Still Think We Don’t Need Affirmative Action?

black ceoDid you think it is time to end affirmative action in America?  On the eve of a big decision on affirmative action coming from the U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps a new report from the New York Times on the state of diversity in America will change your mind.

The glass ceiling continues to break and new milestones are made as African-Americans and others climb the ladder of success.  The nation even has its first black CEO in the White House.  Yet, despite the progress America has made in diversifying its workforce and its management ranks, the country is backsliding.

Minority groups have been disproportionately affected by the Great Recession, and to make things worse, since the economic downturn, it appears diversity has not been a priority for employers.  For those who care about racial inclusion in the professional world, the news is downright discouraging.

Disappointing Data Across the Board

For example, although 12 percent of America’s workforce is black, only slightly more than 1 percent of all Fortune 500 companies have black CEOs.  About 3.2 percent of senior positions at the largest corporations are held by blacks.  Five percent of doctors and dentists and 3 percent of architects are African-American.

According to the National Association of Black Journalists, the number of journalists of color is on the decline, with black journalists as the most severely impacted.  Over the past decade, nearly 1,000 blacks in newsrooms have lost their jobs, greater than any minority group.  And about 1 in 3 newsroom jobs lost was held by a journalist of color. As of last year, nonwhites were nearly 35 percent of the U.S. population, yet only accounted for 12 percent of the newsroom management.

Moreover, in 2010 the number of minorities and women in law firms fell for the first time, with the former accounting for 12.4 percent of lawyers nationwide, and the latter making up 32.69 percent of the profession.  Minorities account for 6.16 percent of partners in major law firms, while women are 19.43 percent. It is unacceptable to have a disproportionately white legal profession, with a criminal justice system that largely incarcerates blacks and Latinos.

While blacks and other underrepresented groups face daunting barriers in the upper echelons of the private sector, they are being jammed in the entry level positions as well, a cause for much concern.  Those who are on the outside looking in are faced with a number of challenges, including the unfair stigma of inferiority that comes with being a diverse candidate, or a so-called “affirmative action hire,” and the segregation of social circles, which prevents young black professionals from receiving the support, mentorship and acceptance they need in moving up the predominantly white corporate ladder.

Supreme Court to Play Wild Card Role

The bad news on diversity comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to issue a decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, which challenges the legality of affirmative action in college admissions.  The high court ruling in Fisher may very well be the most important affirmative action case since Brutter v. Bollinger, where the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the diversity policy at the University of Michigan with a 5-to-4 vote.

Affirmative action foes such as UCLA law professor Richard Sander claim affirmative action hurts blacks and Latinos by creating a ”mismatch”—placing them in elite universities where they are outmatched in standardized test scores, causing them to underperform and fail.  Scholars have debunked this myth, showing that students of color at elite colleges outperform their counterparts at less competitive institutions, earn advanced degrees at rates comparable to whites, and Are more involved in community and civic life.

Affirmative action has been defined as “any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.”

As Martin Luther King eloquently said, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

“We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result,” said President Lyndon Johnson, who signed an executive order codifying affirmative action practices for government contractors.

The Case for Affirmative Action

Johnson laid out the rationale for the affirmative action in 1965 at the Howard University commencement exercises. “Nothing is more freighted with meaning for our own destiny than the revolution of the Negro American,” Johnson said.  “In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.”

He added: “But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

But over the years, policies that seek diversity have been vilified, tarred and feathered, and mischaracterized as “quota” systems and reverse discrimination against whites.  These programs have attempted to expand the pie, to open up opportunities to those who were traditionally locked out of opportunity.

When you have a nation where well-connected white men predominate and only they are deemed as merit worthy—as has been the case with this country— how do you change the status quo without taking affirmative steps?  Some people are just happy with hoarding the opportunity and limiting it to the few.  They never challenged the worthiness of those who always came up on top, and always assumed that any newcomers who wanted a shot simply didn’t deserve it.

A Policy to Emulate

Meanwhile Brazil, long plagued by high socioeconomic and racial inequality, is showing us the way with a most sweeping affirmative action system that reserves half of university slots for underprivileged students and allocates seats for black, mixed-race and Amerindian students.

David A. LoveThe policy has dramatically boosted the number of Afro-Brazilians and whites in higher education—from 7 percent of young black people and 33 percent of whites in 1999, to 30 percent of blacks and 60 percent of whites 10 years later.  And it has the approval of two-thirds of the Brazilian population.  Now that’s progress.

Although the U.S. has come a long way when it comes to diversity, the job is not finished.  The recent statistics on blacks in the top professions demonstrate that affirmative action is needed now more than ever.

David Love
The Grio

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove 

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Comments

  1. R Zwarich says

    I think that most people who consider themselves to be ‘progressives’ well understand that some racial minorities remain grossly over-represented, (as a percentage of their total populations), among the ranks of the poorest. But I hope that we are aware that it remains true, (as it always has been), that there are more poor white people in the US than poor people of all other races combined.

    Race based affirmative action has been spectacularly successful in raising minorities, including African Americans, into the relative affluence of the middle class; (so much so, in fact, that the Black communities ‘left behind’ have suffered for the loss of their ‘best and brightest’).

    I think that what many progressives think is that at this point in History, it is time to end race based affirmative action, in favor of a race blind program designed to grant advantages to people of any race who suffer from a dearth of opportunity due to their poverty.

    It is difficult to understand why a young person who is raised in an atmosphere of economic advantage, and so many middle class Black youth now are, should receive preferential treatment over other young people who suffer the disadvantages of poverty. Why should the young person raised in an affluent Black family be given preferential affirmative action over a young person from a dirt poor white family?

    Economically based affirmative action would continue to benefit the disproportionate percentage of minority young people who still live in poverty.

    It could be argued that spreading the advantage of affirmative action to include disadvantaged white youth might dilute the advantage of the program among minorities. (Clearly it would in a society that only creates opportunities for a limited percentage of its population). It would likely gain more general support, considering the growth of a relatively affluent minority middle class, if it were argued that if the goal of affirmative action is to even out the percentages of poverty equally among all races, it is still needed for African Americans, and to a lesser degree for Hispanics, because a higher percentage of these populations (than whites) remain poor. I think this argument would be vastly strengthened if it contained a clause stipulating that affluent populations would be excluded from participation, irregardless of race.

    R Zwarich

    rzwarich@gmail.com

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