In light of the Supreme Court’s recent case regarding affirmative action, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, it is important to properly contextualize the original impetus for the policy and the contemporary factors that still make it a very real, present need.
The term “affirmative action” was first introduced by President Kennedy in 1961 as a method of redressing discrimination that had persisted in spite of civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees. It was developed and enforced for the first time by President Johnson.
“This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights,” Johnson asserted. “We seek … not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.” In the “discussion” regarding affirmative action, phrases and words such as “quotas,” “reverse discrimination” and “racial preferences” are vehemently and venomously flung about.
Let us address what is called affirmative action and what is not; what the dominant culture protests and what they disregard. So let’s first analyze the erroneous notions that are often connected to affirmative action.
Erroneous notion number one would be the charge that affirmative action means quotas. One would have only to look to the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke of 1978 (we will be returning to this case further on) when the Supreme Court effectively barred quota systems in college admissions (and thereby barred its use in other venues as well). So quotas are dismissible because they are illegal.
What is actually allowed under current affirmative action policy, instead, are benchmarks, targets and goals. Goals and timetables are set by employers for the employment of people of color and women, along with time frames for achieving these goals. Employers are encouraged to make good faith efforts but there are no legal penalties if they make good faith efforts and are unable to meet the goals.
Trying to put the equity vehicle in reverse
The charge that affirmative action is reverse discrimination is a complete misnomer. The phrase itself, reverse discrimination, needs to be done away with. Discrimination is discrimination and the reverse (or opposite) of discrimination is equity.
Nevertheless, how can something be deemed reverse discrimination when white males still hold 85 percent to 87 percent of the high-level corporate jobs — and that’s with affirmative action programs in place?
When approximately 76 percent of all college scholarship money goes to whites; when whites are more likely than members of any other group (once again, even with affirmative action in place) to get into their first-choice school, how can allegations of reverse discrimination be taken seriously?
In a 1995 analysis, the U.S. Department of Labor found that affirmative action programs do not lead to widespread reverse discrimination claims. It also found that a high proportion of claims that are filed are found to lack merit. These findings firmly refute the charge that affirmative action has helped minorities at the expense of whites.
Now, let’s take a look at the “actual” racial preferences that do indeed take place. For example, the Jennifer Gratz v. the University of Michigan case in which she protested the 20 admission points awarded to students of color.
The University of Michigan has a 150-point evaluation scale for admissions: Michigan awards 20 points to any student from a low-income background, regardless of race. Since these points cannot be combined with those for minority status (in other words poor blacks don’t get 40 points), in effect this could be considered a preference for poor whites. Then Michigan awards 16 points to students who come from the Upper Peninsula of the state: a rural, largely isolated and almost completely white area.
Ten points are awarded to students who attended top-notch high schools, and another eight points are given to students who took an especially demanding AP and honors curriculum — according to Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, black students are only half as likely as whites to be placed in honors or AP English or math classes and on average, schools serving mostly black and Latino students offer only a third as many AP and honors courses as schools serving mostly whites.
As with points for those from the Upper Peninsula, these preferences may be race-neutral in theory, but in practice they are anything but — because of intense racial isolation (and Michigan’s schools are the most segregated in America for blacks according to research by the Harvard Civil Rights Project). Four more points are awarded to students with a parent who attended the U of M — because of past discrimination this is overwhelmingly white.
So while Gratz and others focused on the mere 20 points allowed for underrepresented ethnic groups, they ignored the combination of 58 points that were overwhelmingly in favor of white applicants.
Ironically and hypocritically, the Gratz case also focused on the few dozen students of color, with lower SATs and grades who were admitted ahead of her, while disregarding, altogether, the 1,400 white students who were admitted who also had lower SATs and grades — and to their shame, the Supreme Court went for it.
Erroneous assumptions about cause and effect
What has to be understood is that in a society that has been saturated in racism and privilege, even when policies appear to be color-blind, they are not.
This same distorted view can be seen in the Bakke case as well. Goodwin Liu, in his essay, “The Causation Fallacy: Bakke and the Basic Arithmetic of Selective Admissions,” states that “in 1974 Bakke was one of 3,109 regular applicants to the medical school. With the racial quota, the average likelihood of admission for regular applicants was 2.7 percent (84 divided by 3,109).
“With no racial quota, the average likelihood of admission would have been 3.2 percent (100 divided by 3,109). So the quota increased the average likelihood of rejection from 96.8 percent to 97.3 percent.” Liu goes on to further stress, ”But even among these highly qualified applicants, eliminating the racial quota would have increased the average rate of admission from 16 percent (84 divided by 520) to only 19 percent (100 divided by 520).
“Certainly a few more white applicants would have been admitted were it not for affirmative action. But Bakke, upon receiving his rejection letter, had no reason to believe he would have been among the lucky few.”
Moreover, using 1989 data from a representative sample of selective schools, former university presidents William Bowen and Derek Bok showed in their 1998 book, “The Shape of the River,” that eliminating racial preferences would have increased the likelihood of admission for white undergraduate applicants from 25 percent to only 26.5 percent.
The hidden and unknown real racial preferences
So if we rollback recognized affirmative action programs, while keeping in place the unrecognized and unacknowledged “racial preference” that works heavily in favor of whites, we only perpetuate injustice. White preference remains hidden because it is more subtle, more ingrained and isn’t called white preference or privilege, even if that’s the result.
There are other racial preferences to consider, such as jobs, mortgages and car loans. A 2005 Princeton University study of nearly 1,500 private employers in New York City, titled “Discrimination in Low Wage Labor Markets,” showed that young white high school graduates were about twice as likely to receive positive responses from New York employers as equally qualified black job seekers.
Ex-offenders face serious barriers to employment as well. A criminal record reduced positive responses from employers by about 35 percent for white applicants and 57 percent for black applicants. The most profound discriminatory practice revealed in this study, however, was that black applicants without criminal records were no more likely to get a job than white applicants just out of prison.
Also on the job front, another recent study revealed that dark-skinned African-Americans face a distinct disadvantage when applying for jobs. A University of Georgia study found skin tone more important than educational background for African-Americans seeking jobs, even if they have resumes superior to lighter-skinned black applicants. This research is believed to be the first significant study of “colorism” in the American workplace.
The evidence concluded a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor’s degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark-skinned black male with an MBA and past managerial positions, simply because expectations of the light-skinned black male are much higher, and he didn’t appear to be as ‘menacing’ as the darker-skinned male applicant — so there appears to be a pecking order even within black applicants, with the greatest plums being reserved for those who are positioned, in terms of phenotype, closer to whiteness.
What is left out of the discussion regarding affirmative action, more often than not, is an earnest desire to answer three questions: What is fairness? What are the real racial preferences? And who actually benefits from them the most?
This concludes Part I of a two-part analysis of affirmative action. Click here to go to Part II.