Tag Archives: Affirmative Action

Why Affirmative Action Pisses Them Off

11 Oct

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.

Asians are the Wedge

29 May

On Sunday before Memorial Day, I tuned in to MSNBC to watch Melissa Harris-Perry lead a discussion about Asian American voters. The show started out with some promise. But as it progressed, I found myself descending into a rant. By the end, I was full-on pissed. For all of the good intentions, one subtle but unbroken thread ran through the discussion – Asian Americans are the model minority.

In response to the relative absence of Asian American stars in Democratic Party politics, panelist William Schneider said, “…they have not relied on politics to get ahead as many other disadvantaged groups have…”

So how is it that we supposedly got ahead? Schneider used the example of another panelist, comedian Margaret Cho, citing her “talent and determination” as the ingredients of her success. He also talked about Asian American success in “business, professions… science…” all, apparently, without working the political system.

I’m not sure what qualifies Mr. Schneider to speak to the issues of Asian Americans, but he’s wrong. Asian Americans are politically active. Asian Americans have also ridden the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, benefiting from the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and The Higher Education Act of 1965 among other gains.

While we can’t claim these achievements as our own, they were won through political protest and are among the ingredients of our supposed “success.” We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In about 15 minutes, I saw a demonstration of the ubiquity of anti-Asian racism. It is so commonplace, in fact, that we don’t even see it as racism, making it a powerful wedge dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance of politics.

Here’s what I mean –

First, let’s get it straight. The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

The myth first entered the popular consciousness of Americans in the 1960s, shortly after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. It started with a 1966 New York Times article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style” that argued that Japanese Americans, just 21 years after virtually the entire community was interned, had risen to success through quietly working hard and making sacrifices to create opportunities for their children.

U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, and Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” published in 1971, sealed the deal.

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of color blind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.

Here’s an example. Asian American household income was higher than white household income in 2011. However, per capita income of Asian Americans is lower than for whites. Asian households make more because they contain more earners, probably as a result of living in households that benefit from the retirement incomes of elders.

More troubling, according to the report A Community of Contrasts, the 2011 per capita income of Taiwanese Americans was $38,312. However, per capita income of Hmong Americans was only $10,949. That makes the Hmong the lowest per capita earners by ethnicity among all Americans. And Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Bangladeshis are pretty much in the same boat, earning even less than African Americans.

Worse yet, the model minority myth is dehumanizing. Casting us as super human is the flip side of casting other people of color as less than human, making all of us strangers to a normative standard that is white.

As long as we are treated as exotic others, the script can be switched, and Asians may find ourselves back where we started, cast again as foreign invaders. Either way, we’re still a wedge in the hands of white supremacy.

White Identity Politics

13 Apr

My recent post, Blackness is the Fulcrum struck a nerve. It landed me on Blacking It Up, a radio show hosted by L. Joy Williams and Elon James White as the Asian man who opposes anti-Black racism. It was a valiant but sad performance. To all of you I’m supposed to be representing, I apologize in advance for the two shows I’m on this week. If you follow @nakagawascot I’ll tweet you the pod casts.

I’ve been busy. But busy or not, I can’t help making trouble and I’m guessing this post will stir some up.

Here goes –

Whiteness has a political meaning as much as does Black or Asian or any other racial category. In order to define non-whites as inferior and deviant, whites needed to be defined as superior and normal. By claiming the category “normal,” whites imagined themselves outside the racial paradigm they had created. But, in fact, they were and are at the center of it.

For this reason, unless whites consciously oppose white privilege, their identities are defined by it.

I call the subtle and not so subtle ways this system of privilege/injustice works white identity politics.

In recent decades, overt white racial supremacy has met some serious challenges. It’s no longer socially acceptable to say that people of color are racially inferior. However, white privilege hasn’t been eradicated. In fact, measured in terms of wealth, the privilege gap between whites and non-whites is at it’s widest in 25 years.

White supremacy still exists in deed if not in word, and the fact is that we’re not doing much as a society to fix it. Worse, when programs like Affirmative Action are created to address this injustice, they are attacked as reverse discrimination.

No doubt it has become uncivil to claim white supremacy as a birthright. Credit goes to the Civil Rights Movement for that change. Instead, in the age of colorblind racism, overtly racist justifications for white privilege are avoided. Overt racism is substituted with a normative standard that begins with white privilege as a baseline of what is just, rather than as a political achievement of white supremacy.

