that are less well-funded, equipped, and taught than those attended by whites. It has also been demonstrated repeatedly that the standardized tests, which play such a key role in determining who goes to what colleges are heavily, biased in favor of people of more affluent and white backgrounds. The SAT and ACT primarily measure accidents like birth, social status, race, and access to libraries, museums, travel, and opportunity to take expensive ACT and SAT preparation classes, not innate ability or actual merit.

Finally, critics of affirmative action often fail to see the fundamental difference in the thinking and goals behind affirmative action’s “reverse racism” and the original white racism that made affirmative action necessary in the first place. Discrimination against whites under affirmative action is the unavoidable product of a policy whose primary goal is to cure the historical cancer of racism. Nothing of the sort can be said for the ideas that advanced and justified the unfairness experienced by blacks since the 17th century in America.

Like chemotherapy, affirmative action is strong medicine whose harmful side effects (in this case reverse discrimination against whites) are unavoidable in order to cure the larger cancer – a system of racism designed for and by whites. Equating affirmative action’s reverse discrimination with historical white racism is to equate a cure with the disease.

3. Affirmative action has caused more harm than benefit to the black community.


The practice of giving special preference to blacks hurts the black community in number of ways. It attacks black self-esteem by operating on the condescending assumption that African-Americans are incapable of achieving on the basis of their own individual merit. It subjects successful blacks to the widespread suspicion among that they owe their position not to their abilities or hard work but to special favors. It feeds negative white stereotypes about black abilities by placing certain African-Americans in positions they are not ready to successfully fill.

It feeds white political hostility to the cause of color-blind equal opportunity for blacks by creating resentment especially among economically disadvantaged whites who see no reason why they should not enjoy special compensatory preference extended to even middle-class blacks. Ironically, while contemporary black civil rights organizations tend to strongly defend the policy, many early civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, were very dubious about the political wisdom of embracing racial preferences for blacks. They felt that such preferences were likely to alienate large numbers of whites and destroy their commitment to the fundamentally color-blind goals of the civil rights movement.

Affirmative action creates the illusion of a sweeping societal change that has put all blacks on an equal footing with whites. In reality, however, it has worked primarily to the advantage of a small minority of economically privileged African-Americans. This elite minority within a minority has become increasingly removed, socially and geographically for the urban mass of highly disadvantaged blacks. The later no longer benefit, as they once did, from the visible role models, assistance, and race leadership that the black middle-class used to provide to the entire black community when that class lived in greater proximity and acted in greater concert with poor blacks.

Meanwhile, in an age when their mostly unskilled labor power is no longer valued, the truly disadvantaged black masses suffer continue to suffer profound economic and cultural deficits – including poor schools, low job skills, weak family structures, widespread substance abuse, rampant incarceration and more – that place them in no position to take meaningful advantage of the opportunities afforded by affirmative action.


To argue that affirmative action divides blacks and whites is to forget that policy never would have been developed if the races had not been so divided in the first place. To argue that affirmative action leads whites to see blacks as inferior is to ignore that it arose to cure the effects of the prejudice that gave rise to that stereotype in the first place.

To say that affirmative action hurts its black beneficiaries’ self-esteem is to beg the question of white racism’s certainly greater and more powerful challenges to blacks’ ability to love themselves and each other. It is also to ignore polling data showing that only 4 percent of well-off African-Americans – the most likely segment of the black population to have benefited from affirmative action – think that the policy hurts blacks.

The notion that affirmative action has placed blacks in academic and occupational places they are not prepared to handle finds little support in an exhaustive research project conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The foundation looked at the student records, career outcomes, and life histories of more than 80,000 students admitted to 28 selective colleges in the Fall semesters of 1951, 1971 and 1989. Written up in William G. Bowen and Derek Bok’s widely read and critically acclaimed book The Shape of the River (1998), this project found that black students admitted to prestigious schools through affirmative action came in with strong educational backgrounds and abilities, graduated in large numbers, and did very well after leaving college. It also discovered that affirmative action improved both black and white students’ ability to live and work with people of other races.

There is little evidence that the contemporary black middle class is any more isolated from or antagonistic to their less privileged fellow African-Americans than in previous eras. It is clear, however, that successful blacks are much more likely to donate time, money, service to poor black communities than privileged whites are to assist poor communities of any color. The best response to the fact that many blacks are unable to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by affirmative action is not to abolish racial preferences. It is, rather, to raise the floor of opportunity for the truly disadvantaged African-Americans with improved public education, job training, job expansion, and the like.

4. Affirmative action for blacks and other minorities in college admissions should be replaced by a policy that changes the criterion for college admissions preferences from race to socioeconomic status. Affirmative action in this area should be changed from a race- to a class-based preference.


