Keeping the Affirmative Action Debate in Context

Article excerpt

With Sen. Barack Obama just one step away from the presidency of the United States, many are questioning the need for affirmative action.

We stand on the cusp of an epic moment the chance to vote into office the first Black president in the history of the United States. This historic event is set to potentially redefine and reframe the manner in which we speak about and handle, race in America. However, as we embark down this never before traveled path, it is critical that we keep in mind the historic events that have enabled someone like Sen. Barack Obama to ascend to the highest levels of politics.

Some have already begun to argue that, as evidenced by the senator's success, the time has come to dismantle affirmative action programs. Anti-affirmative action proponents further argue the fact that a Black man stands one step away from the presidency of the United States is proof enough that the time has come to end all affirmative action programs. A historical accounting will tell us otherwise. A historical accounting would posit that Sen. Obama's ascendancy into politics has been, in part, because of, not in spite of, affirmative action programs.

However, most discussions and arguments about affirmative action happen within a historical vacuum. Close analysis reveals that affirmative action has been decoupled from its historical roots, resulting in an ahistorical and acontextual framing of the policy that misinforms the general public as well as scholars and political pundits. Unfortunately, what results is a popular narrative that defines affirmative action around sound bites. This ahistorical and acontextual narrative frames the policy as nothing more than "out-dated" and "preference-laden" "quota systems." These buzz words not only sensationalize and corrupt sincere discussions around the policy, they prejudice and completely ignore the important historical events that have helped usher in social justice programs like affirmative action.

The fact is that affirmative action programs did not spring forth in a benevolent fit of innocent altruism. Rather, it is essential to recognize that the origins of affirmative action are very much intertwined with, and drawn from, a bloody, calculated and political socio-historical moment within American history. During the 1960s, as poor and working class neighborhoods erupted in the face of agony and despair, the federal government welcomed affirmative action programs as a way to placate an ever-demanding public that questioned, among other things, rampant racism, an ill-conceived war, and the bankruptcy and deindustrialization of their local communities. Ironically, some of these arguments continue to ring true.

Affirmative action, then, was conceived as much a policy of convenience, or of "interest convergence," as a policy of good faith, according to Derrick Bell, a visiting professor of law at New York University. …