Affirming Affirmative Action

The Editors

THERE IS EVERY indication that the Republican Party plans a major fight to roll back Affirmative Action, and that the response of the Clinton administration will be characteristically weak-kneed. If so, the U.S. socialist left must act as if an urgent warning bell has been rung; we must also recognize that an extraordinary opportunity lies ahead to play a constructive role.

The warning bell alerts us to the grievous nature of the present political moment. The Republican announcement, although it was not featured in the “Contract with America,” is the logical outcome of the political assault steadily intensifying by the U.S. ruling elite against the politically disempowered and economically disenfranchised on a world scale. While the International Monetary Fund and U.S. corporations continue their dirty work abroad, cutbacks are under way in many sectors of the domestic economy, and prospects for employment continue to shrink. (Some of the reasons why are discussed in Robert Brenner’s essay on “The Politics of U.S. Decline” in this issue of ATC.)

It is precisely in this deep structural crisis, where so much of the population feels threatened and insecure, that affirmative action inevitably will be most politically vulnerable — and also most needed. As we know, when opportunities for the general population begin to constrict, the most oppressed become the targets. Their social gains, however minimal, come under attack — from welfare to prisoners’ rights to affirmative action.

The present moment has its specific features. As Richard Walker argues in his timely and well-documented New Left Review essay, “California Rages Against the Dying Light” (NLR 209, January-February 1995), the events on the West Coast are instructive for grasping the unfolding drama of the mid-1990s. First came rollbacks in social services, and tax cuts for the affluent, accompanied by an ideological campaign to criminalize the poor and foreign-born. These were followed by a dramatic increase in the construction of prisons, more of which will certainly be needed now that the notorious “three strikes” law is in place.

In 1994 came the anti-immigrant backlash in the form of California’s Proposition 187, the so-called “Save Our State” initiative. Finally, in 1995, we have the Orwellian-named “Civil Rights” initiative that would forbid the state to use race or gender preferences in employment policies, admissions or awarding contracts. One can hardly find a more dramatic example to show that “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.”

From a socialist perspective, support to Affirmative Action flows from the analysis of capitalism today as a system based on structural inequality. Is it any surprise that (as reported by the New York Times, March 16, 1995: 1), the Federal commission known as the “Glass Ceiling Panel” has determined that white males, who comprise 43% of the work force, hold 95% of the senior management jobs? Affirmative Action must be understood as a tool enabling the redress of a massive grievance on grounds of principle. This is because, in the U.S. context, a non-European “race” and female gender are markers of built-in, institutionalized, systemic oppression.

African Americans are descended largely from a population of former slaves who were subsequently exploited as sharecroppers and a reserve army of the unemployed; they were the last hired during the boom periods, the first fired during economic retrenchment and, in either case, always kept on the lowest rung of the ladder. The unemployment rate among African Americans consistently runs twice that of whites, and “real” unemployment (for everyone) is twice the official rate.

People of color other than African Americans have experienced various forms of semi-colonial exploitation within the borders of the United States. They have been the targets of genocide, land theft, special labor battalions, internment, severe restrictions on immigration of family members and the right to own property, and the disparagement of their cultures on the basis of assumptions that are both elite-biased and Eurocentrist.

Women, who constitute the majority of these nationally and racially oppressed groups, have most often suffered a double exploitation. Women are paid less for the same work, when they are allowed to do work traditionally limited to men, and they are under the boot of patriarchal oppression in the home.

The principle of Affirmative Action means institutional intervention, including state intervention, to somewhat level the playing field. The standard definition is that it is “a public or private program designed to equalize hiring and admission opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups by taking into account those very characteristics which have been used to deny them equal treatment” (cited in Leslie Dunbar, Minority Report [N.Y.: Pantheon, 1984], 60). Preferential hiring and admissions allows those historically at the back of the line to move a few places forward in the competition for jobs and admission to educational institutions.

Such intervention is far from a panacea for overcoming racism, sexism, homophobia and economic inequalities. It is a reform, which — like any reform winnable under capitalism — has weaknesses and limitations (including the inability to redress inequalities resulting from class background). This reform, however, works to the benefit of the entire society, including the white male part of the working class. Affirmative Action, by requiring a multi-racial work force, weakens the employers’ old system of divide and conquer. It’s no accident that the push against affirmative action comes from the same corporate and right-wing forces that have made it so hard for the labor movement to survive.

Thus a rollback of Affirmative Action would be among the most devastating possible blows to the cause of social emancipation in this country. It would smash one of the most substantive gains of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements, pitting the oppressed against each other in the struggle for survival.

