Affirmative Action in the Name of Restitution, Equity, Diversity and Cultural Democracy
By Alfonso López-Vasquez
University of Michigan political philosophy professor Dr. Elizabeth S. Anderson breaks affirmative action policies down into four distinct points of argument. In the first, affirmative action is a necessary means to achieve social justice by compensating for past discriminatory behavior.
Another point highlights affirmative action as a way to achieve representative democracy. The third argument considers affirmative action in terms of social utility, while the fourth highlights the constitutional rights of free speech and education as effective arguments.
In Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court called for the termination of the separate but equal doctrine that had prevailed almost since the end of the Civil War. The justices articulated the fact that segregation of people solely on the basis of their color had harmed their hearts and minds in a manner unlikely ever to be undone. It was that decision, written in 1955, which stipulated that the affected districts should move with all deliberate speed to eradicate the vestiges of a segregated society.
The dehumanizing experiences of segregation, discrimination and subjugation of African-Americans and the indigenous people of North America has been sustained by the legislative, executive and judicial bodies of government established by the people, of the people and for the people. Our Constitution defined slaves as property, each worth three-fifths of a human for purposes of representation.
Slavery was rationalized famously by James Henry Hammond in 1858 when he presented his “mudsill theory.” The theory states: “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties … a class requiring but a low order of intellect … Such class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement.” But Blacks were not the only victims of such narrow-minded philosophy. The delegation of values and the relegation of labor based on gender sustained and perpetuated the subordination of women during this same period. The exploitation of “Hispanics/Latinos” was a natural evolution as the frontier psychology took place and manifest destiny became the battlecry as the country expanded westward. The industrial revolution and the explosion of scientific endeavors, coupled by our ascension to world prominence after two World Wars, solidified this cultural paradox well into the 20th century.
Eugenics and evolutionary theory helped sustain society’s perception of African-Americans and other people of color as socially and intellectually inferior. This social construct of inferiority remained constant for most of the 20th century. Its fingerprints linger still on our remedies to reverse the damage inflicted by our country’s unequal social order.
The civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 provided the first meaningful enforcement of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by demanding compliance as a condition to receive federal funds.
Unfortunately, most of the early programs adopted a deficit model that placed the burden of assimilating on minorities while sustaining a sense of superiority in White America. In education, this model identified minority students’ culture, socioeconomic status, language and other characteristics as the source of dissonance. While this reflects an improvement from previously held notions of inferiority, it still sustained the ethnocentric attitudes of the dominant society.
Is the work of affirmative action over? Hardly, but its strategies must move towards a new model that promotes cultural democracy in all social systems and education in particular. Higher education must discard the deficit model of assimilation by adopting a value-added perspective as we continue our quest for a more perfect union.
Affirmative action represents a social policy to promote a cultural restitution for democracy. Affirmative action must move beyond legal arguments and critically respond to the social, moral and ethical dimension of our country’s history relative to race relations.
— López-Vasquez is assistant professor and director of community partnerships at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.
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