For the sake of deviating from tradition, I thought I’d try to peer into the mind of a racist. Doing so took me to the hotly debated topic of affirmative action, which is going before the Supreme Court this week. Here are a few reasons why some folks say that affirmative action is as played out as the eight-track tape:
1) Affirmative action is reverse discrimination: Out of all the silly reasons to hate affirmative action, this is probably the most popular. The idea of reverse discrimination is interesting, because it helps to alleviate millions of Americans from the guilt of what their ancestors did to Black people for more than 400 years.
Reverse discrimination promotes the idea of entitlement. It says that even though White family wealth is several times greater than that of Black families, White folks are somehow being harmed by no longer having complete and total dominance over our society.
We all know just how oppressed the White man has been in America. If only white guys could catch a break!
2) Slavery and Jim Crow are in the past: The easiest way to be deemed a “radical and angry Black man/woman” at work is to bring up the past. Now that we are holding hands and singing, “We shall overcome,” at Martin Luther King Jr. dinners every year, people think that the past has just disappeared in the wind. If only convicted murderers could use this “let-bygones-be-bygones” defense in the court of law.
The problem with the “past is the past” argument is that the past creates the present. You can’t understand America’s racial inequality without understanding how we built it. As a result of a 400-year commitment to forcing one group of people to be subjugated by another, Black children are less likely to get a good education at their inner city schools, Black families have far less wealth than Whites, and most major corporations and universities are controlled by Whites. The list goes on and on. So, to argue that the past doesn’t matter is to ignore everything that made us into what we are today.
Additionally, the damage that has been done in the past is only going to be corrected if we choose to fix it. A few years of good intentions is not going to do the trick.
3) Affirmative action promotes unqualified Black people: One of the easiest ways to perpetuate the on-going inferiority complex of African Americans is to convince us to seek validation from the descendants of our historical oppressors. When I sought promotion at Syracuse University, I had a bunch of people who’d never promoted a Black person in more than 100 years telling me that I wasn’t good enough, while Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Michael Eric Dyson, and Cornel West were saying that I am very good at my job. Of course, none of my colleagues cared what any of these individuals thought, because they’d been pre-programmed to disrespect Black people, Black scholars, and Black public figures. Getting approval from the right white guy, though, would have pushed me right to the top.
The challenge I experienced is similar to what millions of Black folks go through all across America: You are rarely going to be rewarded or validated in a system that is designed to deem you to be inferior. That’s why millions of intelligent Black boys are placed in special education and millions of Black adults waddle their way through irrational stigmas, perpetual frustration, and relentless glass ceilings in corporate America: Being who you are is a crime, so you spend your life trying to become somebody else. It is unfortunate, but true, that in light of all the cultural biases that lead us to be defined as inferior, affirmative action is necessary for us to even get a shot.
4) America is (allegedly) the land of opportunity: For some reason, there are those who think that racial inequality is going to go away just because we’ve decided to stop being racist. That’s no different from thinking that the milk I spilled on the floor is going to clean itself up if I promise not to spill anymore milk. Aiming for equal opportunity — which still doesn’t exist for kids who are plagued by horrible inner city schools — is quite the noble cause, but it doesn’t change the fact that many of the important decisions of major institutions are being made by White men.
While some want to believe that equal opportunity is the simple fix to complex structural inequality, the fact is that ladders of opportunity tend to be lowered to people who look like those in power. A young Black male in corporate America is not likely to have managers who care enough to give him access to the same opportunities he might receive from another Black man. So pretending that an undeniably biased system of hiring and promotion is based on merit is simply delusional.
The bottom line here is that America remains racially broken. It’s not because people wake up every morning hell bent on oppressing black people. It’s because you can’t spend 400 years building a structurally imbalanced society and then hope that it will clean itself up. You must be affirmatively determined to make things right, which is why we actually do need affirmative action.