In Defense of Affirmative Action


In Slate today, author and journalist, Tanner Colby, wrote the second in a series of articles concerning what he calls The Massive Liberal Failure on Race. In it, he expounds on the failure of affirmative action to correct the problem of structural racism in the U.S., especially as it affects black people. Because of these failures, he suggests liberals eliminate affirmative action in favor of something else.

The article begins with some historical context, and then goes on to list affirmative action’s weaknesses, including these:

1) affirmative action was conceived of as a bribe offered by the Nixon administration to black America, and as such is just a dead end,

2) affirmative action is a racial preference program that hinges on “quotas and set-asides,”

3) affirmative action can only be enforced in the public sector but the real power and opportunity in society is the private sector where “there are no rules,”

4) the stigma affirmative action imposes on beneficiaries, apparently causing colleagues to whisper behind our backs, is one reason to discard it, and

5) affirmative action triggers racially reactionary politics.

As an affirmative action baby, my reaction to the article was immediate, visceral, and negative. Whatever the author’s intention, this racial justice advocate (who wouldn’t be in a position to respond to Colby’s rant without the help I once received from affirmative action) finds his argument to be an exercise in misinformation that is loaded with reactionary ideas. Here’s why.

First of all, affirmative action started out as a compromise between the federal government and racial justice advocates, not just as a bribe, though no doubt the Nixon administration conceived of it as such. As a compromise solution to the problem of persistent black poverty, affirmative action fails on many levels, and racial justice advocates are by no means unaware of these failures.

But the ultimate failure of affirmative action is not in it’s original design or intent. It lies in the fact that it functions within the context of a political and economic system that has inequity and unemployment built into it, and which, to boot, operates under federal and state constitutions that are intolerant of programs that explicitly address race. Unless we can deal with these fundamental problems, no solutions will truly resolve racial inequity, much less social and economic injustice more generally.

Second, affirmative action does not include quotas and set-asides. While raising the specter of racial quotas is a staple of race reactionaries, quotas have been illegal since the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke SCOTUS decision in 1978. In fact, the absence of quotas is one of the problems with affirmative action.

Third, while it is certainly a lot easier to enforce affirmative action in the public sector, the fact that the private sector can’t be forced to truly institute it because it “has no rules,” as Colby writes, isn’t a reason to throw affirmative action out. It’s a reason to impose rules on the private sector.

Fourth, the uproar over the “stigma” of affirmative action makes a mountain out of a molehill. Affirmative action only insists that certain measures are undertaken to ensure that the pool of applicants for public contracts and employment reflects the racial diversity of those who are qualified to do the work. Only at the point when equally qualified people are competing for a job does race become a factor. Anyway, I’d rather be employed in a job my colleagues think I got because of a racial preference than be unemployed, maybe because of a racial preference.

Instead of worrying about the stigma of affirmative action, I suggest we concentrate instead on ending the stigma imposed by racism. After all, isn’t that why folks are whispering about a colleague of color being unqualified but in their job nonetheless because of affirmative action?

Fifth, affirmative action isn’t a trigger of racially reactionary politics. Racism is a trigger of racially reactionary politics. There’s a difference.

But my biggest concern is Colby’s “solution” which, unlike his specious claims about affirmative action actually stand to gain some traction.  In the article, he suggests the following:

Right now, the Democratic party and the racial justice movement are sitting on a junk heap [emphasis mine] of racial preference programs that aren’t doing anyone much good, and they lack the substantive programs they need: a true, New Deal–style reformation that repairs the infrastructure of our cities, ends mass incarceration, provides access to early education and paid family leave and job training and other programs that put all of black America on more solid footing. Since Republicans seem to want affirmative action gone so badly, if it were me, I’d be out horse trading. Just as the Obama administration is letting Washington and Colorado opt out of federal marijuana prohibition, let state and local governments opt out of affirmative action mandates, but only in exchange for opting in on universal pre-K and other things that working families actually need.

I wish Colby would be more explicit about this so-called “junk heap” of racial preference programs that racial justice advocates are supposed to be sitting on because I’d like to use a few. If he means the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, or any of the programs created under these acts, he’s obviously confused. They exist to end racial preferences, not to codify them.

But on the subject of his proposal that we trade away affirmative action for universal public investment, Colby is really barking up the wrong tree. I’m in agreement that a new New Deal that doesn’t exclude blacks in the way the last one did would be a good thing, but unless this 21st century New Deal explicitly addresses racial inequity, it won’t achieve anything like racial justice.

