George W. Bush’s attack on the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policy came just weeks after he helped dump Majority Leader Trent Lott, whose offhand nostalgia for Strom Thurmond’s segregationist past tarnished the modern Republican image.
The Bushies figure that fulminating against old-fashioned blatant racism provides cover for their more polite institutional variant. They’re probably right. Still, the greatest barrier to meaningful equality in our astonishingly unequal society is not unconcealed haters for whom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats are more model than embarrassment. They’re dangerous, yes, but not dominant. It’s not even the Supreme Court, which might end affirmative action even before Bush appoints new justices.
More significant are mainstream middle-class whites with no particular animosity toward the people of color with whom they interact. Many ordinary white Americans insist they never judge anyone by the color of their skin and prefer to notice how far we have come, not how far we have yet to go.
Many younger ones don’t know that segregation was not just tolerated but legally mandated. They say they want anti-discrimination laws enforced. And they’re reasonably troubled by documented evidence of persistent discrimination — job applicants with “white-sounding” names in a recent study getting more calls for interviews than “black-sounding” applicants with identical resumes; African American and Hispanic motorists stopped and searched by police more often than whites, even though, in a recent report, the whites more often carried drugs; the death penalty imposed disproportionately on those who murder white people, especially when the killer is black. Some continuing bias is attributable to outright racists — employers and landlords, cops and prosecutors, judges and jurors consciously preserving white privilege.
Yet more often than not discriminators do try to assess situations based on relevant nonracial facts. The problem is failing to recognize how cultural stereotypes affect what we consider relevant, especially in ambiguous, subjective circumstances such as deciding whom to hire, search, or execute. That’s why equality requires countering not just bare-faced racism but the stereotype-driven everyday acts of people who are not racists, only human.
Back when Thurmond’s crowd demanded the traditional right to segregate, anti-discrimination law was the most promising attack on a vulnerable status quo. Yet for many activists, legal equality was just the means to an end that simply banning intentional discrimination could never achieve: economic, social, and political equality. Since then, the balance has shifted. Abandoning their ideological Thurmondian progenitors, today’s conservatives concede that nondiscrimination law is necessary — but they also insist it’s sufficient. History is legally irrelevant, they claim, because now we’re all equal in the eyes of blind law.
Most liberals — realizing that ending discrimination makes nary a dent in wealth and power built on centuries of slavery, segregation, and privilege — advocate additional steps to provide equal opportunity outside the courtroom where it counts. And indeed affirmative action has helped bring better education and jobs to those traditionally excluded (especially middle-class people of color and white women).
It makes schools and workplaces somewhat more diverse, a societal good ignored by conservatives focused only on color-blind individual rights. But, unfortunately, too many affirmative action supporters believe bureaucratically administered equal opportunity is the best we can hope for and that true equality of results is simply impossible. Affirmative action remains necessary, but it’s neither perfect nor enough. Defensive supporters sometimes deny that, like any bureaucratic system, affirmative action makes mistakes.
They too infrequently address in sufficient detail underlying questions — what does it mean to be qualified? who determines the standards and measures? when should society reward those with the most measured merit, and when instead capable others with greater need?
The underlying implication that the pain felt by passed-over guiltless whites is either deserved or unimportant threatens affirmative action’s survival in a capitalist society that refuses to provide decent education and jobs to everyone. Not surprisingly, better solutions face stiff resistance. Attempts to force the U.S. government to fulfill the post-Civil War 40-acres-and-a-mule promise to former slaves (with compensation in amounts meaningful today) have gone nowhere.
Efforts to recoup profits from slavery-enriched corporations have yet to be addressed in court; any payments will likely stem from public pressure rather than judicial rulings. Reparations raise so many complex issues that they’re easily dismissed. But the justification for reparations seems more intuitive than the case for affirmative action. The government that allowed slavery still exists — under the Constitution, our institutions connect seamlessly to the past. Corporations have legal immortality; it’s time they faced the downside as well as the advantages. Even new immigrants whose ancestors enslaved no one benefit from a society built on slave labor. Descendants of slaves deserve compensation for stolen labor and lost lives regardless of their current class position. Affirmative action, though still important, remains a second-best alternative.
Dennis Fox, on leave from his position as associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield, lives in Massachusetts. He is co-editor of “Critical Psychology: An Introduction” and co-founder of RadPsyNet: The Radical Psychology Network (http://www.radpsynet.org). His commentaries and essays are posted at http://www.dennisfox.net .