By Elwood Watson
A few weeks ago, the anti-affirmative action ballot measure in Arizona that was supported by Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Black conservative opportunist and hypocrite Ward Connerly failed to garner enough support to be placed on the ballot. Earlier this year, a similar referendum in Oklahoma faced a similar fate. I must admit that I was surprised, yet, gratified to see voters of the traditionally conservative states reject these disingenuous initiatives that were put forth by Connerly and his merry little band of dishonest distorters.
After all, there have been more than a few individuals in the Republican Party who have opposition to affirmative action, an unwritten plank of the GOP platform. What is often interesting is the fact many Republicans and others who oppose affirmative action argue is that what they want is a color-blind society. My response to this is that many of us across racial lines would like to see our nation and the world at large evolve into such a force; however, the sad reality is that we do not live in a society that resembles such a racial utopia by any standard of the imagination. While it is true that affirmative action has been instrumental in integrating many previous segregated institutions, White people have very little to be alarmed about in regards to such a policy.
In fact, many businesses and corporations have avidly adopted such inclusionary measures, realizing such a practice that makes good business sense. This was evident when many of these institutions banned together to rally in support for affirmative action which was partly upheld by the Supreme Court. Moreover, it should be well known by now that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action are White professional women.
Because Blacks, non-European Latinos and many women, for the most part, have not achieved relative parity with White males, the rationale for such a program still exists. In addition, affirmative action should not be seen as an entity that rewards subpar and incompetent minorities. The vast majority of Blacks who have benefitted from affirmative action are qualified individuals who are fully competent to hold the positions they hold. This is not to say that there have not been some bad apples that were not quite ripe enough; however, they were certainly outnumbered by the juicy ones bursting with flavor. Think of all the White males who were are, in some cases, incompetent in their positions but nonetheless routinely received jobs (and in some cases promotions) due to the fact that they were part of the “good ol’boy” network and had the correct plumbing. Veteran status, children of legacies, geographical location are all forms of affirmative action as well.
As a historian, I can attest to the fact that Whites have had ample opportunities due to affirmative action. The GI Bill is a classic case in point. This bill signed into law by the U.S. Congress after World War II made it possible for millions of White American men (and a number of Black men including my father ) of modest backgrounds to attend college and become part of the American mainstream. This program produced an entire new generation of middle- and upper-class families. Men who grew up on farms or economically depressed urban areas in Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Delaware and so on were afforded the opportunity to attend colleges and universities that many would probably not have been able to attend and earned their Ph.D.’s, JD’s. MBA’s and MD’s. This was the most glaring example of affirmative action in this nation’s history. Ira Katznelson’s book When Affirmative Action Was White provides a fascinating, much understudied history of this topic.
White men comprise about 40 percent of the American population, yet they represent 85 percent of tenured college faculty positions, 86 percent of partners in law firms, 90 percent of mainstream news media personalities and 96 percent of CEO’s. Such percentages have not happened without accident. Such a situation reminds me of the response that the late former first lady Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson gave to reporters when a number of them inquired as to why her husband President Lyndon Johnson had a disproportionate number of non-Ivy League graduates in his cabinet and White House who held influential posts as opposed to the traditional Ivy-League graduates who often occupied and dominated such positions. To paraphrase Ms. Johnson, she said ‘because Lyndon and I refuse to believe that God gave out brains that unevenly.’ They were both correct. The same analogy applies to White men.
There are a sizable number of people (including some Black people) who argue that we need to refocus affirmative action in terms of class as opposed to race. While this idea is one that should be included to expand the policy, the fact is that the majority of discrimination that takes place in American society is racially based. Without affirmative action many institutions would not have desegregated and without consistent pressure would very well – no matter how politely or in no uncertain terms—close their doors to minorities and, in some cases, women.
The fact is that while we may be on the verge of electing our first Black president, the more pressing reality is that while America is a colorful society, it is far from being a color-blind society. As long as people continue to deny an individual access to something due to his or her race, gender or, in some cases, religion, then affirmative action will be a necessity.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)