Granted that true equal opportunity does not actually exist in America and that an advantaged elite enjoys the greatest amount of real opportunity, the disadvantage suffered by the mass of non-elite people is less racial than socioeconomic. It is both wrong and preposterous for college admissions offices to privilege the son or daughter of a wealthy black doctor over a white child whose parents are coal miners and high school drop outs.

Since blacks are disproportionately poor relative to whites, moreover, an admissions policy based on economic class will tend to generate a large number of black college students. It will achieve increased black representation – the main goal of race-based affirmative action – without causing the alienation of whites from the goal of black equality that is generated by racially specific affirmative action. It will provide ground for alliance and cooperation between economically disadvantaged people of different skin color, something that would be conducive to the advocacy of policies that help the black community’s significant number of truly disadvantaged people.


Class inequality is a significant barrier to equal opportunity for tens of millions of economically disadvantaged American whites and blacks. Still, race continues to be a significant disadvantage even for the minority of blacks who are otherwise privileged in American society. Thanks to persistent racial discrimination and bias, even middle- and upper class blacks and their children continue to experience significantly diminished access to opportunity, especially when compared to whites of the same socioeconomic status. Racism is a persistent fact of American culture, independent of social and economic status. Its effects are reduced by the acquisition of wealth but they are still great enough in numerous key areas, (including access to housing, quality education, jobs, loans, services, and more) to justify racially specific compensation regardless of socioeconomic status.

At the same time, it is very unlikely that shifting from race-sensitive to class-based admissions would help black college admissions or black status in general. Universities would find such an approach very hard to pay for, since admitting poor students usually requires significant outlays of needs-based financial assistance by colleges. It would add little to black college enrollments since blacks make up less than a third of all the poor children in the country. To make matters worse, poor blacks are much less likely than poor whites to excel in school. This means that class-based admissions would be much more likely to help whites than blacks.

Class based admissions, finally, would make it more difficult for the most selective colleges and universities to recruit the most talented black students to be prepared for positions of leadership in government, business, and the professions. Those students tend to come from relatively privileged socioeconomic backgrounds.

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Q. What precisely is the policy called affirmative action and how has the meaning of the phrase and policy changed over time?

Q. Opponents of affirmative action claim that it stands in hopeless conflict with core American social and political values past and present? Do you agree or disagree? Why?

Q. Have you ever heard a friend, relative, neighbor or immediate family member express an opinion about affirmative action for African-Americans? Carry out a survey of family, friends, neighbors and/or classmates. Do you find differences in their knowledge about and/or attitude towards affirmative action? If yes, how do you explain those differences?

Q. What brought affirmative action for African-Americans into being? Why did it emerge, in your opinion?

Q. How do you explain the highly controversial nature of affirmative action? Who tends to support affirmative action and who tends to oppose it? Is the difference in opinion purely racial?

Q. How would you describe the current legal status of affirmative action for African-Americans? Use a library or the Internet to find descriptions of the key court cases from Bakke to the present and construct a time line showing the trajectory of legal interpretation on this important issue.

Q. Imagine that you are a new black student at a prestigious university like Harvard or Princeton and that affirmative action is at least part of why you gained admission. Would you be willing to tell your classmates? Why or why not? Would you make a distinction between white and black students in terms of what you revealed? If so, why?

Q. Imagine that you are a white student with high ACT and/or SAT scores who was turned down for admission at the leading university in your state and that you had good reason to believe that African-Americans with lower test scores had been admitted at least in part because of affirmative action? Would your consider yourself a victim of reverse discrimination? Would you undertake legal action against the university? Explain your reasons for your response.

Q. List and describe three other forms of group-based preferential treatment besides affirmative action for blacks in America. Evaluate these group preferences in comparison with affirmative action. On what basis do you find each of them either more or less justified than affirmative action for African-Americans?

Q. Imagine that you are an employer in a metropolitan area that is half-black and half-white. Imagine further that your workforce is only 5 percent African-American. Would you make an effort to increase the black percentage of your workforce? If no, say why. If yes, say why and what methods would you use to bring that increase about? Would those methods include affirmative action? Why or why not?

Q. Some opponents criticize affirmative action as reverse discrimination, arguing that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Do you agree or disagree? Provide evidence for your opinion.

Q. On what grounds do opponents of affirmative action for blacks claim that the policy produces more harm than benefit for African-Americans? Do you agree? Why or why not?

Q. On what grounds do some opponents of affirmative action for blacks argue that it should be replaced by preferences for economically disadvantaged persons, regardless of race? Do you are or disagree? Why?

Q. Has affirmative action achieved its basic goals in the United States?

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