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Affirmative Action

What is it about affirmative action that makes people so angry? For hundreds of years, American minorities have not had the same rights as white men. Finally almost 500 years after Columbus landed, we got a law, the Civil Rights Law of 1964, which said we can not discriminate against race in employment. The term “affirmative action” was first used by President John F. Kennedy in creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1961 and required that projects receiving federal funds take “affirmative action” to ensure that employment decisions are free from racial discrimination. Slowly, the idea of affirmative action evolved to encompass programs that actively sought to increase the participation of racial minorities. We went so far as to say that we can consider race when students apply to college. Minorities got extra points in admissions. Think about it. We were not saying – take minorities that were not qualified. We were saying take them if they were. What happens? Some white guy who scores higher on a test says he should have been chosen and the courts agree. The test is man made – a white man’s test actually if you look at the makeup of testing companies. But just because you score higher on a test doesn’t mean you will make a good lawyer, accountant, doctor, etc. That is the fallacy of testing. But the courts bought it and we have lost much of affirmative action. Now we have retreated to - let’s provide affirmative action to the lower economic classes because that is race blind. Let’s consider class rather than race. The problem with that is that this country is not race blind. When I worked for NYS Division of Human Rights, I once asked an integrated group of middle-class, highly educated Division employees, how many had been discriminated in housing. Every minority raised their name; every white person did not. Blacks are discriminated against in this country even when they are middle- and upper class. There are numerous statistics that state time and time again that this country discriminates against the race of a person. In this country, an August 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis shows that 32% of black males born in 2001 expect to spend time in prison over the course of their lifetime. That is up from 13.4 percent in 1974 and 29.4 percent in 1991. By contrast, 17.2% of Hispanics and 5.9% of whites born in 2001 are likely to end up in prison. There are a greater proportion of minorities in community colleges rather than four year colleges where whites dominant. There are four black CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. At this rate it will take a hundred years to get any form of equity. Will they change the law? They already have. Affirmative action is dying. Will we go one step further and lose the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that bans discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which protects voting rights; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which bans discrimination in the sale or rental of housing? I don’t know but I don’t think embracing class instead of race in programs to increase participation will resolve these difficult issues. Our experiences are so different - white and black. It is hard to imagine that we can come together without far more understanding on the part of white people. Richard Wright in Black Boy (1993) wrote about two white waitresses he worked with every day – “They knew nothing of hate and fear….They lived on the surface of their days; their smiles were surface smiles, their tears were surface tears….We shared a common tongue but my language was a different language from theirs. It was a psychological distance that separated the races… For these poor ignorant white girls to have understood my life would have meant nothing short of a vast revolution in theirs” (319).


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