A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2000

A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2000

A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2000

A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2000


What is it about affirmative action that makes this public policy one of the most contentious political issues in the United States today?

The answer to this question cannot be found by studying the recent past or current events. To understand the current debate over affirmative action, we must grapple with all of America's racial history, from colonial times, through slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights era, to the present day. Philip Rubio argues that misunderstanding the history of affirmative action is the principal reason that most white people have difficulty in seeing their historical and current privilege.

He combines African American, labor, and social history with thirty years of personal experience as a blue-collar worker, labor and community activist, jazz musician, and writer to examine the roots of this debate. He maintains that we are not asking the right question. The real issue, he argues, is not whether African Americans should receive compensatory treatment to correct past and present discrimination, but, rather, why whites should continue to receive preferences based on skin color.

He argues that America was conceived and continues to reshape itself not on a system of meritorious achievement or equal opportunity but on a system of white preferences and quotas that are defended both actively and passively by white people. Tracing the development of the old legal initiative known as "affirmative action" (based on the principle of equity in English common law), he shows how affirmative action today has become transformed in American folklore and popular culture into something akin to the "Black Power" slogan of the late 1960s. Rather than anew and radical program, he shows that affirmative action is only the most recent challenge to the system of white privilege brought about by a long tradition of black protest.

Affirmative action is not simply legislated p


Just as the words “Freedmen's Bureau” once invoked anger and derision among many whites during Reconstruction according to the brilliant African American scholar, writer, and human rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk, merely advocating for “affirmative action” today often provokes a similar response—despite the potential and actual benefits for all people contained in both programs. Why does just the mere mention of those modest compensatory civil rights enforcement programs known as affirmative action drive so many white people crazy? And why does the principal and most effective opposition come from white working people and not CEOs? Have white workers simply been manipulated, as some have suggested, or is their opposition autonomous and has this issue struck a nerve?

Is all the fuss really just over the issue of “fairness, ” as we often hear? Have we already achieved “equal opportunity, ” and does affirmative action actually compromise that ideal? Or does “opportunity” in the United States really mean getting some kind of personal connection, or “hook-up”—especially one based on the accident of white skin? And why are so many African Americans as well as other people of color so ambivalent on this issue? Doesn't affirmative action by definition represent a civil rights gain, or is there something about it that also evokes memories of white condescension?

These and other intriguing questions provoked me to start researching and writing this book in 1996, the year that a substantial majority of California voters (including a large number of blacks, Chicanos, and Asians) voted for the successful anti-affirmative action referendum known as Proposition 209. But . . .

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