A Context for Understanding the Current Attack on Affirmative Action

We have heard a number of calls in recent months to rethink and to redefine Affirmative Action. They have come from a variety of sources, including editorial writers, political leaders, government agency heads, professors, economists, and corporate executives. Whites and people of color, men and women have joined a small but vocal chorus.

The questions about Affirmative Action come while political conservatism sweeps across the nation, and that observation leads me to speculate about a larger historical context for what is happening. That larger context seeks to understand present trends in regard to race relations as representing a movement similar to what happened during the Post-Reconstruction period of the last century. Many have drawn the parallels between the two centuries in the late years of each. The 1980s are similar to the 1880s, each characterized by a retrenchment from moves which had been made toward equality of the races in mid-century. It will be well to look at what happened in the last century to see what might be in store for us if the present trends continue.
Joel Williamson has characterized what happened to race relations in the South during the period after Emancipation and through the present.[1] He has collected a great deal of data to support his finding that Southerners could be divided into roughly three groups, each representing a distinctively different “mentality” in regard to race relations. The smallest number of people were those whom Williamson groups under what he calls the Liberal mentality. These were the people who were most hopeful about the future, who believed that the newly freed Negro people, if given proper support, could become productive citizens in a unified South. Liberalism believed “that the capacity of Negroes to absorb white culture in America had not yet been fairly tested, and it refused to close them out brusquely and across the board somewhere far below the white man.”[2]

At the other end of Williamson’s spectrum was the group whom he calls Radicals. This group “envisioned a ‘new’ Negro, freed from the necessarily very tight bonds of slavery and retrogressing rapidly toward his natural state of savagery and beastiality.”[3] This group claimed that there was no place for the Negro in the future of this society, and in fact looked forward to the disappearance of the black race. Out of this mentality sprang waves of direct violence and brutality.

In the middle, between the Liberals and Radicals, stood the group who espoused the Conservative mentality on race. These were clear in a belief that Negroes were inferior but, as distinguished from the Radical racists, Conservatives were willing to allow a place for Negroes, so long as it was clearly an inferior place, and that the place was defined and controlled by whites. As long as the Negro populace stayed in that defined place it was assumed that things would be all right and the South would persevere.

While the Liberal mentality never gained a great following, there was a time, particularly from 1897 to 1907, when the Radical racists gained ascendancy, but eventually the Conservatives won out and became dominant. By the second decade of the twentieth century the Conservative mentality gave firm and clear direction to the South.

Certainly the three views of the race issue which Williamson applies to the South might also categorize Northern attitudes. While Williamson focuses on the South, he acknowledges that something very similar was also happening in the North; the North was simply later than the South in discovering its prejudices. The thin veneer of Northern liberalism cracked under pressure and it gave way with little struggle to the Conservative mentality.

As the Radical and Conservative mentalities struggled for the mind of the nation in those closing years of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) gave impetus to the Conservative point of view. That decision said that it was constitutionally all right for the state to provide separate railway carriages for whites and blacks. In its decision the Court said that laws permitting or even requiring the separation of the races “where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other.” Thus issued the famous “separate but equal” doctrine of law. The Court was careful to say that there is a fallacy in the argument which assumes that the “enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.” “If this be so,” the court said, “it is solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

The Court denial aside, we know that it was the white mentality which gave birth to the concept of black inferiority, it was no mere construction of the colored mind! The history of the nation clearly proves a foundation in the assumption of white superiority. Embarrassed by that history and its discontinuity with lip service to egalitarian principles, now the Court saw a way to affirm equality while defining a clear place for the former enslaved people, separated from white society.

Society seized upon the idea quickly. “Separate but equal” became the mode for the first part of the twentieth century. It was easy for the dominant whites to claim and pretend that the separate facilities, the separate schools, the separate services were equal. It also became clear that the ability of dominant whites to designate a place or the place for the minority groups of society was in itself a denial of those principles of American faith which assert that a person’s place is a matter of achievement and not of fixed definition by any group or person. The nation and the Supreme Court learned that separate is not equal. That learning was announced in the Brown decision in 1954, when the Court made it clear that separate is inherently unequal. The Court also understood the power dimensions of our society; so long as access to power (money, control, status) is unequal, then separate institutions and services will not be equal.

In our century Affirmative Action has been one thrust which came out of the Civil Rights Movement and the new Reconstruction efforts to rebuild a society based on equality. Affirmative Action has been a method of providing members of groups who have been victims of discrimination at least some better opportunity to gain access to education and jobs, a simple one-step attempt to redress the injustices of over three hundred years.

There has been much debate about whether or not Affirmative Action has worked for the protected groups it has defined. Richard B. Freeman, an economist from Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, concludes that “Affirmative Action and equal employment opportunity have helped the nation reduce discrimination in the job market and improve the economic position of minorities and women.[4] He concedes that Affirmative Action has not been a panacea and that huge problems remain. Freeman quotes the findings of Jonathan Leonard in some of the most conclusive statistical studies which have been done to measure the effectiveness of Affirmative Action.[5] Leonard has charted changes in the relative earnings and occupational attainment of full-time black and female workers relative to white male workers, and the ratios of the same groups in professional managerial occupations from 1964 to 1982. These studies show conclusive evidence which, with other data, lead Freeman to say that Affirmative Action has “raised employment for protected groups” . . . has “raised the overall employment and employment in better occupations for protected groups,” and has “raised the demand for labor in companies subject to Affirmative Action pressure, and thus contributed to the economic progress of minorities and women.” [6] Freeman and Leonard point us to some hard facts which show that Affirmative Action has worked.

