Itâ€™s the Racism Stupid
Such is the case with the oft-repeated claim, usually by whites, that affirmative action stigmatizes blacks and other persons of color who benefit from its presumed generosity. As such, they note--and owing to their deep concern for the psychological well-being of their dark-skinned brothers and sisters--the elimination of such programs would be in the best interest of those persons they were meant to help.
See, they seem to be saying, we don't mind black folks. Heck we love black folks, and just want what's best for them. And what's best for them, presumably, is no more "preferential treatment" in college admissions, jobs or contracting.
First, since affirmative action has opened up opportunities that would otherwise have remained off-limits to people of color (and few deny this despite the above data indicating that white men are still large and in charge), such arguments seem to imply that people of color would have been better off not to have gotten the jobs, college slots or contracts they received.
In other words, we are to believe that less opportunity to demonstrate their abilities would have been better for black and brown self-esteem, while more opportunity thanks to affirmative action was harmful. That few people of color would trade the added opportunities they have received for the sake of their self-image attests to how utterly asinine such an argument really is.
After all, here was a book that said blacks were genetically less intelligent than whites, predisposed to crime, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and all forms of social pathology. If the right believes that affirmative action creates self-doubt, or implies that people of color are less capable and need special help to succeed, then how much more harmful must a book like The Bell Curve be, which doesn't imply that such persons are less capable but rather screams it quite openly?
Thirdly, that blacks themselves overwhelmingly support affirmative action leaves proponents of the stigma argument with only one of two possible beliefs from which to choose: either that blacks are too stupid to intuit their own interests and too dim-witted to see how badly they are being damaged by affirmative action, or alternately that blacks are so gullible (and thus also stupid) as to be deceived into supporting affirmative action by scheming civil rights activists.
Additionally, whatever stigma could even theoretically attach to benefiting from affirmative action surely dissipates once one has to prove themselves on the job or in school.
What's more, once given that chance, persons of color rise to the occasion. A comprehensive analysis of over 200 studies on the work performance of affirmative action beneficiaries, published a few years ago in the Journal of Economic Literature, found that said beneficiaries performed just as well and often better than their white male counterparts. So much for stigma.
Furthermore, to the extent such beneficiaries perform equal to or better than white men on the job, any lingering biases on the part of whites, such as beliefs that blacks are less capable and qualified, can hardly be blamed on affirmative action, but are rather the fault of white ignorance and racism itself.
Furthermore, even when the rates of matriculation differ widely there is no reason to suspect stigma or that these students of color were over their heads academically.
Since they were clearly capable students, other factors must be to blame, among them, hostile racial climates or feelings of isolation on mostly white campuses (both of which have been documented by years of studies), and financial concerns that are more common for people of color.
So whatever graduation gaps do exist can be explained by economics, not stigma associated with affirmative action.
After all, the history of white America has been a history of affirmative action; one in which we received non-stop preferential treatment and continue to do so. Yet do those who shed crocodile tears over the stigmatizing effects of affirmative action for people of color likewise argue that whites who benefit from preferences, or have done so in the past, have been stigmatized?
Are the white baby-boomers who are currently inheriting nearly $10 trillion of property and wealth from their parents--wealth that was accumulated under conditions of formal apartheid with its attendant preference for whites--stigmatized by receipt of said wealth?
Bottom line: if black and brown folks are being stigmatized by affirmative action, we whites must be the most self-hating bunch around. Years of racial privilege must surely have brought us to the point of near paralysis, such that it quite literally boggles the mind to contemplate how we manage to persist in our daily routines at all.
Given the unfair preference for those who appear to be white, and the stigma that must therefore assault every Biff, Skyler or Chloe, forced to wonder if they got their jobs due to their lily-white names, perhaps the critics of racial preferences should start a campaign for whites to change our names to Tamika, Shamika, Andre and Tyrone, just to even things out a bit and avoid the damage that would otherwise come from an unfair head start.
Tim Wise is an antiracist educator, essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org