Affirmative Action Revisited

I saw this short post on Time’s Detroit Blog today: Still Getting It Wrong on Affirmative Action. In it, blogger Darrell Dawsey comments about the recent news that civil rights groups in Michigan have brought an appeals case challenging the constitutionality of a rcent ballot measure banning the practice of affirmative action in Michigan state schools

Dawsey doesn’t get into the constitutionality of affirmative action in his post; rather, he complains about the persistent perception of affirmative action as merely a “race thing”. Dawsey writes:

Yes, I think affirmative action is a palatable, if mild, remedy to the ongoing discrimination that women and people of color face in Michigan and around the country. But this take isn’t about cheering the court’s decision to hear the challenge to race preferences or even affirmative action itself, for that matter. Rather, it’s about the implications of the persistent, narrow belief that affirmative action is just a set of “racial preferences” — when the truth is that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women.

No, I’m not saying that  blacks, Latinos, Arab-Americans and Asian-Americans haven’t also benefited. (The University of Michigan, for instance, has 11 percent fewer minorities than in 2006, in part because affirmative action was outlawed.) But it’s the idea that these minorities, not white women, are disproportionately helped by affirmative action that inflames much of the opposition that we saw here three years ago.

I agree with Dawsey: affirmative action suffers a public relations problem. Affirmative action is frequently discussed in terms of race — both by proponents and opponents of the practice. Yet, the reality of affirmative action is far more nuanced: affirmative action not only is intended to benefit members of all underrepresented ethnic groups (Native Americans, and underrepresented Asians to name a few), but it also benefits applicants who come from other underrepresented backgrounds including class, gender, and faith.

The problem is the word “minority”, which in our society has become a codeword for “Black”. This is not only unfair, it is inaccurate: critics of “minority”-targeted initiatives present narrow-minded arguments that fail to accurately represent the full spectrum of people encompassed by the word “minority”. It paints reasonable and useful policies with a tinge of racial favoritism. And above all, it reinforces the notion of Blacks and Latinos as the bottom rung of our social hierarchy, rather than one of many underprivileged yet deserving minority groups.

That being said, I’m not sure that Dawsey gets it right with the point of his post. Dawsey argues that opponents of affirmative action, in colouring (pardon the pun) the debate as a “race thing”, are motivated by racial hatred in their opposition.

Many who voted against affirmative action had it in their heads that black people and other minorities were somehow getting something they didn’t “deserve” or were receiving “something for nothing.” Sure, some will howl that I’m wrong — that affirmative action opponents were driven solely by noble desires for “fairness” and “equality” — but I’m not. I’ve lived in Detroit much of my life. And I know well that even though many of us here consider it uncomfortable or impolite to discuss race when talking about why metro Detroit is what it is — and that includes its standing as one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S. —  intense racial hatred remains alive and well.

While racism is clearly alive and well in today’s America, I’m not sure what use there is in characterizing the majority of affirmative action’s detractors as seething racists. Clearly, there is a perception that underrepresented minorities are being accepted despite the appearance that they are “less qualified”, but I simply don’t believe that all or even most of affirmative action’s critics are primarily fueled by this misconception.

Affirmative action is a tough issue: neither side has a clear, moral (let alone legal) stance to advocate. Even proponents of affirmative action admit it is an imperfect (dare I say “band-aid”?) solution to a tough societal problem. To over-simplify the other side as racists does nothing to improve the quality of the debate on affirmative action, and turns the whole thing into finger-pointing and name-calling. 

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What is “Technically American”?

alg_marathon_med_keflezighi_1

No, that’s not a Jeopardy question.

According to CNBC sports reporter, Darren Rovell, there’s a distinction between “American” and “technically American”. Why? Because Rovell believes that naturalized immigrants aren’t really American.

Apparently, Meb Keflezighi, a marathon runner who immigrated and naturalized more than a decade ago, won the NYC marathon recently, prompting a newspaper headline to read “American Wins Men’s NYC Marathon For First Time Since ’82”. Rovell took exception to that headline because Keflezighi, who is an American citizen, simply isn’t American enough. He writes:

Keflezighi’s country of origin is Eritrea, a small country in Africa. He is an American citizen thanks to taking a test and living in our country.

Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.

No. No, he’s not.

Keflezighi isn’t “technically” American. He’s American. There are two ways to be American: 1) get lucky and be born on the right soil, or 2) state your allegiance and affiliation to America. Often, naturalized Americans have done more to establish their “American-ness” than those who are American by accident of birth. Which isn’t to say that naturalized Americans are more American than domestically-born Americans; being American isn’t a question of degrees. Instead, it’s simple math: one is or one isn’t American.

Rovell’s opinion piece reeks of the kind of xenophobia that remains all-too-common in parts of America, including here in Arizona where immigration is a local as well as a federal issue. The kind of nationalist zeal that would encourage distinction between “real Americans” and naturalized Americans is the same misguided bigotry that would defend racial profiling of illegal immigrants as “crime suppression”; they are both rooted in the pretense that “real Americans” are White Americans, and everyone else must be “ringers” (to borrow Rovell’s analogy). How often have brown-skinned Americans faced harassment here in Arizona at road-side stops by Border Patrol, while Whites drive casually through?

As the child of first-generation immigrants, I find it revolting that naturalized citizens still face suspicion and skepticism. Chinese immigrants are still stereotyped as perpetual foreigners despite having worked hard to naturalize, while no one questions the fealty of domestic-born American citizens. I can’t help but remember that less than 150 years ago, Asian immigrants of all ethnicities were denied the right to naturalize as Americans based exclusively on our race; are we really so far from that mentality even now? Americans are still perceived to be White, while people of colour have their nationality questioned or outright denied. Who can forget the infamous headline when Tara Lipinski beat fellow American Michelle Kwan to win an Olympic figure-skating gold? The MSNBC headline read: “American beats out Kwan” — implying that Kwan was not American, or at least not as American as Lipinski.

Just 24 hours after posting his anti-immigrant ranting, Rovell posted an apology. Sort of. He admitted he hadn’t fact-checked his piece, and that Keflezighi had been an American throughout his formative running experience.

But, he still insisted that we should only celebrate an American winning the NYC marathon when that American had been “brought up in the American system”.

All I was saying was that we should celebrate an American marathon champion who has completely been brought up through the American system.

This is where, I must admit, my critics made their best point. It turns out, Keflezighi moved to the United States in time to develop at every level in America. So Meb is in fact an American trained athlete and an American citizen and he should be celebrated as the American winner of the NYC Marathon. That makes a difference and makes him different from the “ringer” I accused him of being. Meb didn’t deserve that comparison and I apologize for that.

Sounds like it’s all “technically” a re-packaging of the same ‘ol xenophobia to me.