Affirmative Action and the Post Racial Trap
by Afrah (the third in a series of three posts on affirmative action)
Affirmative Action got its start in the 1970s as a conservative program that had the support of the Republican administration of Richard Nixon. A combination of the civil rights movement call for change and black student led protest for increased access to majority white college campuses provided the context for the implementation of affirmative action. The purpose of the program was to increase the number of women and historically underrepresented minorities in employment and education. Despite the very auspicious beginnings of a policy that had liberal and conservative support, the backlash began soon thereafter. During the 1970s, the main criticism came from supporters of a so-called colorblind policy. The current day post racial critique of affirmative action is colorblindness that has been updated and repackaged for the new millennium. Despite its seemingly neutral and laudatory goals, the true purpose of post racialism is to undermine a program that is essential for continued opportunities for people of color.
The 1970s laid the foundation to the eventual conservative political ascendancy that was deeply critical of the racial advancements of the civil rights movement. The right was able to complete a bit of historic revisionism in embracing the “good” 1960s ideology of colorblindness. They shaped a new racial narrative by employing civil rights rhetoric to critique and attempt to dismantle a program that provided for racial progress. This sort of political positioning was a brilliant and cynical element of the conservative battle against affirmative action. They claimed the unassailable moral high ground while advocating for the policy’s demise.It is perhaps unremarkable that the Republicans soon reversed their position and led the political fight to end the program. The 1978 case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, denied the constitutionality of an explicit racial quota system in admission. The Bakke decision was a measured victory for opponents of affirmative action. Harvard University’s amicus brief was instrumental in the shaping of the Bakke ruling that left colleges free to consider race as one element in a range of student attributes during the admissions process. The ruling explicitly banned quotas and specific numerical goals for its minority admissions. Another major landmark in the fight against affirmative action was also located in California politics came in the form of Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action throughout the University of California system in 1996.
By the late 1990s a visible cohort of African American conservatives became vocal critics of affirmative action. The University of California Regent Ward Connerly and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave credence to the idea that the policy led to elevating underachieving (and therefore undeserving) students of color for admission to elite institutions. These were the “affirmative action babies,” that were not academically qualified, angry, radical. Although the popular narrative inflated and misread the empirical data, students of color who attended college and graduate school during this era had to combat the poor national and campus reputation that unfairly targeted recipients of affirmative action.
This brings us to the present day post racial imaginings of people in all areas of the political spectrum that has targeted affirmative action. This concept reached a fever pitch with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. It contains a seductive and triumphal reading of our collective racial past. Proponents argue that affirmative action should be relegated to the past due to the racial advancement of the past four decades. There undoubtedly has been dramatic improvement in the educational, employment opportunities, and income for people of color. Yet there are still real disparities between white achievement and black and Latino opportunities. There is an even bigger problem of persistent poverty in communities of color that affirmative action does not address. Affirmative action is an important program that benefits stable working class and middle class. Post racialism flies in the face of a sophisticated and nuanced reading of the social and economic position of people of color. The post-racial position contains a simple self-denying ordinance: if we do not talk about race, perhaps it will go away. It is a feel good, do nothing belief. We have to fully and completely acknowledge race and continue programs like affirmative action if there is any hope of truly obtaining racial justice.