Keeping the Affirmative Action Debate in Context

With Sen. Barack Obama just one step away from the presidency of the United States, many are questioning the need for affirmative action.

We stand on the cusp of an epic moment: the chance to vote into office the first Black president in the history of the United States. This historic event is set to potentially redefine and reframe the manner in which we speak about, and handle, race in America. However, as we embark down this never before traveled path, it is critical that we keep in mind the historic events that have enabled someone like Sen. Barack Obama to ascend to the highest levels of politics.

Some have already begun to argue that, as evidenced by the senator’s success, the time has come to dismantle affirmative action programs. Anti-affirmative action proponents further argue the fact that a Black man stands one step away from the presidency of the United States is proof enough that the time has come to end all affirmative action programs. A historical accounting will tell us otherwise. A historical accounting would posit that Sen. Obama’s ascendancy into politics has been, in part, because of, not in spite of, affirmative action programs.

However, most discussions and arguments about affirmative action happen within a historical vacuum. Close analysis reveals that affirmative action has been decoupled from its historical roots, resulting in an ahistorical and acontextual framing of the policy that misinforms the general public as well as scholars and political pundits. Unfortunately, what results is a popular narrative that defines affirmative action around sound bites. This ahistorical and acontextual narrative frames the policy as nothing more than “out-dated” and “preference-laden” “quota systems.” These buzz words not only sensationalize and corrupt sincere discussions around the policy, they prejudice and completely ignore the important historical events that have helped usher in social justice programs like affirmative action.

The fact is that affirmative action programs did not spring forth in a benevolent fit of innocent altruism. Rather, it is essential to recognize that the origins of affirmative action are very much intertwined with, and drawn from, a bloody, calculated and political socio-historical moment within American history. During the 1960s, as poor and working class neighborhoods erupted in the face of agony and despair, the federal government welcomed affirmative action programs as a way to placate an ever-demanding public that questioned, among other things, rampant racism, an illconceived war, and the bankruptcy and deindustrialization of their local communities. Ironically, some of these arguments continue to ring true.

Affirmative action, then, was conceived as much a policy of convenience, or of “interest convergence,” as a policy of good faith, according to Derrick Bell, a visiting professor of law at New York University. Through such a policy, historically underrepresented and underserved persons, including women, would for the first time be welcomed to participate in arenas previously held off limits. Decades later we are beginning to see the fruits of these actions in the most high profile way possible.

In an ironic twist of fate, all of the 2008 leading presidential contenders can, in some way or another, represent affirmative action’s greatest beneficiaries. This is certainly true for Sen. Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. Arguably, affirmative action helped open the doors of opportunity for skilled and gifted students like them. Indeed, it is no secret that White women as a group have been primary beneficiaries of affirmative action policies. Such policies have allowed White women to enter the university classroom, the corporate boardroom, and the political strategy room. Likewise, many of Sen. John McCain’s contemporaries returned from active service with increased opportunities to attend college, thanks in part to an affirmative action program like the G.I. Bill. And while some might disagree, we might even argue that Sen. McCain himself benefited from a different affirmative action program of sorts, through his family’s legacy of military service.

Affirmative action may not be a perfect policy, but an open and honest dialogue about the policy’s future would be an important and welcome exercise. However, such a dialogue must be framed within a contextual historic backdrop. We must avoid being swayed by hastily manufactured ahistorical and acontexutal arguments that have come to condemn affirmative action as simply a “preference” for the “unmeritorious.”

As we stand on the brink of making history, reclaiming affirmative action’s origins and reframing the popular narrative that has come to stereotype the policy will allow us to appreciate the fruits it has borne in four short decades. To the contrary, we may be left to forever wonder what could have happened, if we had not cut out the root just as the tree began to bloom. —

Dr. María Ledesma is a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity at Berkeley Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former UC student regent.

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