THE DEMISE OF AFFIRMATIVE
By Yvonne Bynoe
Among the hot topics in this year's presidential race, affirmative action has received little attention. Unlike past elections when candidates courted voters by either supporting or opposing affirmative action, candidates from both political parties are shunning traditional affirmative action in favor of policies that help the "disadvantaged". Last November, Florida Governor Jeb Bush put a program into effect by executive order. The program, One Florida, ended affirmative action in the state. The name alone suggests that affirmative action was an arbitrarily divisive mechanism instead of one that redressed past discrimination carried by Whites against Blacks. The One Florida program ends preferences for businesses owned by women and non-whites. Oddly enough Texas Governor George W. Bush implemented a similar program in his home state. Moreover, One Florida also ends the use of race as a factor in college admissions. Instead it has been replaced with a guarantee that the top 20% of all high school students in the state will be admitted to at least one of the state universities. While statistically it is true that income-based programs will help Black Americans, these color-blind policies obscure the realities and impact of persistent racial discrimination.
The reasons for the creation of affirmative action still exist. It was inevitable that the combination of unfavorable court rulings, unsupportive whites, and the increased number of Hispanics and Asians coming to the country would end this legislative initiative aimed to assist Blacks. The only remaining question for Black Americans is whether we are now going to construct a new strategy? Will we begin scrambling only after the final death knell of affirmative action has been sounded? The writing had been on the wall regarding the demise of affirmative action for some time. But the dagger was thrust upon us in the Supreme Court case Richmond v. J.A. Croson in 1989. The Supreme Court ruling in Croson severely limited the ability of non-whites to challenge racism without empirical proof of prior discrimination of "qualified" non-whites by a given entity or industry.
I do not question the real need for affirmative action. I do wonder why we assume that it was intended to be permanent fixture in American life. Affirmative action was never meant to continue into infinity. It is reasonable to think that the crafters of the legislation envisioned a future in which Black Americans would have access to the same opportunities afforded to whites in an open society. I further question how the Black community could have chosen to base our futures on the largesse of the federal government and the generosity of white folks. If history serves as any guide, affirmative action came to being because white Americans would not comply with the prior laws enacted to stop racial discrimination. In essence, we should have known that laws alone would not be enough to ensure equal access.
The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution provides that "[n]o state shall make or enforce any law which shall deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law." Along with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, it secured liberty and equal protection under the law for former slaves. Despite these amendments, segregation and racial discrimination were still commonplace in many states well into the 1950s. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas came to pass in 1954 because "separate but equal" was really separate but unequal. Not in an esoteric sense but with regard to the inferior school facilities, textbooks and teacher training that white officials had provided to educate Black students. In response to the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government attempted to end discrimination against Black Americans by enacting Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was adopted to remedy centuries of racial discrimination against Black Americans by leveling the playing field. The Act basically gave Black Americans legal access to educational, employment and housing opportunities that had formerly been closed to them. Despite this, improvements in the circumstances of Blacks had changed very little. Five years later in an effort to increase representation of minorities in the work place, President Richard Nixon promulgated the first federal guidelines for affirmative action.
Affirmative action policies took two forms. The first was recruitment and remedial training; the second and more controversial form were quotas that set-aside a particular benefit for non-whites. These programs were criticized on the basis that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment by taking away opportunities from one group (Whites) and given them to another group (Blacks). The majority of white Americans polled today are still opposed to affirmative action in its current form. Many Whites advocate a need-based scheme that would also help poor Whites. If Black Americans were honest, we would have to admit we have lived for the last 29 years as if affirmative action was never going to end. We certainly havenít planned for the day when Whites would deem that their noblesse oblige had been satisfied.
Unlike Jews or Asians, Black Americans have not sufficiently stressed the importance of education as a means of social and financial advancement. Additionally we have not emphasized the relevance of preparedness once Black students have been accepted into the schools. Unfortunately, poor Black youth are more apt to see entertainers and athletes as role models even when statistically it is more possible for them to be doctors and lawyers. One of the chief criticisms of affirmative action was that as determined by standardized tests, less qualified non-whites were being admitted to colleges at the expense of more qualified White applicants. In real terms this was true. Non-whites were indeed scoring lower on tests, primarily because their schooling had been inferior to that of their white peers. Why did the Black community not focus more of its attention on improving educational opportunities for Black children? If this isnít done, how will our children compete?
