Last Sunday, veteran Washington Post journalist Juan Williams and conservative author Shelby Steele wrote two opposing op-eds on the pending death of affirmative action. Williams opined that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was too optimistic when she predicted that affirmative action, born with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had at most 25 more years to live. And Steele argued that persistent racial inequality today between whites and African Americans is primarily a result of black underdevelopment rather than racism. I think they both missed the mark.
For all of Pat Buchanan’s angry bluster and “white men built this country” rhetoric, he too misses the glaring but often unspoken truth about affirmative action: that white American women have been the biggest beneficiaries of so-called minority preferences.
All economic indicators, higher education admissions’ practices, and corporate and law firm figures show that when it comes to leveling the playing field in the past 30 years, white women—not black men, black women or other persons of color—have gained the most ground.
Political theater plays best when you can stoke racial fears and use the images of “unqualified blacks and browns” admitted to schools through flawed affirmative action policies taking the “rightful” position of “better” qualified white students or professionals.
But the stark facts, according to a CNN Black in America 2 report, suggest that white women are the least negatively impacted by the struggling U.S. economy. The unemployment rate for white women is just 6.7 percent, compared with 9.1 percent—just below the national average—for white men, 11.1 percent for black and Latina women and 20 percent for black men.
All of the Republican banter over whether Judge Sonia Sotomayor will be a liberal, race-obsessed justice on the Supreme Court or whether she will follow the strict constructionist mandates of the Constitution misses the crux of why affirmative action emerged in America and why it is still needed.
Ironically, the original intent of affirmative action somehow spiraled out of control right from the get-go. The phrase “affirmative action” was first used in President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order 10925, which requires federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” The same language was used in President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Executive Order 11246. In 1967, Johnson expanded the executive order to include affirmative action requirements to benefit women.
This is key to understand, because it has been only in my lifetime (I was born in 1967) that the government has mandated that blacks and women be given equal opportunity and access in education, employment and contracting opportunities.
So why is it that people of color still lag so far behind their white female counterparts? Could it be that white men—who still overwhelming control hiring and promotion in the workplace—chose the lesser of two evils, if you will, in advancing white women over black men and women of color?
I don’t have the answers, but there is an interesting body of thought out there called “unconscious bias theory” that I encourage all Americans to objectively consider. This theory says: Our cultural biases and stereotypes about other races and genders impact our decision-making processes in the workplace, in who we socialize with and how we advance in our careers.
This is not rocket science—but it is something that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the federal courts have begun to take very seriously in the wake of mounting workplace discrimination claims. It is something we would all do well to consider as we continue to debate the merits of and need for affirmative action policies in America.
Sophia A. Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.