The experience of the University of California is instructive. Here’s what they had to say in the amicus brief submitted in support of the University of Texas in the Fisher case that went before SCOTUS last year.

In November 1996…California voters enacted Article I, Section 31 of the state Constitution, widely known as Proposition 209, which provides that “[t]he state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

Proposition 209, which took effect for undergraduate admissions in 1998, had an immediate and dramatic adverse effect on the admission and enrollment of underrepresented minority students at the University of California. In the ensuing years, the University of California has adopted a number of different strategies in an attempt to reverse that decline in underrepresented minority students, including expanding its outreach program to secondary schools, incorporating a broader and more comprehensive set of admissions criteria, adopting “holistic” review of applicants, decreasing the weight given to standardized tests, and admitting a specified percentage of the top graduates from each high school under an “Eligibility in the Local Context” program similar in certain respects to UT’s “Top Ten Percent” Program. To date, however, those measures have enjoyed only limited success. They have not enabled the University of California fully to reverse the precipitous decline in minority admission and enrollment that followed the enactment of Proposition 209, nor to keep pace with the growing population of underrepresented minorities in the applicant pool of qualified high school graduates.
What California learned when affirmative action in that state was banned is that attempts to achieve racial equity that don’t explicitly name race and give preference to people of color don’t work. In a racially inequitable society, color blind solutions end up reflecting that inequitable context and often even contributes to its perpetuation.
So, okay, affirmative action is far from a perfect solution. And, yes, we need to formulate alternatives and not just continue defending something that doesn’t get to the roots of racial inequity. But, to suggest that we engage in horse trading over affirmative action is just wrong. It’s not the supposedly negative effect of affirmative action, neither on people of color nor on white people, that has made it such a hot button issue. What’s got the temperature up around affirmative action is the phantom of reverse racism. And conceding to that is, well, just racist.And because of the ubiquity of racism, giving up on affirmative action in order to win universal solutions that don’t specifically address race will neither assuage the racially charged fears of white Americans, nor will it achieve racial equity.Anyway, call me an entitlement junkie if you like, but I don’t see why we can’t have both. The benefit of broad public investment on communities of color will be magnified by affirmative action, and should therefore not be won at it’s expense.
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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.

10 replies on “In Defense of Affirmative Action”

The problem is white people, they are the reason why affirmative action or other corrective actions are not working. All the negativity that white people are painting on affirmative action is a hoax. They are not against affirmative action, they are against affirmative action for people that are not white. White people have had affirmative action, preferential treatment, set-asides, entitlements and other benefits explicitly on the basis of race for several centuries already. All of a sudden they say it is a bad thing when non-white people are trying to get what they need. The Bakke and Fisher cases are good examples of white people using their power to counter corrective measures and hinder justice — blatant acts of racism. When white people say that they are against affirmative action or the like, what they are really saying is, “I’m a white supremacist. I want to continue practicing racism and maintain the status quo.”

Thanks for this comment, Rashnu. I think you make some very good points about how racial set asides and entitlements, preferential treatment, and exclusion of people of color from certain jobs, land ownership, etc., have functioned as a form of affirmative action for white people for a long time now. It is because of this history that programs like affirmative action as we now understand it are necessary. It is also important to keep in mind that white women have also benefited from affirmative action. The fact that they aren’t who comes to mind when debates over affirmative action come up is a powerful indication of why it is that affirmative action is such a hot issue. It’s not what is gained or loss that is at stake, but issues of identity and entitlement that are deeply rooted in our culture.

I won’t lie: this dude gets permanent side-eye from me, because of the following passage from another of his articles on race (this one, concerning SNL):

[I]t’s not just SNL that needs more racial integration. Comedians do, in their personal lives. Which will require a greater commitment on the part of government to create housing, education, and other policies that allow for greater social mobility for minorities, a willingness on the part of white people to learn how to share their toys, and a willingness on the part of black people to jettison romantic notions of multiculturalism and ethic nationalism and to jump in the melting pot with the rest of us … a fundamental reordering of society, in other words. (emphasis added)

That this guy thinks the U.S.’s “race problem” is partly due to black people just not wanting to assimilate into mainstream society betrays his fundamental ignorance of U.S. history. As a result, I do not think he is not a credible analyst on this topic.

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