Since the inception in the 1940’s of Affirmative Action in the United States, during the apex of the Civil Rights Movement, many US administrations, beginning with John F. Kennedy and climaxing with Lyndon B. Johnson, proposed and instituted a series of laws, practices, and policies to aid in dismantling the racially discriminatory practices that were prevalent in the workforce and institutions of higher learning. These policies, called “affirmative action” had the most lasting and meaningful impact on minorities, especially women. The goal of affirmative action was to afford equal opportunities to qualified minorities in the workforce and in higher education who otherwise would not have been given the opportunity. However, when affirmative action is discussed, what unfortunately isn’t part of the public narrative or discussed in great length, is how especially white women more than any other group have benefited the most from affirmative action. According to Sally Kohn (Time Inc., June 17, 2013), “affirmative action has helped white women more than anyone.”
In the work force, black families especially black men, but more notably black women in particular, have benefited the least from affirmative action when measured against the economic benefits enjoyed by their white counterparts. According to statistics from the Department of Labor, in 2014, “black women earned an average $33,533 compared to white women earning roughly $41,822.” Although black women historically have had high labor force participation rates compared to other women, they still earned less than white and non-Hispanic women. The poverty rate for black families is at a high of 33.8% compared to 21.0% for whites and non-Hispanic families. Black men fared even worse, with black men making roughly $40,719 compared to white, non-Hispanic men making roughly $55,470 more in income. The good news for black women is that “over 9 in 10 black women in the labor force had at least a high school diploma, and 3 in 10 were college graduates.” The statistics also suggested that “black women with a college degree earned over 2 times more and their unemployment rate was 4 times lower compared to black women with no high school diploma.”
Academically, the percentage of black women not graduating from high school is about 27.3% compared to white women at 22.3%. When compared to having obtained a Bachelor’s degree and higher, black women account for 30.4% while white, non- Hispanic women account for 45.2%. Studies have shown that blacks that have attended competitive colleges and may have benefited from affirmative action. However the reality is that they did not need it from an academic stand point, since they were academically on par with their white counterparts and were from competitively educated middle black upper class.
The emotional tolls for blacks that do find themselves in certain institutions of privilege, varies from feeling a sense of accomplishment to consistently questioning whether their admission to that Ivy league university or big 10 law firm is due in part to their skin color and not their aptitude. For highly competitive blacks living with that self-doubt and having to reassure themselves constantly that they earned the right to attend those institutions of privilege, takes tremendous energy to summon the strength to carry-on.
Arguments Against Affirmative Action
Opponents against affirmative action based their arguments in part on the sophistry that “unqualified blacks have unfairly benefited greatly from affirmative action to the detriment of whites.” Intuitively, this argument subtly supposes that there are no unqualified whites existing among their counterparts. Critics of affirmative action further argue that constitutionally, affirmative action is a form of reversed racism and thus unconstitutional. Some critics have even suggested that affirmative action actually further strengthens class inequality and reinforces negative stereotypes about blacks not being “smart enough”. As a result, over the years we have seen an increase in court and state challenges on the constitutionality of affirmative action from Fisher v. University of Texas; California (Proposition 209) to Grutter v. Bollinger.
Arguments For Affirmative Action
On the other hand, supporters for affirmative action have argued both from a legal and formative position that affirmative action is needed even more today than before, and if administered as intended, would correct the years of discrimination against all minorities and not just white women. These supporters advocate for affirmative action as a way of ensuring diversity in the schools and workplace. They affirm affirmative action as the most appropriate remedy for the historic pattern of discrimination that arose from years of oppression and an unequal competitive playing field.
A Flawed Design and Administration of Affirmative Action
Although affirmative action was meant to correct not only discrimination against all minorities (women and blacks included), nevertheless it failed to carry out its stated goal. It is possible that from a design perspective, affirmative action has been least beneficial to blacks as a class of people. Coincidentally, many companies through federal laws have instituted affirmative action as a goal oriented policy. So although there has been an increase in blacks in the work force they still lag behind that of their white, non-Hispanic counterparts in pay, promotion and equal opportunities. The prevailing perception among many is that “unqualified blacks” are benefitting from affirmative action. This perception has become reality for some and we need to combat this perception with comparative facts.
Disastrous Results Of Affirmative Action In The Form Of Stereotype Threat
Blacks that are highly successful in very competitive fields, find themselves bombarded with what Carrier Conaway describes as “stereotype threat.” In her research paper entitled “A Psychological Effect Of Stereotypes,” Conway goes on to explain “this threat is pernicious because it is not due to active discrimination by employers, teachers, or other external evaluators; rather, it comes from within. It emerges in situations where people worry that their poor performance on some measure might be attributed not to their personal ability, but to a negative stereotype about a group they belong to—women, African-Americans, athletes, liberals, any group at all.” Not only do blacks have to contend with competing with their white, non-Hispanic counterparts, but despite their success, blacks are constantly reevaluating their worth and belongingness.
Affirmative action is about providing equal opportunity and recalibrating the long-standing economic imbalance in our society brought by discrimination. Affirmative action on a whole has been helpful for women, but some would like you to believe that it provides a free ride to undeserving blacks. This error in perceptual thinking about who benefits the most from affirmative action, is no different than the same perceived errors in assuming that blacks are the biggest beneficiary of government safety net, when in reality working-class whites benefit more. The essence of affirmative action is to give equal opportunity to qualified, under-represented individuals who otherwise would not have been given the opportunity to compete equally. The greatest strength about affirmative action (economic equity) is also its greatest source of weakness for blacks who are still struggling to equal their white counterparts in salary and wealth. The least discussed blowback from affirmative action for blacks is that it has been a disastrous experiment, in that highly competitive blacks live under the constant stereotyped threat of always second guessing themselves.