A Historical Perspective on Affirmative Action

Editor’s Note: This article is a reprint of a Letter to the Editor in the May 29, 2009 issue of The Phillipian with edits and permission from the author. On the issue of affirmative action — as with all issues concerning race — our national proclivity to forget our own history selectively has corrupted the debate. I offer the following thoughts, then, with the hope that they will re-frame the dialogue and encourage fresh thinking. Misperceptions about affirmative action abound: the policy requires institutional quotas for minority students and minority employees; it seeks to redress past racial injustices; it has failed by effecting greater access only for middle-class African-Americans; it precludes the consideration of merit in hiring and acceptance practices; it is a form of black welfare. These statements, invoked in turn by the political left and right, are categorically false. Affirmative action is a program designed to combat contemporary inequities in education and the workplace that have arisen as a consequence of past discrimination. It is not — nor has it ever been — aimed solely at ethnic minorities. The greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been women, particularly white women. Americans with disabilities have also enjoyed significant advancement under the auspices of the program. Affirmative action is not — nor has it ever been — an anti-poverty initiative. Under federal law, there is no such thing as “socioeconomic affirmative action.” That ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate share of the nation’s poor is not a criterion by which we can judge the program’s success or failure. Affirmative action is not — nor has it ever been — recompense for slavery or segregation. Slavery and segregation matter to the debate only because they are historical geneses of current patterns of discrimination. But what of merit? This question, more than any other, has been the bugbear of affirmative action since its inception, surely because the meritocratic ideal taps into the heart of America’s most cherished founding myths. Ever since Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and their Revolutionary friends contemplated forming a government free of a hereditary aristocracy, the promise of achievement and natural talent as the only requisite qualities for advancement has held an unshakeable purchase on the American imagination. As such, abstractions about merit and fairness have become the rhetoric of choice for opponents of social programs that target minority groups. When I was in high school in the mid-90s, the debate over affirmative action reached a fever pitch because Newt Gingrich put it at the center of the Republican “Contract with America,” decrying the program as an un-American system of entitlements for blacks. Dishonest language like this makes for winning politics, for under those terms who can defend racial preferences over merit? The political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. has observed that Gingrich, Phil Gramm, former President George W. Bush and other contemporary opponents of affirmative action are drawing from an old playbook that consistently divorces history from the American meritocratic myth. Andrew Johnson employed the language of fairness when he vetoed the bill for the Freedman’s Bureau, despite the protests of Republicans in Congress and the Bureau’s most vocal advocate, Frederick Douglass. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley argued that the time had come when African-Americans must “cease to be the special favorite of the law” in his 1883 opinion striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. When Jim Crow laws in the following two decades coded into law the brutal reassertion of white supremacy across the American South, the Supreme Court weighed in again. The 1896 opinion that legitimized legal segregation in “Plessy v. Ferguson” was a paragon of judicial logic. If African-Americans felt that separate accommodations stigmatized their race with a “badge of inferiority,” wrote Justice Henry Billings Brown in the majority opinion, then “it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” So cogent was Brown’s argument that the jurist William Rehnquist, another opponent of affirmative action who served as Chief Justice of the United States until 2005, wrote in 1952 that “Plessy” “was right and should be reaffirmed.” Like Rehnquist, other conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s turned a blind eye to the previous century of abuses in the South and used the language of fairness to oppose civil rights legislation. From the standpoint of a social scientist, the dogmatic invocation of the myth of meritocracy obscures the evidence of the very problems that affirmative action was meant to alleviate. Historically, the meritocratic ideal has been deployed to defend the interests of white men, rarely to pursue an actual meritocracy. Had an unbiased interest in fairness, talent and achievement motivated the opponents of affirmative action when President Lyndon Johnson first introduced it, they might have thought twice about declaiming the injustice of the program while many of them sent their sons (not yet their daughters) to Ivy League universities. But despite their persistence, legacy preferences have never amounted to more than a drop of water in the sea of outrage over racial preferences. We might hope that the advocates of meritocracy bring their criticisms to bear on this far older and more widespread form of preference. According to the “Economist,” legacies make up between 10 and 15 percent of the incoming classes of Ivy League universities and the chances legacy candidates will gain admission are enhanced as much as two to four times that of a non-legacy candidate. On this score, few individuals have benefitted more from preferential admissions standards than our former President, George W. Bush. A legatee of Phillips Academy, a legatee of Yale, a legatee of the Presidency itself, his administration submitted an amicus brief denouncing affirmative action in the University of Michigan Supreme Court cases in 2003. The following spring, his daughter Barbara graduated from Yale University, following in the footsteps of her father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Even the concession that legacy preferences are as unpalatable as affirmative action represents a false choice, as if both are parallel forms of preferential treatment that happen to affect different demographic groups. The pervasiveness of legacy admissions is but one manifestation of the nepotistic old-boy networks that make affirmative action essential in the first place. Wealth in America still rests in staggering disproportion in the hands of white men. Opponents of affirmative action cannot admit that current discriminatory practices, whether individual or structural, might explain this fact — to do so is to lose the game, for it validates the existence of the initiative. No, opponents of affirmative action operate off the bizarre assumption that unhappy chance explains the inequities of our current society. They reach this conclusion through simple syllogisms that strip away historical context and consider only individual cases along lines like this: race and gender has no place in hiring; in this case, the white or male candidate just happens to be stronger than the minority or female candidate; on the merits, I will hire the former. The logic tracks clean precisely because of its narrow focus, for, as Adolph Reed Jr. writes, only then “is it possible to maintain that white guys repeatedly finish first by serendipity.” At the center of anti-affirmative action arguments is the confounding notion of race itself. Unable to square complex conceptions of race and race consciousness with the reductive attraction of the meritocratic myth, opponents of affirmative action instead endorse the simplest definition of race they can, and they anchor it in Jeffersonian idealism. All men and women are created equal, we are told, so race must be meaningless. Race amounts to nothing more than a collection of peculiar skin cells. Such definitions, properly historicized, are absurdities. Among other issues, they deny the existence of an African-American culture. The error lies in taking a strictly scientific definition of race and applying it to the realm of social policy. Race, as a long body of scholarly literature has demonstrated time and again, is a social construction of monumental complexity interwoven through the fabric of American history with class and gender politics. Doubters to this claim need do nothing more than pick up a copy of W. E. B. DuBois’s “Black Reconstruction.” Mythologies are enduring because they shroud as much as they celebrate, and the allure of a meritocracy is no exception. Couched in the crooked discourse of the meritocratic myth, the debate over affirmative action has asked Americans to decide whether African Americans deserve to be advantaged over others. But within an honest dialogue, we might ask how the nation can remedy the advantages historically and currently enjoyed by whites and men. If affirmative action is not the answer, let us offer others. We might acknowledge the complexity of race and class and culture — they are not interchangeable terms, but neither are they unrelated. We might ask ourselves what precisely we mean by merit. Are good grades, the evaluations of past performances, necessarily indicative of future performances? Are SAT scores unvarnished and accurate pictures of a student’s academic potential? How should we balance achievement with potential? Above all, the history matters. Logic devoid of history is the last refuge of sophistry. Affirmative action is but one example of our society’s grappling with its longstanding history of the oppression of minorities and women. To defend affirmative action, or to assault it, the conversation must acknowledge our past with honesty, clarity, and sophistication.