What They Don't Tell You about Affirmative Action

By Chappell, Kevin | Ebony, August 1995 | Go to article overview

What They Don't Tell You about Affirmative Action


Chappell, Kevin, Ebony


AFFIRMATIVE action is under attack Alike never before. Hiring goals, scholarship programs and set asides, once thought essential to bring minorities into America's mainstream, are being challenged from all directions. Several recent Supreme Court rulings have dealt setbacks to these preference programs and a Republican Congress has vowed to pass laws which stop government and businesses from correcting past discrimination by attracting, hiring, promoting and doing business with minorities.

Talk of the "angry White male" has grown to a fever pitch as White men say affirmative action takes what's meritoriously theirs and sympathetically gives it to unqualified Blacks. They say they're losing jobs, promotions, pay raises, educational opportunities and--along with them--the American Dream. Any effort on behalf of Blacks to catch up, they say is "reverse discrimination."

Lost in their emotional argument is the fact that affirmative action was designed to give qualified minorities a chance to compete on equal footing with Whites. And even though it has brought about some positive changes, equal opportunity for Blacks, for the most part, has remained more wishful thinking than fact. Black business owners continue to struggle competing with their White counterparts, Black students face lingering obstacles when seeking an education and Black workers experience an unemployment rate twice that of Whites and disproportionately hold dead-end, labor-intensive, low-paying jobs.

Legal pioneer William Coleman says he knows what can happen without affirmative action. The 74-year-old legendary Washington attorney and former secretary of transportation in President Ford's cabinet graduated 45 years ago at the top of his class at Harvard University's law School and was the first Black law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, but couldn't find a job in his hometown of Philadelphia. instead, he was forced to ride the train for hours every day from Philadelphia to New York City to work.

Coleman doesn't want people to ever forget the way things were before affirmative action, which he credits with giving Blacks opportunities they otherwise would never have had. He believes there is still more work to be done, not only in the legal field, but in virtually every aspect of American business.

Larry Huggins agrees. If you own a construction company that specializes in painting and concrete pouring like his Riteway Construction Services, downtown is where you want to be. There's nothing like colossal skyscrapers, stadiums and convention centers to keep the bread buttered. But before affirmative action, downtown was little more than sourdough for Huggins and other Black contractors who didn't have the connections to compete with larger White-owned firms. "We were limited to work in outlying areas of the inner-city," says Huggins, who went bankrupt before rebounding with affirmative action programs in Chicago in the late '70s. "Affirmative action really opened up the doors for minority contractors to grow...When the process opened up, that's when the growth came."

White men see that growth as a threat, even though they make up 33 percent of the U.S. population, while comprising 89 percent of the managers and professionals and 368 of the country's 400 wealthiest people. Meanwhile, more than half of the nation's maids and garbage collectors are Black, but only 4 percent of the nation's managers and 3 percent of physicians and lawyers are Black. In many parts of the country, college-educated Blacks continue to earn less than White high-school dropouts.

Huggin says to dismantle affirmative action now would be premature and disastrous. "As soon as they see some growth with some minorities, they want to cut out affirmative action," says Huggins, 45. "But you can't cut it out as long as racism exists in America."

Few can argue that racism is still rampant in awarding contracts, jobs and educational opportunities, even though it's been proven beneficial to have people of different races with different ideas and different experiences working toward the same goal. …

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