Questioning Affirmative Action

Racial justice advocates should consider, with a degree of candor that has not yet been evident, whether affirmative action–as it has been framed and defended during the past thirty years–has functioned more like a racial bribe than a tool of racial justice. One might wonder, what does affirmative action have to do with mass incarceration? Well, perhaps the two are linked more than we realize. We should ask ourselves whether efforts to achieve “cosmetic” racial diversity–that is, reform efforts that make institutions look good on the surface without the needed structural changes–have actually helped to facilitate the emergence of mass incarceration and interfered with the development of a more compassionate race consciousness. In earlier chapters, we have seen that throughout our nation’s history, poor and working-class whites have been bought off by racial bribes. The question posed here is whether affirmative action has functioned similarly, offering relatively meager material advantages but significant psychological benefits to people of color, in exchange for the abandonment of a more radical movement that promised to alter the nation’s economic and social structure. (244-245).

The claim is that racial justice advocates should reconsider the traditional approach to affirmative action because (a) it has helped to render a new caste system largely invisible; (b) it has helped to perpetuate the myth that anyone can make it if they try; (c) it has encouraged the embrace of a “trickle down theory of racial justice”; (d) it has greatly facilitated the divide-and-conquer tactics that gave rise to mass incarceration; and (e) it has inspired such polarization and media attention that the general public now (wrongly) assumes that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations. (245)

Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers–not to mention president of the United States–causes us all to marvel at what a long way we have come. As recent data shows, however, much of black progress is a myth…The child poverty rate is actually higher today than it was in 1968. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that is with affirmative action!…When those behind bars are taken into account, America’s institutions continue to create nearly as much racial inequality as existed during Jim Crow…Sociologist Stephen Steinberg describes the bleak reality this way: “Insofar as this black middle class is an artifact of affirmative action policy, it cannot be said to be the result of autonomous workings of market forces. In other words, the black middle class does not reflect a lowering of racist barriers in occupations so much as the opposite: racism is so entrenched that without government intervention there would be little ‘progress’ to boast about.” (246)

There is another, more sinister consequence of affirmative action: the carefully engineered appearance of great racial progress strengthens the “colorblind” public consensus that personal and cultural traits, not structural arrangements, are largely responsible for the fact that the majority of young black men in urban areas across the United States are currently under the control of the criminal justice system or branded as felons for life. In other words, affirmative action helps to make the emergence of a new racial caste system seem implausible…How could a caste system exist, in view of the black middle class? (247)

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (pp. 244-247)

Alexander is highlighting some of the major pitfalls of affirmative action that really aren’t addressed, especially as it pertains to the millions who will never reap the advantages of such a policy because of their incarceration and ex-felon status. It reinforces what she calls a ‘new racial caste system,’ by finding a way to shift blame from the institutional causes of mass incarceration to being a function of inherent personality and cultural defects of the people. We can’t have a systematically racist society is a few can “make it,” so if you don’t make it, something’s wrong with you. And we all buy into that idea to some degree. We’re complicit in not disrupting the system because it benefits a few of us.

But not only does our complicity harm them, it harms us. For those of us who’ve “made it” and are acutely (or subconsciously) aware of our position as cosmetic diversity within institutions that still systematically function the same way they did prior to creating offices of ‘Diversity and Inclusion,’ this greater access to upward mobility in spaces that maintain the same racial barriers lowers our quality of life. We are constantly under pressure to prove that we belong somewhere, that we’re just as smart, talented, and deserving. It can destroy our mental and emotional health, lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms and dangerous health behaviors and, and ultimately our early deaths.

Is this the goal? Was the dream of our ancestors for us to kill ourselves slowly, placated by the fact that we possess some margin of material wealth that is so tenuous that one unexpected health crisis, job loss, or natural disaster could catapult us right back to the status of those “other Black people?” You know, those Black people…the Black people white folks so endearingly (and sickeningly) tell us we’re “not like” or  “different than”; the Black people us middle class folk like to ‘tsk, tsk’ and lob our internalized racist and misogynoiristic commentary at whenever they do something less than “respectable”?

I’m not (nor was Michelle Alexander) advocating for getting rid of affirmative action. But I wholeheartedly agree that we can become so satisfied with that policy, so caught up in (rightfully) celebrating the accomplishments of a few, that we become placated by this illusion of equity that emanates from our conveniently trotted out tokenism, and ultimately stop passionately fighting for the comprehensive dismantling of a white supremacist society. An article published just last year forewarns that Black median household wealth will fall to ZERO by the year 2053. If that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is. Having money in your bank account does not reflect your own financial security, let alone the security of your children.

It’s easy to get swept away in the power of cosmetic diversity, in the recognized achievements of the Talented Tenth, the Creative Geniuses, the Vanguards. But these exceptional few, that have the freedom and support to be exceptional (because God knows there are hundreds of thousands of leaders and creative geniuses and vanguards who are incarcerated, unemployed, underemployed, and just plain shut out of accessing the resources needed to refine and amplify their natural skills and talents), are not going to usher in a new societal framework, wherein the rest of Black people can benefit, if we continue to be so distracted by keeping a firm grip on the crumbs we’ve been given, that we forget we haven’t even tasted the pie.

Ironically, as I was writing this post over the last couple of days, the Know Your Rights Camp instagram page posted this video that was a scene from the 1972 blaxploitation movie, Trick Baby. It pretty much gets right at the heart of the issue: