The Contemporary Argument for Affirmative Action

Affirmative action remains one of the most divisive issues today in contemporary race relations.  SCOTUS is set to rule again this Fall on the legality of affirmative action.  A decision is expected in early 2016 and there is little doubt that affirmative action will be a key issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.  The Supreme Court will hear Abigail Fisher’s appeal to her case against the University of Texas Austin.

Affirmative action has traditionally been framed as an effort to overcome past discrimination against racial minority groups.  This argument is a compelling one.  America’s history of explicit, and at the time, legal discrimination against minority groups is well documented.  We have the obvious examples of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, but discrimination did not end there.  We also had Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment camps, and more.  Anti-miscegenation laws, laws banning interracial marriage in some states, were only declared unconstitutional by SCOTUS in Loving v. Virgina in 1967!  These racist policies by the US government have deprived racial minorities of invaluable economic and social capital, making it very difficult for them to compete with White Americans who have not faced the same barriers.  Affirmative action, under this traditional argument, helps to level the playing field.

While this is a compelling reason for affirmative action, there are problems if it is the only reason.  It leads to the ever popular “reverse racism” argument.  In this belief system, White individuals become the ones who are the recipients of racism as they face more barriers to college admissions and employment with affirmative action. Under this logic, White men have the most difficult road to success in this country. Therefore, White men who do succeed must be exceptionally qualified.

This believe in reverse racism by White Americans is more prevalent than one might think as well. In a large national sample of Black and White Americans, it was found that a significant amount of White individuals believe that racism is a zero sum game they are now losing.  White participants in the study believed that anti-White bias has surpassed anti-Black bias. Black individuals in the study unsurprisingly did not have similar views.  No shit.

Furthermore, if the only reason for affirmative action is to overcome past racial discrimination, it reinforces the contemporary notion of a colorblind society.  It frames racism as a problem of the past.  It reassures Americans that racism is in fact a meritocracy where everyone gets what they “deserve.”  This blindness makes it very difficult to discuss racial inequality.

The reality is that the world is far from being colorblind. Racism continues to exist in modern society – it looks different and it feels different, but it’s still there.  Colleges and employers continue to favor White individuals and discriminate against people of color.  Discriminatory outcomes still occur today despite our intentions because of implicit bias.  The research tells us that explicit racial bias is largely unrelated to implicit bias.  In fact, meta-analysis examining self-report racial bias and implicit bias show that our implicit racial bias is more predictive of discriminatory behavior than our explicit bias.

What does this all mean though?  It means that many of us have racist beliefs we are not aware of and that these unknown beliefs have more of an impact on our actions.  These implicit racial biases are inherited from American culture. Messages regarding the value/worth of people based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and more are omnipresent in America. These messages demean the vast majority of people but bypass a certain group: heterosexual White men.  Think about the many stereotypes you have heard over the years for a second.  Can you think of any stereotypes that target heterosexual White men?  If you can, could these stereotypes negatively affect how they are perceived by a college or employer? The answer is most likely no.

This unconscious preferential treatment of heterosexual White men in selection decisions is also supported by research.  In the current color-blind system, we tend to only discriminate based on race when we can get away with it.  For example, when there is a very qualified Black individual for a job, discrimination tends not to occur. Discriminating against a very qualified Black individual can not be attributed to anything other than racism and would be clearly seen as racist. This changes however when a Black individual is only somewhat qualified.  When this occurs, bias happens.  This effect is so strong that Black individuals without a criminal record receive fewer callbacks for interviews than identically qualified White individuals WITH criminal records.

In essence, this means that we already have an unconscious affirmative action in place.  This informal affirmative action benefits White individuals, particularly White men.  Formal affirmative action is needed to balance the implicit biases we inhale from society.  Without formal affirmative action, racial inequalities will undoubtedly become worse.

While rectifying past discrimination against racial minorities is an important reason for having affirmative action, we should not forget that racism continues today.  We may not want to acknowledge its existence, but our indifference only perpetuates injustice.  I sincerely hope SCOTUS makes the right call on this one.

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