Moreover, the demise of Affirmative Action — under the hypocritical, lying pretext of a “color-blind” and “gender-blind” system “based on merit,” which exists only in the fantasy-land of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh — would symbolize in fact the full restoration of wealthy and middle-class white male privilege. The rich, even with Affirmative Action, always have the resources enabling them to redress grievances of virtually any kind. But terminating Affirmative Action means that the socially oppressed in the United States will be stripped of what little state protection they had won (ironically, just as steps towards affirmative action are being initiated in post-apartheid South Africa!).

Grasping What’s At Stake

Perhaps all of the above observations are “old hat” to veterans of the struggles that originally instituted Affirmative Action in the mid-1960s and after. It is crucial to recognize, however, what’s at stake in today’s very different political climate. The right-wing, racist offensive of 1995 marches, not openly under the banner of white male supremacy, but under cover, as indicated by the title of the California initiative: The ideology that is being reworked and perverted o reinstitute oppression is declared to be “color-blind,” “anti-discrimination,” and against “reverse racism.”

Another new factor is the appearance of Black Conservatives, such as Shelby Steele, who are available (for a fee) to provide testimony as to how they, too, as African Americans, have been victimized by Affirmative Action, suffering because their professional colleagues think that Black professionals did not get where they are through authentic “merit.”

Thus the ideological Newspeak today bears a certain resemblance to the early 1950s. At that time, too, partly under the aegis of liberal ideology, a campaign was waged against the left on the campuses, in the trade unions and throughout society in the name of protecting civil rights and “academic freedom” by purging the totalitarian “Communist Menace.” In order to defend “Free Speech,” loyalty oaths were instituted and suspected Reds hauled before investigating committees where they could only save themselves by “naming names.”

Then, as now, it was not hard to find a secondary reason to retreat from a principled struggle. It is true, for example, that Affirmative Action can be implemented in a variety of ways, not all of which are equally satisfactory. As Cornel West states in Race Matters (1993), “a class-based affirmative action” would have been a more desirable outcome of the struggles of the 1960s, but “an enforceable race-based — and later gender based — affirmative action policy was the best possible compromise and concession” (64).

The point is not to counterpose the former (impossible at present) to the latter (at least partially operable), but to defend what gains have been made as a stepping stone to an even more egalitarian future. For socialists, the immediate task is to advance the rights of the most oppressed without waiting.

Under capitalism — a system of needless scarcity in resources, income and employment, where therefore affirmative action tends to operate within a “zero-sum” dynamic — this means that in the short run some white workers and professionals probably won’t advance as quickly or get jobs that otherwise, given institutional racism, they would have obtained. The hidden assumption that white males “deserve” those jobs is, indeed, a profound effect as well as cause of institutional racism!

This is what has created such a crisis for conventional liberals, and neolibs like Bill Clinton, and points to the need for a socialist approach. The necessary complement to a defense of affirmative action is an economic program that demands jobs, decent living standards, guaranteed health care and child care for all. Nonetheless, as socialists we do not run from the conflict where it exists: We affirm the democratic legitimacy and necessity of programs that put the needs of the historically oppressed and discriminated-against first, ahead of “individual merit.”

To be sure, measures of “merit” are themselves dubious, given that racism, sexism and class bias permeate every aspect of our culture. Many markers of “achievement” (from degrees at certain elite schools to dressing or speaking in a certain manner) are suspect. On the other hand, as Roger Wilkins points out in the March 27th issue of the Nation, many of the widely circulated stories of “angry white men” who have allegedly been denied jobs, promotions and admissions to satisfy a quota, are reiterated and cited without ever being checked.

The results of Wilkins’ own investigation of a white historian, who published an article claiming that an “unqualified black” was at the last minute given the departmental chair for which the white historian was in line, shows that the same “horror story” fabrications are at work here as in the campaign against “Political Correctness.” In this instance the white historian had not even passed “the first threshold” in the search for the chair!

A Stand for Principle

Specific situations involve problems that are frequently complex, and there are all sorts of tactical matters that may or may not be appropriate to certain situations. For example, the question of when to demand quotas (“Affirmative Action with teeth”) cannot be determined abstractly but must flow from the specifics of the struggle.

Yet the existence of such complications, and the potential for misuse and abuse depending on the relationship of forces, are all the more reason for the left to be at the front of the battle line. Only this will insure that the rights of the oppressed are not put on the back burner — which is a justifiable fear on the part of many people of color and women, and one of the reasons why a vigorous defense of Affirmative Action by the organized and socialist left, especially by white activists, is so important. Indeed, such a response may greatly contribute to reversing the longstanding fragmentation of the left along color and gender as well as political lines.

ATC 56, May-June 1995