While it is naÔve to think that equal test scores alone would guarantee equal access, at least the issue of the competence of Blacks would have been removed from the debate. The result of our apparent laxity is that despite affirmative action, Black Americans are still underachieving academically. The College Boardís National Task Force on Minority High Achievement compiled extensive research data which produced the following findings: 1) 10% of the 4th, 8th and 12th grade students who scored at the highest level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were Black, Hispanic or Native American; 2) Non-whites earned only 13% of the nation's bachelor degrees, 11% of professional degrees and 6% of doctoral degrees in 1995 when they made up about 30% of the under-18 population; 3) at predominantly white colleges, non-whites earned lower grades than other students who scored similarly on entrance exams; 4) Overall men earned 45% of all bachelor degrees in the mid-1990s, but among Black students only 36% were awarded to men. Surprisingly the report showed that even Black and Hispanic children from wealthy families with educated parents do not perform as well as similarly situated white and Asian peers. This means that Black parents at all levels are not doing enough to prepare their children to compete academically. On a larger scale, the parents are not familiarizing their children with racism they may confront in some white educational environments. For many wealthier children of color, racism or discrimination may present them with a greater shock to their confidence and self esteem. Most poor Black and Hispanic youth have experienced it all of their lives.
Overall our reliance on affirmative action has not fostered a greater sense of fiscal responsibility among Black Americans. In the area of wealth building, Black Americans are still in a dependence mode. A large number of Black Americans still do not own property and we do not save our money. Rather than choosing to spend it in places that will ultimately benefit their own communities, we encourage our young people to work in the new corporate plantations. Ultimately they spend their earnings elsewhere. Today in many poor Black neighborhoods, one can find several Black owned beauty & barber shops, laundry mats, and mom and pop grocery stores all eking out a modest existence. Post-affirmative action planning could encourage these small neighborhood businesses to band together instead of relying on affirmative action.
Clearly there are no easy answers about how Black Americans can ensure their continued inclusion. What is evident is that we cannot depend on whites to play the roles of our protector and savior. As affirmative action eroded, there have been some real negative changes. In 1998, a California ballot banned the use of race and sex in college admissions and public employment at the University of California at Berkeley. The University of California at Los Angeles reported marked change in the racial and ethnic make-up for their incoming classes. Berkeley reported a 57% drop in the number of Black applicants and a 40% decline in the number of Hispanic high school seniors who had been accepted for admission. For UCLA, the decline was 43% for Black American students and 33% for Hispanic students. Ironically, 800 Black applicants to Berkeley who had 4.0 grade point averages and scored at least 1,200 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test were turned away from Berkley. It is unclear whether these number point decisively to the discarding of diversity in education or simply reflect intense competition.
Black Americans must prepare themselves for the day when there will be no affirmative action and an even lesser sense of responsibility on the part of whites for the sins of the past. Affirmative action opened the proverbial door for a good number of Black Americans and contributed to an increased Black middle class. Many still argue affirmative action benefited Black Americans already on the road to advancement. Affirmative action, like welfare, has become a crutch that we are not actively weaning ourselves from. My father has often said that when we learn the rules, they change the game. Our survival has depended on our ability to adapt to changing circumstances, political policies and laws. We must utilize this valuable skill even more. It is no longer enough for us to rant about why our children are testing lower than white children or failing in school. We cannot complain further about being passed over for promotions. It is time to be pro-active to better prepare us to take charge of our futures.
Preparation may mean that Black Americans should look to charter school or voucher programs to provide better learning environments, rather than to continue supporting public schools. Additionally, we need to see that our children are reading more instead of sitting mindlessly in front of the television. We need to save our money and invest in professional tutorial programs that prepare our children for the collegiate level. This premise also holds true for most civil servant exams. The bottom line is that we have to sacrifice our own time, effort and money for our own advancement. If we are not willing to do these fundamental things, then we have no right to shout about equality since we would be expecting a free ride rather than our just due.
For comments, contributing writer L. Yvonne Bynoe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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