The Stigma of Affirmative Action

Stigma: (stgm)
1. A mark or token of infamy, disgrace, or reproach
2. A small mark; a scar or birthmark.

While in Atlanta recently I went on a walk through Piedmont Park with a friend who works in higher ed and a colleague of his, an academic. We were three men of color, two African Americans and me, and all racial justice advocates. Unsurprising then that we would eventually get around to the subject of affirmative action.

I am an affirmative action baby. The combination of affirmative action, life experience, and a high written test score made up the point difference in the civil service scoring system in a competition for a job as a food stamp worker between me, with no education beyond high school at the time, and my white competitors with college degrees. That job led to every other white collar job I’ve had since.

The discussion moved to recent concern over the stigma of affirmative action on people of color. Studies like this one suggest that,

“If white students believe that many of their black peers would not be at a college were it not for affirmative action and, more important, if black students perceive whites to believe that, then affirmation action may indeed undermine minority-group members’ academic performance by heightening the social stigma they already experience because of race or ethnicity…”

Many have exploited this concern to argue against affirmative action. They overlook the fact that the study also finds that there are at least two other groups that enjoy a leg up in admissions, and these groups aren’t stigmatized, arguing,

“If minority students were welcomed and supported at selective institutions in the same way that star athletes and legacy students routinely are, the grade performance of black and Latino students might improve markedly…But, if anything, elite colleges and universities now seem to be doing the opposite of wisely intervening in support of minority students.”

So the problem is obviously that some white students with bad attitudes stigmatize affirmative action and their institutions don’t intervene.

Yet, the debate wages on. Some students of color who were admitted without help have added fuel to the fire, complaining that affirmative action should be eliminated so that the purity of their achievement isn’t sullied by the stigma of affirmative action. This, my walking companions were quick to point out, is b.s., and not just because it concedes to racism while putting the protection of the social benefits of achievement above intervening against suffering and exclusion in order of importance, which is the problem in the first place, right?

Stigma is a mark on the skin. If you want to talk stigma, one friend said, “the color of my skin is the stigma. If someone has a problem with me being in my job, my blackness is the issue, not whether or not I got in because of affirmative action. Complaining about affirmative action is just another way of saying I couldn’t possibly be qualified for this job because I’m Black.”

I know that if it wasn’t for affirmative action, I would probably never have gotten the job in the food stamps program that hoisted me out of the working class. Before that job, I was a social worker in a very unconventional youth and family service organization. But that job, despite my being a management level employee, wasn’t a career track for me because new Reagan-era standards of professionalism meant my lack of a college degree would prohibit me from managing cases where federal funding was involved. The only other jobs I’d ever had was as an agricultural worker, an elementary school janitor, and a pot scrubber.

Affirmative action gave me a chance to compete. I got an interview. Once managers in the food stamps program were able to evaluate me and my experience personally, I got the job. If I suffered from the so-called stigma of affirmative action on that job, I didn’t notice, but then maybe only because any stigma paled in comparison to the stigmata borne by the laboring class I would have been returned to if not for that opportunity – sunburn on the back of my neck, callouses, blisters, chemical burns, and relative poverty.



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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

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