In terms of social issues, affirmative action is very high on the list of uncomfortable subjects to talk about with white peers. Discussions about affirmative action are hard to facilitate because, more often than not, people are uneducated about history, race and race relations, and the impact and schematics of oppressive structural and systematic institutions. Any time affirmative action is brought up, be it in a classroom or over dinner, I’ve found that, despite their begrudging sighs and uncomfortable shifts in seats, white people love to use affirmative action as a vehicle to express their distaste with what they perceive to be a post-racial society, and inherently, expose the depth of their internalized racism. Additionally, given that many of their arguments are based purely on emotion that relates to a sense of slight oppression or disadvantage, they are unwilling to objectively and systematically assess the complexity of affirmative action and the reasons and ways in which it exists.
affirmative action first entered the nation’s lexicon in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 which states that the government must “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin,” and was superseded by the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Lynden B. Johnson’s Executive order 11246 (1965) which simply expanded the scope of people required to be non-discriminatory to those who were government contractors or subcontractors. Because of the complexity of the issue and practice there are many definitions of affirmative action; however, when they are condensed, affirmative action is simply a policy that encourages representation of historically underrepresented groups in terms of education and employment and seeks to compensate for and alleviate unlawful discrimination as a kind of reparative and preventative measure in terms of discrimination.
A term that often comes up when discussing the definition of affirmative action is “positive discrimination.” Those two words together are contradictory simply because of the negative definition and connotation of “discrimination” (hatred, bigotry, inequity, or injustice) and so they fail to effectively communicate the methodology behind the intent and practice of affirmative action. Despite this, the term continues to be used. I believe “positive discrimination” continues to be used, as opposed to adopting a more applicable term such as “inclusion” or even “positive discretion,” because the concept and connotation behind “positive discrimination”, at skin level, serves as justification of the main argument of dissent against affirmative action: reverse racism.
Reverse racism does not exist.
Racism is an extremely complex, multi-faceted, multi-layered concept and practice that requires and has required a voluminous amount of discussion, defining, deconstructing. Basic racism can be defined as “The hatred of one person by another — or the belief that another person is less than human — because of skin color, language, customs, place of birth or any factor that supposedly reveals the basic nature of that person. It has influenced wars, slavery, the formation of nations, and legal codes. Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. Racial separatism is the belief, most of the time based on racism, that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another. Additionally, institutional racism is a societal or governmental system based upon racism. It is impossible to say that the entirety of the United States is not based around or upon racism or institutional racism. The list of racist travesties that European Americans have committed against minorities is too long to recount, from the genocide of Native Americans and the colonization and enslavement of Africans, through the segregation of blacks from whites, to people of color being disproportionate targets of police brutality. The United States always has been and continues to be a racist institution, and white Americans continue to benefit from the system of institutional racism. This is why reverse racism doesn’t exist, because the concept of reverse racism is dependent upon everyone existing in a post-racial society. This would mean that everyone exists on a level playing field: where race doesn’t matter, where there is not an obvious advantage to existing while white, and where discrimination and oppression, blatant and systematic, particularly pertaining to race, do not exist. That is simply not the case, and that is why reverse racism does not exist and, probably, will never exist.
Despite there being no validity in the claim that affirmative action facilitates reverse racism (because reverse racism does not exist) by providing opportunity and visibility to underrepresented minorities, a popular claim among those who oppose affirmative action is that, as a result of affirmative action, minorities get a unfair opportunity at the cost of their white counterparts who now believe they are suffering an inherent disadvantage because their opportunities are being taken away from them “just because they are a minority.” I know whenever I talked about college admissions in high school or whenever I talk about scholarships there is always a sense of resentment from my white peers because they believe that because of my status as a triple minority (poor, black, female), as opposed to my hard work, extensive resume, and good grades, I had an unfair advantage over them.
Based upon empirical evidence, this assumption is grossly false. The most recent comprehensive study done on this is Mark Kantrowitz’ “Student Aid Policy Analysis The Distribution of Grants and Scholarships by Race” in 2011. The abstract states, “the reality is that minority students are less likely to win private scholarships or receive merit-based institutional grants than Caucasian students. Among undergraduate students enrolled full-time/full-year in Bachelor’s degree programs at four-year colleges and universities, minority students represent about a third of applicants but slightly more than a quarter of private scholarship recipients. Caucasian students receive more than three-quarters (76%) of all institutional merit-based scholarship and grant funding, even though they represent less than two-thirds (62%) of the student population. Caucasian students are 40% more likely to win private scholarships than minority students.” 18 pages of objective data and analysis follow to support this claim and the study effectively and inarguably debunks the idea that affirmative action puts minorities ahead of whites; proportionally, minorities are still not on an equal playing field with whites. Another misconception about affirmative action is that it utilizes “racial quotas” in order to fulfill the resolution. This is an extremely outdated argument. In the 1978 Supreme Court case Bakke vs. University of California SCOTUS ruled that the use of quotas is unconstitutional and that race could only act as one of many factors, instead of being the only determining factor that decides whether or not a student gains admission.
Even if the claims of those who opposed affirmative action were valid, there is no way to deny the already established system of advantage set in place for white people. Looking past colonization, genocide, slavery, reconstruction, housing segregation, education inequalities, and the resulting socio-economic gap, the disadvantage, inequality, and oppression that minorities face can not be refuted. Neither can the inherent systematic advantage that is, and continues to be built upon the disadvantage of marginalized people and enjoyed by white people. An advantage so ingrained into our system of operating in terms of justice, governing, and perception of equality that it stands to never be fully overcome or remedied. One study published by the National Women’s Studies Association Journal in 1998 states that white women have disproportionately benefitted from affirmative action. And while being a woman constitutes being a disadvantaged minority that has protection under affirmative action, the fact that even with provisions made by affirmative action whites still benefit the most from a system designed to help minorities speaks volumes to the flaws within the system and effectively undermines any claims that somehow racial minorities could have an unfair advantage above their white counterparts. Furthermore, the program itself is only supposed to serve as an equalizer, something that allows people who haven’t been allowed to sit at the table to at least have a chair available to them. Claims that affirmative action gives an unfair advantage to minorities are really just complaints that the people are thought to be less than get to have a chance at existing and succeeding in the same sphere as those who have always had an unfair, often violent advantage— dissent is just an extension of their racism.
There are many other facets of affirmative action that need to be addressed and discussed; however, starting with deconstructing and evaluating racist opposition, myths, and misconceptions as it relates to affirmative action is a great first step in getting rid of roadblocks that prevent deeper discussion on the topic. Once the need for and merit of affirmative action is recognized, we can move into evaluating ways in which we can improve the system from which the need for affirmative action stemmed, as well as create more refined and effective solutions to the systematic disadvantage that racial minorities face.
Either way, it is extremely difficult to combat claims that your accomplishments do not matter because there must have been some extraneous undeserved positive influence on your life because of your status as a minority. Just remember that your accomplishments are valid, and hard earned. Especially given that affirmative action, a small attempt at equalization, does not significantly benefit you, and in most cases, does not benefit you at all. Be aware, be vigilant, and always keep working hard at what you are doing. In the end, advantage or none, hard work will have some kind of benefit, one way or another.