As a child who was raised on 80’s and 90’s sitcoms, I never questioned the need for affirmative action. When TV shows from that era talked about women and Black folks entering the workplace, there was always a looming spectre of harassment or good ole boy barriers to promotion. And when those same television scripts shined their collective light on affirmative action, they were showing impressionable young viewers about access to jobs for women and Black people. Not unqualified people, but people from societal subsets that had been historically shut out of high-earning careers due to prejudice and racism.
I didn’t question the purpose or place affirmative action had in our country’s laws and thus workplaces. The need for access was as clear as the disparity.
But while I was growing up in a mostly-Black culture bubble, many non-Black folks were having the opposite experience. For them, affirmative action meant losing jobs to unqualified candidates whose only merit was their skin color. It’s this exact assumption on the part of many non-Black people that led Abigail Fisher to file a lawsuit against the University of Texas several years ago. Her contention that the only difference between her credentials and those of her Black and brown classmates who got into UT when she didn’t, was the color of their skin.
The very portrait of white privilege.
Because really, how cynical and biased must you be to presume it is altogether impossible for your darker-skinned classmates to be accepted on their merits into a school that passed you by?
A close examination of the facts, of course, reveals how misguided Fisher’s presumption was, which is why her case ultimately was not decided in her favor.
Did racist, partisan politicians who saw in Fisher an ideal candidate to be the face of their campaign wage a war of rhetoric?
Did this rhetoric embolden previously undercover racists and discomfit countless numbers of minority college students whose merit earned them their admission into halls of academia?
Did these newly emboldened racists begin frothing at the mouth and recruit their extreme right-wing bedfellows to don their MAGA hats, support the systematic disenfranchisement of voters, and ultimately, storm the Capitol when a presidential election didn’t turn out how they wanted it to?
Was all of this carried out while self-proclaimed American patriots waved a banner of “America First” values?
While I can’t create a concrete chain of human links between Abigail Fisher and the January 6 insurrection, I can assert with confidence that the same white supremacy that imbued Fisher with a false sense of superiority over students who got into UT in what she believed was “her place” is the same white supremacy that stormed the Capitol in the name of patriotism. Furthermore, it is this very same white supremacy that opened the gates to the Capitol steps and later held insurrectionists’ hands as they descended the stairs to resume their lives like they hadn’t just committed an act of domestic terror.
To understand the need for affirmative action – and thereby understand the thinly veiled ascension of white supremacy since the end of Reconstruction and the inception of the 20th century, we must survey the myriad government programs that systematically excluded Americans who were not white.
The New Deal, labor unions, the GI Bill, and redlining all ensured that doors of liberty and opportunity were closed to nonwhite Americans. Affirmative action sought to open the door that should never have been closed to us.
When you consider all of these policies and practices, it becomes impossible not to see the clear and present need for affirmative action. These laws were never intended to ensure that people didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or to give away clout and gainful employment to lazy, meritless loafers. Rather, the aim of affirmative action is and has been to begin repairing all the aforementioned systemic wrongs.
In The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ “A Brief History of Labor, Race, and Solidarity,” we see clearly how thoroughly and repeatedly, Black Americans were overlooked or shut out in order to ensure white Americans were not forced to treat us with dignity in the workplace, at the voting booth, or any other place in American society.
Many Americans still bristle at the idea of affirmative action, declaring policies built on the twin concepts of intentional diversity and inclusion to be discriminatory, racist, and unfair. Perhaps such resistance stems from ignorance of affirmative’s action long history, or from a lack of understanding of the depth of systemic ills with which nonwhite Americans have had to contend since our country’s inception.
Whatever the reason, affirmative action may soon end, laying bare the myriad ways America has set up its systems of labor and academia to benefit white Americans and enable them to accumulate wealth while either actively withholding such advantages from the rest of us, or purposely turning its head while various state laws held us down.
As you read through the linked articles, which are this week’s suggested resources, I hope you will take time to consider each of the following questions:
- In what ways have you or your family benefited from government programs that denied access to nonwhite Americans?
- Resistance to affirmative action programs seems to be predicated on the idea that if race is considered in college admission or employment, then this must be the only factor that guides the decision makers. But since we know that “colorblindness” doesn’t benefit our interpersonal relationships with people from other racial groups, shouldn’t we want colleges and workplaces to consider all we could potentially bring to their institutions, including our race? In other words, if a person “chooses” to “see color,” does that mean that color is all the person can see?
- How can you show up for the nonwhite people in your daily life, to ensure that they are supported and able to function in equitable spaces?
Our #peacebypiece journey is drawing ever closer to its end, and yet so much work remains to be done. Keep showing up to this good, hard work. And we will construct a more inclusive, affirming, and peaceful world, one piece at a time.