Blog 3- U.S. Speakers Outline the State of Affirmative Action in Their Country

Thomas Shapiro began the United States delegations contribution to the conference. As a sociologist, he provided the statistics and context for the race based discrimination still going on in the US. He presented the findings from the book he co-authored, The Hidden Cost of Being African American. Through this project, Shapiro studied the wealth breakdown between white and black middle class families with similar education and jobs. Their study grew out of the ongoing debate on affirmative action about 15 years ago and their attempt to find a measurable impact of the past on the present, a step away from the more abstract moral and philosophical debate. In addition, the focus on wealth provided a basis to examine institutional and societal impact on accumulating resources.

From their studies, they discovered that the institutional legacy of racism placed black families’ wealth at 10 cents to every $1.00 of a comparable white family.  From this discovery, Shapiro explained that Black families have not been able to accumulate wealth due to institutionalized practices such as sub-prime lending to low to moderate income neighborhoods which had large Black populations.  

His revealing study of Jacksonville, Florida showed how sub-prime lenders disproportionately targeted the predominately Black neighborhood. When these families could not pay back their higher interest rate loans, these families lost a major form of wealth accumulation, they could not pass on this property to their next generation. These findings elicited many interested questions about the reality race played in resource distribution in the U.S.

Devon Carbado, built off of Shapiro’s presentation by discussing the social construct of race. He examined the point when race became an issue, for example when slavery became justified based on race, as well as when social meaning is assigned to that race. From there, Carbado showed a clip from a play that showed race as fluid and often based on perceptions. For example, the white team chose Colin Powel for the “white race” based on his characteristics being similar to what is perceived as white behavior.  

Carbado shifted from the clip to an examination of the 14th amendment. By examining the citizens clause, Carbado points out that this clause purposely discounted any attempts to prevent citizenship based on race by giving citizenship due to birth place. The equal protection clause ensures that all citizens are given equal protection from the law.

Historically, however, Carbado notes that race is used in constitutional cases based on compelling justification and need. From there, Carbado cites two cases where these very strict rules are passed. With the Japanese internment, the Supreme court found a compelling reason (US fighting against Japan) and need (the US is at war) to confine Japanese American citizens. In contrast, during the 1960’s Loving case, the Supreme court struck down the prohibition against inter-racial marriage since it did not present a compelling interest or need.  

However, when race is used to address racism, Carbado cites the Barclay and Michigan University cases where the court ruled against affirmative action policies because race was weighed too heavily and resulted in quotas.  Due to the recent Supreme court cases on affirmative action, diversity became the key element that met the compelling reason clause. 

Dr. Luke Harris picked up on the topic of affirmative action debate in the US by addressing the shared terms between both sides of the issue.  For one thing, despite the existing reality of homophobia, patriarchy, etc., people cling to the idea that people are all similarly situated now, there has been a break from the past.  With the civil rights movement, there is also a sense that the US has achieved equality between races, thus a color blind society should exist.   

With contemporary society believing the inequities of the past is gone, the focus on affirmative action has changed to meritocracy. As Prof. Harris notes, even proponents of affirmative action like Justice Thurgood Marshall hired only those from elite law school and rarely any black law clerks. This practice implies that everyone had a fair chance to succeed and those who are noticed happen to be the best out there, regardless of race.

In addition, Prof. Harris notes the ambivalence proponents of affirmative action show toward the policy, once again responding to the existing environment of individualism and people should be able to succeed on their own now. Ultimately, this ambivalence stems from the stigma of preferential treatment perceived in affirmative action policies.  

To sum up the various issues around affirmative action in the US, Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw pulled together each presenters’ views into a coherent picture.  She presents the allegory of a two barreled attach on affirmative action. From the courts, Prof. Crenshaw argues that these recent cases help re-enforce the current racial order and solidifies it as the norm.  Through elections, people such as Ward Connerly are pushing for ballot measures that place a constitutional bans at the state level on racial preferences. 

Since the Supreme court ruled in Michigan that racial preferences are fine but not a right, this left the door open for opponents of affirmative action to argue if it is not a right then the constitution does not need to sanction racial preferences through affirmative action policies. Yet, preferences such as legacy, that disproportionately benefit white people, are considered permissible and continue to impact school admissions.  

Prof. Crenshaw elaborates on how color blindness had been used as a weapon against affirmative action. The color blindness arguments helps validate the status quo by agreeing that inequality based on race still exists but it is not fair to take from one group to give to another.  To counter these arguments, Prof. Crenshaw uses the allegory of a race track with very different tracks for each runner. She shows that affirmative action is not about giving a disabled runner an unfair head start. Instead, it is about correcting and removing the obstacles in the person of color’s track.  Affirmative action policies equalizes opportunities to succeed.

Question and Answer session for US Delegation

Following the US speakers presentation, many questions helped further discussion on affirmative actions place in contemporary US society. Steven Friedman asked what will create the critical mass that brought about the civil rights era reforms. Eric Fasso developed the comparative end by asking about phrasing, in France, they use the term, “.. Discrimination,” which brings up issues of debate there. Yet, proponents of that policy prefer that term since it acknowledges that discrimination is involved.  Once again, the issue of color blindness came up with Daniel Sabbagh suggesting the need to find an alternative end state as opposed to colorblindness as the ideal condition in the country.  

Thomas Shapiro began the addressing these questions by clarifying why wealth, a result of structural conditions, offers a realistic idea of how racial discrimination is still a problem today. Due to homeownership rules during the booming 1950’s, many Black, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics etc were discriminated against. Fast forward into the present, and many Black families do not have the advantage of homeownership to borrow against it, have access to better schools and other advantages the increase the racial wealth gap. 

In fact, Shapiro suggests, while affirmative actions should be about fair play and equal opportunity, framing it as a mobility agenda would help gain more supporters in the public arena.

The heart of the legal debate over affirmative action came in the discussion on how the university in the University of Michigan developed their case. Prof. Crenshaw pointed out that the university completely left out arguments by university law professors, the very people immediately impacted by the decision and who could have provided a more nuanced argument for affirmative action. Instead, the University brought in deans from other law schools that admitted they had lowered their standards in order to let people of color in to their school.   

In addition, one presenter equated the issue of colorblindness with laissez-faire policies. The colorblindness appeal actually tries to ignore existing discrimination and inequality and normalize it. Institutions and propaganda campaigns have pushed this image forward in the American media. On the other side, however, has done nothing to counter these views.  Ultimately, the US delegation ended their presentation by suggesting, despite the bleak situation of affirmative action in the US, there is a need for the international community to share their views and efforts in order to ensure this long term struggle continues some where in the world.










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