Doing the Work: Why We Need Affirmative Action

By Wilkins, Roger | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Doing the Work: Why We Need Affirmative Action


Wilkins, Roger, The Virginia Quarterly Review


The arguments about whether affirmative action has run its course, has accomplished its purposes, or now constitutes an enshrined system of discrimination against white people contain so little historical perspective that they are eviscerated at the core. They remind me of trees felled by a hurricane. Most of these arguments seem to locate our entire racial history in a period beginning at about the end of World War II, with the defining events being the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In this picture, slavery is buried so far back in historical mists as to be irrelevant and the actions of the nation in the sixties so powerful as to have settled our entire racial future.

Such a reading of our nation's racial problem is dead wrong. Racism had been at the core of our culture for more than a century before we became a country. Then as soon as we became a country, Congress enshrined racism in our laws by enacting an immigration law that provided that only whites could become citizens of the United States. And, of course, by that time, slavery was a bedrock of the American economy. So the poison of racism and the damage it would do to future generations of Americans of all colors had shaped and damaged us deeply long before President Washington had completed his first term.

Race consciousness in the eastern colonies surely began on the day in 1607 when the initial group of English settlers of Jamestown first encountered the people who already lived here. Within a few years-and before the first blacks arrived in 1619-Captain John Smith was suggesting that the natives ought to be enslaved and forced to do the drudge work of the colony so that Englishmen could be released to pursue the arts, literature, and other pleasures. The history of blacks and whites on this continent includes approximately 250 years of slavery followed by 100 years of legal and cultural oppression (which sometimes included violence at the hands of ad hoc mobs, lawless peace officers, or terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan). In the 38 years since 1965 there has been something else; not slavery or ocean-to-ocean oppression. There has been real progress. Formal segregation has virtually disappeared and the best-prepared blacks in the country now have access to full, rich lives. Nevertheless, the country is still so full of preferences for white people and profound hurdles for the least fortunate blacks that we can claim nothing that approaches full equality. Thus, the real question to be asked, it seems to me, is whether what this history has done to us-black and white alike (with serious repercussions on Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanics as well)-leaves us all, as a people, in a condition to abandon a program which is prodding us to desegregate some of the gateways to the most influential pursuits and occupations available to American citizens. These occupations if practiced by a richly diverse cross section of Americans might help us see our problems more clearly, know each other more deeply, and therefore heal our country and each other more quickly.

Our national history on this subject is shot through with denials, the two most prominent of which are: first, that the treatment of blacks in this country hasn't been all that bad and, second, that the medicine required to cure it, therefore, need only be medium strong and administered over a fairly short period of time. The stories of the surges of idealism in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries are instructive. The strong post-Revolutionary impulse to end slavery, propelled by the soaring idealism of the Revolution, had, by and large, petered out by the turn of the igth century because the invention of the cotton gin had increased the profitability of slavery. The post-Civil War Reconstructionist impulse to raise the newly-freedmen up to a condition where they could be full citizens of the nation was brutally crushed by the sordid deal that handed the 1876 presidential election to the Republicans. …

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