Affirmative Action and the Persistence of Racism

By Stein, Nancy | Social Justice, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Affirmative Action and the Persistence of Racism


Stein, Nancy, Social Justice


The attack on affirmative action is only the latest in a series of efforts to roll back the rights of people of color, as seen in the passage of Proposition 187 -- California's anti-immigrant initiative -- in the various three-strikes measures approved around the country, and in "welfare reform proposals," among others. Conservativeothers. Conservative ideologues seek to eliminate entitlement programs that benefit the poor by tapping into both the racism that has become increasingly legitimate since the Reagan administration and the fear engendered by the growing scarcity of jobs and economic opportunity.

Today's attack on affirmative action is represented most strongly in the politically motivated vote by the regents of the University of California in July 1995 to do away with affirmative action programs in admissions, hiring, and contracts. The regents are appointed by the governor and Governor Pete Wilson has received financial contributions from many of them. Wilson, who has made overturning affirmative action a centerpiece of his presidential election campaign, used this leverage to pressure the regents. In addition, conservative forces in California are proceeding with their efforts to place an initiative on the ballot in 1996 that would dismantle public affirmative action programs (CCRI, 1994; Dellios, 1994). Senator Dole and other Republican presidential candidates are also embracing the attack and conservative legislators are going after affirmative action at the national level.

There is a reservoir of resentment and bitterness in much of white America, particularly among white men, against any effort to eliminate discrimination by giving preferential treatment to people of color, who are seen as undeserving or as having already benefited enough from such programs. This article will examine the history of this contentious policy since its passage 30 years ago and the underlying values and ideological assumptions represented in the attack on affirmative action, particularly given the context of the persistence of racism in this society.

What Is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action is a complex policy, designed to end discrimination in hiring, college admissions, and the awarding of contracts. The definition of affirmative action contained in the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures developed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other government agencies states that:

... affirmative action is one part of an effort to remedy past and present

discrimination and is considered essential to assuring that jobs are

"genuinely and equally accessible to qualified persons, without regard to their sex,

racial, or ethnic characteristics" (Greene, 1989: 1).

Affirmative action was initially conceived as a temporary measure to compensate for the years of slavery and it was hoped that it would lead to equal opportunity for all (Edmonds, 1994: 22). Its purpose was to increase equity and opportunity, to permit race and, subsequently, gender to become a factor in hiring, contracting, admissions, and financial aid (Stimpson, 1993: 4). lt justified using unequal means to achieve greater equality among diverse groups of people, which would contribute to the "public welfare because it reduces poverty and inequalities..." (Greene, 1989:9).

The Statutory Basis of Affirmative Action

The roots of affirmative action policy were contained in the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VII, which is the statutory basis of affirmative action in private employment. Title VII (as amended in 1972) bans all discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Although the language of Title VII refers to race in general, the impetus for this policy was to address the conditions of Black people in this country. For millions of African Americans, equal access to economic and educational opportunity was systematically denied for hundreds of years. …

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