Many books have been written about affirmative action since it emerged on the scene some 30 years ago.
If written by an author from the Right, the books told us to resist affirmative action because it eliminated meritocracy, promoted racism, led to reverse discrimination and was un-American because it guaranteed equal results rather than equal opportunity. If the author was on the Left, we were told to support affirmative action because it provided reparations for past discrimination, guaranteed a fair share of the economic pie, and because it was a civil right that was guaranteed by the Constitution.
Rather than succumbing to the arguments of the Right or the Left, Professor Skrentny pushes the debate back to its origins to examine how the issue emerged in the first place. According to Skrentny, the key to a better understanding of the policy requires “. . . understanding the cultural, political and historical bases of the Right’s resistance and the Left’s support.” He carefully explores the combination of events locally and internationally that resulted in affirmative action becoming policy without debate. He wants the Left to know more about where the affirmative action policy came from and its political liabilities.
The author presents the Right’s opposition to affirmative action on the premise that it is based on racial preference rather than on the American ideal of meritocracy. The position of the Left, according to Skrentny, is that preferences have been prevalent in American society for quite some time. He refers to veterans preference programs, which not only gave veterans extra points in the employment selection process but also to members of their families. Skrentny also points out that nepotism, the practice of providing employment opportunities to members of one’s own family, is another example of preferential treatment that was highly accepted in the past.
Black Opposition Cited
Because America touts itself as being colorblind, it is understandable that racial preferences would be subject to assault even while veterans programs were endorsed and nepotism was highly practiced. Basing an employment program on racial preference was, at the least, unpalatable because it contradicted the very American ideal of colorblindness.
Using numerical ratios to determine the appropriate level of participation by Blacks smacked of an illegal quota. In addition to presenting the success of affirmative action efforts such as veterans preference programs and nepotism, Skrentny details a history which explains why race-based affirmative action programs are more condemned. There are those, Skrentny points out, who argued that in a colorblind society meritocracy must be the factor which separates one individual from another. Black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins were not supportive of racially-based programs because of the hard-fought battles waged to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Another well-known civil rights activist of the time, Bayard Rustin, expressed his concerns when he questioned why Richard Nixon, a Republican president, was championing the passage of a race-based program called affirmative action. Skrentny answers Rustin’s question by referring to the racial turmoil, the Cold War and the desire to be legitimate in the eyes of the world in the late 1960s as factors that led Nixon to garner the support of the Left and the Right to pass affirmative action legislation.
According to Skrentny, “Political and business elites followed a logic of crisis management, seeking to maintain order and control through affirmative action, one of the few means legitimate in the context of the Cold War and the rise of a global audience concerned with human rights.”
The irony is that public opinion did not support affirmative action in the 1960s because it was outside of the political mainstream of that time.
Skrentny points to the continued drop off of public support in the 1990s and provides a sobering commentary on the future of affirmative action when he states: The wild card in the future of affirmative action is the possibility of renewed urban [B]lack violence.
No one has ever explained the wave of riots that rocked the United States in the late 1960s, and there is no guarantee it may not happen again. A 1992 riot in predominately [B]lack south central Los Angeles turned out to be a harbinger of a crisis, but it underscored the seriousness of obvious racial exclusion in America. Of course, in the 1990s, it is not clear that urban rioting would be combated with job opportunities.The world may be less interested in how America manages mass disorder than it was in the late 1960s.
“The Ironies of Affirmative Action” reminds us that the main element that separates affirmative action from other preference programs for the elderly, veterans, family members, family farm subsidy programs and victims of disaster is race.
The racism and bigotry which brought about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and then affirmative action — still exists and, gone unchecked, will continue to exist. Unless forces are put in motion to make advocating for affirmative action a positive political strategy, affirmative action will continue to be a third-rail political/moral issue.
This is the most comprehensive and thoughtful book I have read on the topic of affirmative action and a must-read for anyone who is interested in truly understanding the origins of affirmative action and its troubled history. Politics, culture, justice and race are appropriately and critically explored as extremely important ingredients in the evolution of affirmative action.
Black Issues In Higher Education
Top Ten Books
On Campus Weeks Last
On List Position
1. WAITING TO EXHALE
Terry McMillan - Pocket Books, $5.95 24 1
2. AND THIS TOO SHALL PASS
E. Lynn Harris - Anchor/Doubleday, $23.95 14 2
3. WHEN DEATH COMES STEALING
Valerie Wilson Wesley - G.P. Putnam & Sons,
$5.99 26 3
4. NEVER SATISFIED: HOW AND WHY MEN CHEAT
Michael Baisden - Legacy Publishing, $13.95 26 4
5. BROTHERS & SISTERS
Bebe Moore Campbell - Putnam, $5.95 62 5
6. COFFEE WILL MAKE YOU BLACK
April Sinclair - Avon, $10 12 6
7. SISTERS & LOVERS
Connie Briscoe - One World/Ballantine, $5.95 62 7
8. ACTS OF FAITH: DAILY MEDITATIONS
FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR
Iyanla Vanzant - Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $9 62 8
9. BODY AND SOUL: THE BLACK WOMEN'S
GUIDE TO PHYSICAL HEALTH AND
Linda Villarosa - Harper/Perennial, $20 36 9
6. DEVIL'S GONNA GET HIM
Valerie Wilson Wesley - Avon, $5.99 6 10
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