Misleading anti-affirmative action legislation destroys key gains of the civil rights era

In recent years, the American public has witnessed the destruction of legislation representative of the victories emerging from the social movements of the 1960s. Affirmative action is one of the most ardently attacked pieces of legislation. Such anti-affirmative actions measures as California’s Proposition 209 and the recent Initiative 200 in Washington state are illustrative of the war being waged to deny opportunities to women and various minority groups. Aside from the obvious concern over the loss of affirmative action policies, the manner in which these propositions and initiatives are being passed warrants attention.

Recent studies have shown that the actual wording of this legislation is the determining factor in how individuals vote, rather than the objectives and consequences of the proposal itself. As was demonstrated in Houston’s elections, when the anti-affirmative action proposals are written in straightforward manner, such as “Do you support Affirmative Action,” the response is overwhelmingly positive. Yet when the proposals are discussed in terms of eliminating “preferential” or “discriminatory” practices on the government’s part, the majority responds in favor again, without realizing that what they are truly doing is voting against affirmative action despite their support for such policies. In effect, what emerges is not necessarily the general will of the electorate, but rather that of the conservative elite, who have knowingly misrepresented the true nature of such proposals and initiatives.

Moving away from the issue of recent legislation, let us turn towards the greater issue of whether affirmative action is still necessary given the advances that women and minorities have made since the movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Our immediate response to this is that there would be no need for affirmative action programs if race-and gender-based stratification were not present in this country. Furthermore, if racism and sexism were not prevalent in American society, we would take comfort in the promises of freedom and equality under the law— but this is not the America we live in. If you read a statistic that said, “a black male is over 60 percent more likely to receive the death penalty than a white male for the same crime,” would you think it was calculated in 1958 or 1998? In Philadelphia, fifty years ago over 95 percent of people employed in the service industry (maids, cleaning persons, etc.) were minority women. The figure is the same today.

Our intention is not to condemn white Americans, rather to question some white Americans’ motives for a color-blind society. Race and gender-based stratification have become so integrated into American society that, conceivably, individual acts of racism or sexism need not be committed in today’s society for minorities and women to get a “raw deal.” A color-blind tomorrow does not erase the stereotypical prejudice, discrimination and inequality that existed in the past. If an African-American does not have equal access to as good an education as his or her white counterpart in today’s society, how will a color-blind tomorrow be able to address that difference? It will not. Instead, it will ignore it. Moving towards a color-blind society without first leveling the playing field, will only result in a lack of social and economic mobility in American society across race and gender lines. Without recognition of past discrimination against people of color and elements of “white privilege,” we as a country cannot move towards an equal society. Simply stated, the effects of discrimination are transgenerational and apply to all aspects of American life. Racism and sexism were not momentary outbursts from an otherwise equal society, rather they are phenomena that have imbrued American society throughout all of history. For example, opportunities for the parents of our generation were greatly influenced by a segregated education system, institutional race- and gender-based discrimination in the workplace, preferential treatment for loan opportunities— the list goes on and on. All of these factors played a direct and integral part in their socioeconomic mobility, which in turn has a direct impact on how this generation perceives its own economic opportunity, and therein has a direct and tangible influence on our generation.

All this having been said, it is quite apparent that affirmative action must not be retracted until present-day racism and sexism no longer exist, and past discrimination and preferential treatment has been corrected. Thus, contemporary pushes toward a color-blind society by some whites are patronizing and upsetting. For it is not a move toward the dream of Martin Luther King, to whom they so often refer; rather it is a move toward a sense of complacency— something King preached against, marched against and died fighting against.