Affirmative Action Revisited

By Guest Contributor Jenn, originally published at Reappropriate

I saw this short post on Time’s Detroit Blog today: Still Getting It Wrong on Affirmative Action. In it, blogger Darrell Dawsey comments about the recent news that civil rights groups in Michigan have brought an appeals case challenging the constitutionality of a rcent ballot measure banning the practice of affirmative action in Michigan state schools.

Dawsey doesn’t get into the constitutionality of affirmative action in his post; rather, he complains about the persistent perception of affirmative action as merely a “race thing”. Dawsey writes:

Yes, I think affirmative action is a palatable, if mild, remedy to the ongoing discrimination that women and people of color face in Michigan and around the country. But this take isn’t about cheering the court’s decision to hear the challenge to race preferences or even affirmative action itself, for that matter. Rather, it’s about the implications of the persistent, narrow belief that affirmative action is just a set of “racial preferences” — when the truth is that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women.

No, I’m not saying that  blacks, Latinos, Arab-Americans and Asian-Americans haven’t also benefited. (The University of Michigan, for instance, has 11 percent fewer minorities than in 2006, in part because affirmative action was outlawed.) But it’s the idea that these minorities, not white women, are disproportionately helped by affirmative action that inflames much of the opposition that we saw here three years ago.

I agree with Dawsey: affirmative action suffers a public relations problem. Affirmative action is frequently discussed in terms of race — both by proponents and opponents of the practice. Yet, the reality of affirmative action is far more nuanced: affirmative action not only is intended to benefit members of all underrepresented ethnic groups (Native Americans, and underrepresented Asians to name a few), but it also benefits applicants who come from other underrepresented backgrounds including class, gender, and faith.

The problem is the word “minority”, which in our society has become a codeword for “Black”. This is not only unfair, it is inaccurate: critics of “minority”-targeted initiatives present narrow-minded arguments that fail to accurately represent the full spectrum of people encompassed by the word “minority”. It paints reasonable and useful policies with a tinge of racial favoritism. And above all, it reinforces the notion of Blacks and Latinos as the bottom rung of our social hierarchy, rather than one of many underprivileged yet deserving minority groups.

That being said, I’m not sure that Dawsey gets it right with the point of his post. Dawsey argues that opponents of affirmative action, in colouring (pardon the pun) the debate as a “race thing”, are motivated by racial hatred in their opposition.

Many who voted against affirmative action had it in their heads that black people and other minorities were somehow getting something they didn’t “deserve” or were receiving “something for nothing.” Sure, some will howl that I’m wrong — that affirmative action opponents were driven solely by noble desires for “fairness” and “equality” — but I’m not. I’ve lived in Detroit much of my life. And I know well that even though many of us here consider it uncomfortable or impolite to discuss race when talking about why metro Detroit is what it is — and that includes its standing as one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S. –  intense racial hatred remains alive and well.

While racism is clearly alive and well in today’s America, I’m not sure what use there is in characterizing the majority of affirmative action’s detractors as seething racists. Clearly, there is a perception that underrepresented minorities are being accepted despite the appearance that they are ”less qualified”, but I simply don’t believe that all or even most of affirmative action’s critics are primarily fueled by this misconception.

Affirmative action is a tough issue: neither side has a clear, moral (let alone legal) stance to advocate. Even proponents of affirmative action admit it is an imperfect (dare I say “band-aid”?) solution to a tough societal problem. To over-simplify the other side as racists does nothing to improve the quality of the debate on affirmative action, and turns the whole thing into finger-pointing and name-calling.