In (not) post-racial America, white privilege is considered the baseline of fairness.  No one, it is argued, should have to settle for less. However, because no one should have to settle for less, no solution that erodes white privilege is tolerated. Yet, white privilege is the basis of racism. As long as it is preserved, racial justice cannot be achieved.

Seem like a circular argument to you? Then you’re getting the picture. To me, it’s not just circular, it’s a downward spiral. And that spiral is white identity politics.

White identity politics is a game in which whites demand they be judged by what they intend, not by the unintended consequences of what they do. But what they do (including keeping the spoils of what their ancestors did before them) has everything to do with what they have relative to people of color regardless of intention, as evidenced in the Census statistics cited in the link about the wealth gap above.

Because of white identity politics, the suffering of people of color is acceptable until solutions can be discovered that don’t erode the value and meaning of whiteness. This me first mentality of the white majority requires efforts to materially address unjust racial relations to pass an impossible test. If the problem is economic inequality, the opening question of the test is: can you address the economic consequences of historical racism without changing the way that racism has distributed economic resources?

If you can’t, you fail the test. Either our solutions are only symbolic, or they eventually fall to white resistance.

That’s white identity politics. It’s a tough nut to crack, especially because it’s been business as usual for so long, it’s invisible to most white folks.

Lucky though that the value that accrues to whiteness in the white identity game aren’t evenly distributed. Most of the cash value of whiteness accumulates at the top. In order to address this problem, white folks need us, and they need to break with white identity as we’ve known it til now.

So we gotta call it out. White identity politics is essential to the perpetuation of racism.

Why Firing John Derbyshire Serves Racism

12 Apr

If you’re a frequent traveler in the blogosphere, you’ve probably read about the National Review’s canning of John Derbyshire, a frequent opinion writer in that conservative rag. The firing was over an article describing the racist advice he gives his white children.

I won’t get into all the gory details as you can see Derbyshire’s rant for yourself, but the low-lights include warnings against going into Black neighborhoods, and claiming that the mean (as in medium) intelligence of Black people is much lower than for whites.

This one time I will go against my own advice and say it is good anti-racist practice to be self-righteous and call him an a**hole for that b.s.

The National Review went one better and canned him. Editor Rich Lowry released a statement that described Derbyshire as “a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer” before distancing the National Review from this so-called “deeply literate, funny” man’s racist ranting.

So, the a**hole had his say and the publication fired him. Should be good and done, right?

Well, no, because the National Review firing Derbyshire for overt racism casts light on one of the big challenges confounding racial justice advocates. That is the strategy of reducing racism to individual racist prejudice in order to make efforts to promote much more potent and damaging institutional racism appear like something other than racism.

Here’s the breakdown. The National Review was founded in 1955 as the main communications organ of the New Right. It was intended to marginalize the old, isolationist right and make way for a new, more effective conservatism – you know, the kind that has taken hold of our Congress right now?

They started out being pretty upfront in their racism, with founder William F. Buckley, Jr., basically coming out in 1957 and saying that even in places where Black people out-numbered white people, white supremacy should trump democracy because the more “advanced” race needs to be in charge.

The Review was also a mouth piece for Barry Goldwater whose presidential campaign became the template for the racist Southern Strategy to rebuild the GOP by rolling back civil rights. In the name of this strategy, the New Right eventually moved away, at least publicly, from overt racism, with the National Review in the lead.

But by the ’70s, they were attacking Affirmative Action with a two-fer strategy of using coded racism (like referring to Affirmative Action as “reverse discrimination,” and suggesting that its beneficiaries were less qualified than whites) to appeal to white resentment, while also fronting a love-sees-no-color politic that made those defending Affirmative Action look like anti-white racists supporting pro-people of color racial preference programs.

When a publication like National Review, one of the architects of this New Right Wing strategy, fires a racist writer for over-sharing, they’re just playing us. They claim outrage at the words, while promoting the sentiment behind them through the public policies they support. Public policies like William Buckley, Jr. was talking about in ’57 when arguing against voting rights for Black people.  Only now, they don’t come out and say they are keeping people of color in their place. They claim they are trying to prevent voter fraud by requiring photo I.D.

%d bloggers like this: