Affirmative Action and the Persistence of Racism
Nancy Stein frames the attack on affirmative action most recently the politically motivated vote by the University of California regents that eliminates affirmative action programs in admissions, hiring, and contracts as the latest in a series of efforts to roll back the rights of people of color. Such efforts have been manifested in the passage of California’s anti- immigrant initiative, in the various three-strikes measures approved around the country, and in “welfare reform proposals.” The headlong rush by conservatives to obliterate entitlement programs that benefit the poor, she argues, taps into the racism that has become increasingly legitimate since the Reagan administration and the fear engendered by the growing scarcity of jobs and economic opportunity. The article outlines the history of affirmative action legislation since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (specifically Title VII, which is the statutory basis of affirmative action in private employment) and examines the ideological assumptions behind the attack on the policy. The legislation banning all discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was open to different interpretations, based on two underlying principles of justice: compensatory and distributive. The former conception (promoted by the Reagan and Bush administrations) construes affirmative action as a policy that allows specific individuals who have been discriminated against to seek compensation and sanctions for specific claims of discrimination, while the latter seeks to distribute opportunities more fairly among the population to remedy the effects of discrimination. Those who benefit from this broader policy may not have been discriminated against specifically, but they nonetheless suffer the historical and current effects of racist policies that have systematically excluded people of color from employment and educational opportunities. As a redistributive measure, affirmative action can potentially reduce inequality, though not eliminate its roots, while enhancing the standard ofliving and quality of life of women and people of color. Although progressive Black activists and scholars have been critical of affirmative action both because it has not gone far enough in addressing racial inequality and relies too heavily on the legal system to address the endemic nature of racism, most recognize the importance of defending the principles of affirmative action despite these limitations. The right-wing attack on affirmative action is an attack on the fundamental concept of an egalitarian society and implies an acceptance of living in a racialized society where people are assigned their place according to race. The author lays bare the ideological biases of right- wing detractors of affirmative action and attempts to explain why certain high-profile Black conservative scholars and politicians have adopted stances consistent with the opinions of white conservative policymakers on this issue. In this sense, the struggle highlights what is at stake in terms of the kind of society Americans envision for the coming millennium.
affirmative action; racism; civil rights; civil rights movement; u.s. history; racial discrimination; u.s. supreme court decisions
Citation: Social Justice Vol. 22, No. 3 (1995): 28-44