Issue 185 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Positively unfair

'Blacks who benefit from affirmative action have been increasingly accused of "reverse racism" toward whites'

The Californian Civil Rights Initiative, scheduled for a vote in 1996, has nothing to do with civil rights. That shouldn't be too surprising in an era when politicians use the term 'welfare reform' to describe policies which slash assistance to poor families. The Civil Rights Initiative aims to put an end to the single biggest victory of the black movement of the 1960s: affirmative action, or positive discrimination.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, under pressure from the massive Civil Rights Movement--and from the urban rebellions which occurred throughout the 1960s--the federal government adopted affirmative action programmes to force US employers and public institutions to stop denying job and educational opportunities to blacks. At that time, in contrast to today's political climate, the need for government policies to combat racism was widely accepted. President Lyndon Johnson, who was not known for radicalism, said about black people in 1965, 'You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains, and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line, and then say, "You are free to compete with all the others".' And arch conservative President Richard Nixon took affirmative action a step forward, when he forced companies with federal contracts to set numerical goals, or 'quotas', for hiring blacks and other racial minorities.

Although affirmative action laws made little more than a dent in racist hiring and educational policies, they represented a step in the right direction. And until the mid-1970s they made a real difference to millions of blacks. Whereas 55 percent of the black population lived in poverty in 1959, that figure fell to 29 percent in 1974, 15 years later--at least partly due to greater access to higher education and better paying jobs.

But since the late 1970s blacks who benefit from affirmative action programmes have been increasingly accused of 'reverse racism' toward whites. In 1978 the US Supreme Court ruled that Alan Bakke, a white male medical student, had been the victim of 'reverse discrimination' when 'he was denied admission to a medical school with an affirmative action policy that set aside 16 of its 100 annual openings for nonwhites. The court said nothing about the fact that the school also set aside places for the children of wealthy (white) former pupils, a common practice at US universities. Moreover, the court accused the university of admitting 'less qualified' black students at Bakke's expense, even though 36 of the white students admitted that year had test scores lower than Bakke's.

After the Bakke case the charge of 'reverse racism' became a rallying cry for conservatives. The Reagan administration flatly refused to enforce affirmative action policies, while the Bush administration passed its own Civil Rights Act which made affirmative action quotas illegal. Having made affirmative action toothless, the right has now set its sights on overturning it altogether.

When Republican Senator Phil Gramm, of Texas announced his plans to run for president, he vowed to end 'preferential treatment' for members of racial minorities.

Following closely in the Republicans' shadow as always, the Clinton administration recently charged an Illinois university with discriminating against white workers for hiring an exclusively black janitorial staff. White workers, it would seem, have been denied the 'special privilege' of cleaning toilets for low pay, an occupation which has traditionally employed blacks. A couple of decades ago this kind of segregation would have been viewed as an example of black oppression, today it is called 'reverse racism'. Clinton has also pledged to review all the government's affirmative action programmes and to eliminate those which are 'unfair'--to whites.

The underlying assumption is, of course, that racism has disappeared, and that blacks share equal opportunities with whites. Affirmative action, the argument goes, gives 'less qualified' blacks unfair advantage over whites. But what makes someone qualified is highly subjective. An article written some 15 years ago in Fortune magazine admitted that managers 'tend to hire people like themselves'. This goes a long way towards explaining why a recent survey found that many employers described black job applicants as deficient in so called 'soft skills', such as social interaction and motivation. Even standardised tests, which claim to measure aptitude and intelligence objectively, are biased in favour of middle class whites and against blacks--especially blacks who live in poor, segregated neighbourhoods.

This racial and class bias was the basis on which the US Supreme Court banned most employers from using standardised test scores in making hiring and promoting decisions in 1971.

But these facts were buried long ago. And until quite recently few liberal voices have been raised to defend affirmative action. As a result opposition to affirmative action enjoys fairly massive public support, and not only among whites. In California, for example, a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that while 70 percent of whites want to see affirmative action banned, so do about 50 percent of blacks. This is partly because many blacks accept the view that affirmative action promotes less qualified blacks, and conclude that affirmative action hurts their self-esteem. But there is another factor as well. During the 1980s class divisions between blacks grew much wider, as they did between whites: the richest blacks grew richer while most blacks got much poorer. Blacks earning $100,000 or more (measured in 1989 dollars) represent only 0.3 percent of all black households in 1984; by 1987 the figure had risen to 1 percent. And many wealthier blacks who have found their own niche in the system have turned their backs on fighting racism. This even includes some who, like Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, benefited themselves from affirmative action programmes to gain access to higher education.

It is no accident that these attacks are escalating now, when blaming the victim has become so fashionable among politicians. But affirmative action is needed as much as ever. Black enrolment in higher education has dropped dramatically. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for example, blacks make up only 1.8 percent of the student body. And poverty among blacks has skyrocketed--nearly half of all black children are living under the official poverty line. But the battle over affirmative action is far from over and the politicians are likely to find that, rather than defeating the struggle against racism, their own attacks re-ignite it, stronger than before.
Sharon Smith


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