From a fleeting glance at America’s glossy surface, one might be forgiven for thinking that equality between the white and African American community has never been better- the most conspicuous illustration of all is the presence of an African American President, as well as an emerging black middle class, athletes, musicians, a Supreme Court Justice, and many more individual successes. However, the same fleeting glance at statistics comparing median wealth, rates of incarceration, and inconsistencies within the justice system, would suggest something strikingly, disturbingly different: that after 50 years of race-based affirmative actions in varying forms, disparity between the white and African American community is alarmingly vast, which would then lead one to wonder at the success of these policies.
There is a strong argument to be made that race based affirmative was always going to fail, or more specifically, would fail to improve relations between both whites and blacks; indeed many might point to the controversial cases of Trayvon Martin and the Jena 6 as evidence that affirmative action has preserved or even worsened racial tensions. The best example of this would be the early Supreme Court ruling in 1971 to dictate the policy of desegregation by bussing, which outraged white middle class families at the prospect of sending their child to an under-funded school through no fault of their own, whilst the African American students being bussed to white-majority schools were also reluctant to leave behind their friends. Of course, since the heyday of Affirmative Action in the 1970s, the increasingly conservative (and central authority in initiating, and restricting the policy) Supreme Court has fronted the legal argument that in many cases, Affirmative Action is not constitutional. The steady restriction of it by decisions such as University of California vs Bakke, Gratz vs Bollinger, and City of Richmond vs J.A Croson Co have mirrored the fear of people in the mid to late 1970s that things had gone too far, and the movement has been in the opposite direction since. In fact, the only form of affirmative action is individualised affirmative action in university admissions, which many would claim is still a step too far; it was widely feared by liberals and minority pressure groups that it would be banned in Fisher vs University of Texas earlier this summer. The only black Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas is the dream of a conservative politician in favour of banning affirmative action, and serves as a powerful catalyst to the argument that affirmative action is no longer necessary. The most right-wing member of the court, he has often spoken of his experience of affirmative action- he recounts how his peers apparently looked down on him in belief that he only attained his position on the basis of race, and is now on a “crusade” to right the wrongs he feels were committed against other equally talented candidates. Thomas, in the aftermath of the Fisher ruling dismissed the theory that diversity in education and employment can be beneficial as a “faddish theory”, and when an African American Supreme Court Justice states the argument against affirmative action, it is much more compelling.
However, many would argue that the reason for the failure of affirmative action is that it was cut back too soon. Although life for the African American community has improved after the ending of de jure discrimination with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964, and 1965, to have your prospects “improve” after hundreds of years of denial in terms of education and economic opportunity, is not actually saying much. Poverty rates amongst African Americans are now in fact lower than they were in 1983. The average African American household wealth is just $6000, compared to $113 000 in white households. This evidence can be cited to demonstrate, fairly convincingly, that the only reason for the failure of affirmative action is the fact that it was restricted too soon. A liberal might well look at the country club in Tennessee whose members are all rich and white, and is staffed by African Americans and Hispanics, or at statistics such as the 1 in 3 chance that African American males have of going to prison, or the massive differences in mandatory minimum sentences for drugs stereotypically used by whites and blacks, and draw the conclusion that not only are African Americans by and large economically disadvantaged, but the judicial system is still stacked against them. The reason that Affirmative Action has failed then, is that it was not given enough time to succeed. However, a conservative would look at this information and see it as evidence of something arguably equally unsettling.
An unfortunate stereotype frequently associated with the African American community, particularly prevalent in the South is one of laziness. One might well dismiss this, but when African American commentators such as Bill Cosby begin to echo this sentiment, arguing that resolving racial inequality between the two races is as much up to the African American community themselves as the federal and state governments, the argument is given considerably more weight. Cosby pointed to a stigmatization of studiousness within the community, as well as the social problems stemming from a lack of familial stability- 72% of today’s African American children are raised in single parents households- and attitudes to prison, which for many blacks has become a “rite of passage”, as an African American male has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetime, to explain the lack of advancement he had hoped for. This links in well with the stripping back of Affirmative Action because of a fear amongst the contemporary, disproportionately white, middle class, that it had gone too far. The case today, is very similar, but this time, it is the African Americans, not the whites, who are concerned with what part of the policy remains, and it is a fear not that it has gone too far, but that it might become permanent. After 50 years, maybe Affirmative Action has failed because it has induced the complacency responsible for the alleged Southern stereotype. Living one’s whole life in the belief that working as hard as your peers is not necessary because your race gives you a leg up directly contradicts the definition of the American Dream, a vital pillar of political principles that almost all Americans agree on: you can better yourself by hard work and playing by the rules. If the policy is allowed to continue further, it could only hinder the advancement of the community further.
Senator Jim Webb in 2010 reminded America that there was a fine line between “remediation and discrimination”, and the majority of the population would now align themselves with this argument. The Hispanic community, although never forced to endure the centuries of discrimination to which blacks were subjected, has nonetheless managed to produce many successes without favourable treatment, such as Senators Marco Rubio and Harvard-educated Ted Cruz, at the helm of Republican opposition to Obamacare. Meanwhile, the progression of the African American community has not come very far at all, relative to what Lyndon B Johnson and the liberal wing of the Democrat party had probably envisaged in 1964. There is no question that Affirmative Action has failed; the far more compelling one is why. Was it cut back too soon, or was it worsening social divisions instead of improving economic ones? Personally, I think the fear of permanence is the reason for continuing inequality, and the fact that African Americans themselves are now fronting this argument is ample evidence that the lack of an incentive provided by the American Dream has robbed many talented African Americans of ambitions. Perhaps affirmative action should be implemented economically, instead of on the basis of race, as it will still disproportionately favour African Americans- for example, if you have come in the top 10% of an under-funded school, entry requirements for universities should be lower. One thing is certain: the next 20 years will be fascinating, as the last heroes of the Civil Rights Movement pass away, and the community begins to consider itself in earnest, and how to move forward.
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