Theodore Cross, in his most recent study, discusses the contention that Blacks have actually suffered as a result of Affirmative Action policies. He says,

This thesis goes against all evidence. Wherever we do find gains by blacks, there is a close connection between these gains and the presence of strong affirmative action. For example, during the late 1970s, Census figures show that black men in managerial positions dramatically increased from 2.8 to 6.9 percent of the total, a 146 percent increase. Clearly this is due in part to the fact that affirmative action had been particularly strong in business school admissions and in admissions to management posts in large corporations. Gains in these fields were much less dramatic during the 1960s (1.6 percent to 2.8 percent), a period usually characterized as the pre-affirmative action era.[7]

Cross goes on to assert that the increase during the 1970s of blacks in government posts, in higher education and in some cases in police forces, is attributable to affirmative action policies. Progress in the blue collar trades, traditionally closed to minority persons is directly attributable to affirmative action pressures. The number of black judges, Cross reminds us, tripled during the years 1977-1980 as a consequence of expressly race-conscious judicial appointments. Cross also points us to a Labor Department Study during the Reagan administration, which examined hiring practices at 77,098 businesses between 1974 and 1980, and found that minority employment grew by 20.1 percent in companies covered by affirmative action requirements, but only 12.3 percent in companies with no government contracts or other special hiring obligations.[8]

These statistics do show progress. That progress came because we adopted Affirmative Action policies knowing that equality was not going to be made simply by declarations of openness or equal opportunity; race prejudice and racism are recalcitrant and will not give in to the ebb and flow of a simple open market. The problem we face is so deeply embedded, so systematically woven into the fabric of economic, political, and social life, that it demands more than just nondiscrimination. We must act affirmatively to overcome the separations. That is what history taught us and that is the reason for the progression from plans of nondiscrimination to affirmative action.

There are some parallels to be drawn between the gains under Affirmative Action in this century and similar gains during the Reconstruction period of the last century. In each case there was some progress made toward the ideal of actual equality of access to power and resources in society; in each case there were people who were pleased at whatever progress they saw, and there were some who were pleased but unsatisfied, and others who saw what happened and were threatened.

In our day those who are not happy with what they see in Affirmative Action join the conservative mentality of the time and seek to undermine the effort. They claim that Affirmative Action does not work as intended, that it puts an onerous burden of stigma on the protected groups. The studies suggested above indicate that Affirmative Action has worked, and certainly few of the so-called protected groups are voicing a concern that they are stigmatized! That construction of stigma seems to be placed upon the situation primarily by white males!

Perhaps it is the effectiveness of Affirmative Action which troubles those of the conservative mentality who want to shoot it down. Certainly they would not be concerned about Affirmative Action if it were not working at all? The expressed concern for what they call equality does not ring with much authority, since the racially conservative mentality has a poor track record on that issue historically.

The conservative mentality is in reality frightened because Affirmative Action is working, has worked too well, and blacks and other people of color are too frequently moving out of their places. Even the thought that they might have a better opportunity to escape their assigned place is a threat to the conservative mentality. So the strategy calls for getting rid of Affirmative Action, or to redefine it. The nation is supposed to be committed to equality; therefore, any anti-Affirmative Action strategy must not fly too blatantly in the face of that concept. So we hear talk about equality, but it is an equality which carefully protects the place of those in power. That means assuring that people of color stay in their places. Enter again, separate but equal!

We must not fall into that trap again! Separate is not equal! Separate is not equal because access to power, resources, money, control is not equal in this nation. Those who make the major policy decisions which affect large numbers of people are white, and they make those decisions in the long run with a white bias. Those who control the major sources of financial revenue are white, and the distribution of those resources is made to stabilize the existing relations of economic power.

If the current move to redefine Affirmative Action is successful, one of the results will be to move our society back into the separate but equal mode of the early part of the century. In this case separate will mean that the conservative mentality will define the place for people of color in education and employment. That place will be one that constricts access to power. In higher education that will mean a declining enrollment of people of color, and restrictions of students of color to vocationally-oriented schools, and community colleges which are not close to the center of power. In employment the place will be defined largely as service jobs: people of color will serve hamburgers, sweep streets, wait on others in stores, banks, restaurants and airplanes, drive the cabs and serve the drinks. Employment will be largely limited to low-level entry jobs with limited upward mobility or access to power. As we move rapidly into automated production many jobs in some of those categories will become insecure, and the prospects of even an increased ratio of unemployment among people of color looms! Blacks and other people of color will be kept separate and in their place. For many that will mean no place at all!

The rush to redefine Affirmative Action may in fact take us back to separate but equal. History has taught us that is a false choice. Separate places are not equal and will not be equal until there is a foundational change in the relationships of power. Separate but equal is a strategy designed precisely to avoid such change. History warns us that we may be headed backwards. We must maintain the forward momentum of Affirmative Action!

[1] Williamson, Joel, The Crucible of Race Relations: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation, Oxford University Press, 1984.

[2] Ibid., page 5, Introduction.

[3] Ibid., page 6, Introduction.

[4] Freeman, Richard B., “Affirmative Action: Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?” New Perspectives, Fall 1984, page 26.

[5] Ibid., page 25 Leonard’s study analyzes employment patterns in 68,000 establishments. “Splitting Blacks: Affirmative Action and Earnings Inequality Within and Across Races,” Working Paper No. 1327, National Bureau of Economic Research, April 1984.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cross,Theodore, The Black Power Imperative: Racial Inequality and Politics of Nonviolence, Faulkner, New York, 1984, page 488.

[8] Ibid., page 492.