The Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin case against affirmative action in college admissions is a subject I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while. Folks who are arguing against affirmative action for people of color are attacking it as if it’s a program meant to address the impact of discrimination on people as individuals, and not as members of aggrieved communities. According to that logic, affirmative action, at least on a case by case basis, puts one form of discrimination over another, as if some people matter more.
Proponents argue that affirmative action exists to address barriers to access resulting from systemic discrimination experienced both by individuals as members of whole structurally disadvantaged communities. This reasoning says affirmative action exists to deal with the harm that occurs when discrimination is not just arbitrary and individualized but instead concentrated upon groups over time.
That pro-affirmative action argument is one I pretty much agree with. But while it seems to be good for the choir, it’s not sitting well in the pews. So, I take a slightly different approach when folks ask me about race-based affirmative action.
I say, before you can understand why we need race-based affirmative action, you gotta understand racism. Racism isn’t just about individual discrimination. And then I ask, do know what a house and racial inequality have in common?
A house is based on a blueprint, much as racial inequality is originally based on a set of racial codes. That blueprint describes a set of aspirations and a lifestyle. It reflects the hopes and dreams, and, yes, limitations and financial considerations, of the builders and those for whom the house is being created. Upon that blueprint, a real bricks and mortar structure is created. And in that structure, just as in a society based on racist codes, how we think, what we are able to imagine, and how we relate to one another are deeply affected by the original design.
Our blueprint for governance is the Constitution. And that document was meant to perpetuate a set of ideas created by people whose definitions of freedom, rights, liberty, and even happiness was shaped by racism. In order to be among the architects, you had to white, male, and wealthy. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the land upon which their wealth was founded was stolen, and Black people were among the property the vast majority of those architects owned.
Based on that blueprint, a system of governance and real political, social, and economic structures were created that, among other things, defined by race those who would benefit from these structures and who would be left outside. That the land and labor of people of color would be used to build these exclusive structures only reinforced, rather than weakened, whites’ sense of exclusive entitlement.
The legacy of these first decisions is perhaps no where better demonstrated than in the racial wealth gap.
In 2009, median white household wealth was 20 times that of African Americans. In specific terms, white median household wealth was $113,149. Black median household wealth was $5,677. It’s not much better for Latinos. And though I couldn’t find statistics, I think we can agree that where wealth is concerned, there could be no more dispossessed a people than Native Americans, no matter what their median household wealth.
For African Americans, U.S. history is riddled with stories of discriminatory laws and customs that prevented them from creating wealth. Discrimination in insurance and mortgage lending as well as racially exclusionary neighborhood covenants prevented African Americans from buying property in neighborhoods considered desirable from an investment standpoint.
Even some of the benefits of the GI Bill that are so often credited with having helped to build the American middle class were denied to African American veterans in some Southern states. Throughout the period so many harken back to as the good old days, when the American middle class was being built, racism ensured that African Americans would be left out of that middle class. Following the logic of slavery, Blacks were excluded so as to avoid interfering with their availability as cheap labor.
So to return to the analogy of the house for a minute. If you think of society as a house, racism in the original blueprint created a structure in which the rooms are too few, even as all of us contribute to it’s maintenance. Far too many of us sleep outside.
As long as we refuse to start over, to create a structure capable of accommodating everyone, and fairly, our only other resort is to remodel. That means taking down walls, making some rooms smaller and generally changing a structure the most advantaged among us have become all too comfortable with. From the perspective of those on the inside, the walls are not barriers, they’re protection. That’s why even those in the poorest rooms are complaining.
And, that’s what all the fuss is about regarding affirmative action. It’s one of those remodeling jobs that’s cutting into structures that whites have come to rely upon to safeguard their privileges. Our only options are to challenge those privileges, or to propose a new plan that can accommodate everyone.