Arizona Daily Wildcat December 9, 1997
Affirming Affirmative Action
Affirmative action policies have been described as "reverse racism" and "perpetuating racism in America." Perhaps the most critical and didactic challenge that needs to be asserted is that of history. One of the tragic pitfalls of the educational system in the United States is its cursory and superficial teaching on American and world history, especially the histories of colored peoples. It is this lack of substantial knowledge of history that conditions so many perceptions of people today, including young people. Many fail to recognize that all people of European descent have been privileged since the formation of the United States, albeit limited by those whose gender is female. When the U. S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, although it was stated that "all men were created equal," that clause excluded the country's first people, the indigenous Indians, who were later systematically decimated by white colonial violence; Africans, who were considered three-fifths of a human being; and white women. The legacy of the genocide of the indigenous Indians and the dispossession and theft of their lands that we all live on and the confiscation of enslaved African people's labor for the building of U. S. capitalist civilization, continues today. We are all products of our respective histories and our status today is the result of historical practices, policies and precedents. The socio-economic contradistinctions between whites and people of color today is primarily the result of historical behavior on the part of whites which systematically denied fundamental human rights to indigenous Indians, Africans, Asians and the Mexican population on grounds of color. John Hope Franklin, head of the president's Advisory Board on Race, is correct when he avers that whites have had affirmative action for 300 years as part of this legacy, since they have been given preference in the economic, political, educational and social spheres over other racial groups.
The institutionalization of racism was reflected in higher education, for example, where almost all universities and the colleges in the U. S. were founded by white men, administered by white men and staffed by white men. The essential outcome of this systematic preferential treatment accorded to white males is that 70 percent of all university faculty in the U. S. are white men, even though they constitute about 35 percent of the general population, notwithstanding affirmative action programs. Observation of our own campus reinforces the point. Most faculty of color, for instance, have been hired in ethnic studies departments, akin to most campuses across the country. Many other departments are preponderantly white because of the history of preference for white male faculty. According to the 1996-1997 Fact Book, 1,357 of 1,558 faculty on our campus are white (87 percent).
Many either deny or are ignorant of the fact that race was a decisive and divisive factor from the time that the first Europeans colonized this country, and continues to be determinative for one's status in society. How else do we explain that at least 20 percent of the people in South Tucson have been harassed by the police at one time or another because they are Mexican American, according to a study done by the University of Arizona two years ago, or the recent four day police raid in Chandler on legal-resident Latinos, or that in 1995, even though African Americans are "12 percent of the population and 13 percent of all monthly drug users, they represented 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug possession" (Emerge, October 1997), except by citing racial discrimination? For elucidation on issues of white privilege, read Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to see Correspondences in Women's Studies , (1986), to fully understand the ramifications of white privilege and preference. Because of historical and contemporary experiences of being excluded, marginalized and denied, people of color need safe havens to consolidate their fragmented presence on most campuses, both numerically and culturally.
Many critics of affirmative action often overlook and fail to understand that racism is alive and well in society and continues to reassert its ugly head in the dismantling of programs designed to address some of the effects of past colonization and discrimination, Proposition 209 in California being the most prominent. The tragic consequence of this racist backlash is that at UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School, for example, just one African American entered this year, compared with more than 45 last year. Emil Guillermo, an independent journalist writes that "At UC-Los Angeles' Law School, 50 African Americans and Latinos have enrolled in the first year class - the lowest numbers since affirmative action began in 1967." Contrary to what many believe about those people of color who have been hired under affirmative action programs at major universities, institutions and organizations, all generally have met certain excellency criteria. People of color in higher education are neither mindless nor devoid of intellectual substance just because they are racially different from whites, as many myopic critics of affirmative action charge. Such perceptions are unequivocally racist. The fact that many African American and Latino law and medical school graduates from the nation's leading East Coast private schools are just as successful and productive as their white counterparts, as reported by The New York Times over a month ago, evinces that affirmative action admissions policies have not been systematically skewed in favor of admitting "underqualified minorities." The only disqualification in many hires and admissions decisions at predominantly white institutions was the fact that the candidates were Black, Latino or Indian, groups considered outside the 'mainstream' of American society.
It is also important to note that since the inclusion of white women in Johnson's Executive Order 11375 of 1967 when women were included under the definition of "minority," white women have been the single largest group that has benefited from affirmative action programs. This point is substantiated by S. L. Witt, for instance, in the text, The Pursuit of Race and Equality in American Academe. The attack on affirmative action is an assault on all white women.
In the final analysis, affirmative action is a tactical measure designed to redress historical racial injustices against people of color. It is inadequate in addressing the fundamental injustices of racial colonization and economic disparity. Though not an antidote, it is a necessary palliative. It is geared toward enshrining racial and cultural diversity reflective of the country's makeup and predicated on the notion that educational diversity is good for all people in the country as a way of fostering positive and healthy interracial relations. It is outrageous that students can still graduate at major universities in the United States without having taken a class in American Indian, African American, Mexican American and Asian American Studies, and worse still, not take classes with professors from these various racial groups. Little wonder as to why racial animosity in the country is running at an all-time high like the recent events involving the shooting of Black civilians in Denver and New York.
Critical analytical intercultural educational pedagogy is key in understanding the systemic and historical functionings of racism, the greatest cancer in the body politic of the United States, yet paradoxically the most difficult and painful subject to discuss within academia and the broader society. Suppressing discourse on racism will not result in its disappearance as many critics of affirmative action anticipate, but instead sharpen the already tense racial and cultural divide, a scenario that the country can ill-afford. The path toward achieving a racist-free society is to acknowledge the evil of racism and work for its eradication through programs of education and societal restructuring.
Julian Kunnie is the acting director of Africana Studies