Absent affirmative action, race is as empty and meaningless as skin color; it is affirmative action that creates racial differences

Today’s Guests Are:

Cheryl Harris : Faculty Director of the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA Law School. She is the author of leading works in Critical Race Theory including the highly influential “Whiteness as Property” (Harvard Law Review). Her work has also taken up the relationship between race, gender and property and most recently has focused on race, equality and the Constitution through the re-examination of Plessy v. Ferguson and Grutter v. Bollinger. As the Co-Chair for the National Conference of Black Lawyers for several years, she developed an expertise in international human rights, particularly concerning South Africa. Professor Harris was a key organizer of several major conferences both in South Africa and in the United States that helped establish a dialogue between U.S. legal scholars and South African lawyers during the development of South Africa’s first democratic constitution in 1994. She is a member of the Advisory Board of the Bunche Center for African-American Studies and is part of the Executive Council of the American Studies Association. Professor Harris is the recipient of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California 2005 Distinguished Professor Award for Civil Rights Education.

George Lipsitz: A professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He studies social movements, urban culture, and inequality. He is the author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. His other books include American Studies in a Moment of Danger, Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition, the biography of Ivory Perry, which examines white supremacy and probes into the ways that race determines life chances and structures experience in the contemporary United States; Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place, and Time Passages.  Lipsitz also serves as editor of the Critical American Studies series at the University of Minnesota Press, and the recently published Singlejack Solidarity, a collection of writings by longtime labor activist Stan Weir.

To listen to the episode, please click on the icon below:

Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


MYTH: Absent affirmative action race is as empty and meaningless as skin color; it is affirmative action that creates racial differences.

FACT: Skin color might be meaningless, but race is a socially-constructed category that is tied to skin color, and it has been and continues to be used in order to create and enshrine privileges for one group at the expense of other groups. Racial differences in the United States have been present at least ever since whites made themselves dominant over all non-white groups, and the only way to address this is by acknowledging the ways in which “whiteness” functions. We live in a society with deeply-entrenched and zealously-guarded racial differences. Affirmative action serves to break down these constructed differences (for instance, by introducing diversity into spaces that would otherwise remain barred to non-whites). It is part of a strategy aimed at ending racial domination that otherwise would continue unchallenged. It, therefore, represents a response to, not the cause of, the racial disparities that emerge from a norm of privileged whiteness.

Undergirding the myth that affirmative action creates racial differences is the belief that without affirmative action race is as empty and meaningless as skin color. By this logic, it follows that equality can be brought about by treating everyone the same without any consideration of race at all. Reducing race to something as innocuous as skin color permits critics of color-conscious policies to argue that people are treated equally as long as no one’s race is taken into account. But this superficial equality is blind to the reality that race is not primarily about skin color. Indeed, race itself is not even a biological category. As Ian Haney Lopez notes, what we have come to think of as race is the cumulative effect of legal rules, social policy and cultural practice. The effects of these cumulative practices are NOT the same for whites and nonwhites. Some find themselves running in lanes on a track cluttered with obstacles, whereas others can find themselves running a race completely free of unwarranted impediments as we discussed in Myth 1.

In other words, it is simply not the same thing to be white as it is to be of color. As Professor Lopez shows in his book “White By Law,” race is a fluid category that is determined as much by public attitude as it is by any visual indicators that we have come to associate with it. Race is simply a way of keeping benefits in the hands of one group, while leaving everyone else in a systematically subordinated role.


The creation of white privilege is a process that passes acquired goods and benefits from one generation to the next. From America’s inception, whiteness has been used to keep certain groups out in order to exploit them. The clearest example of this is slavery, but there have been many lesser examples, such as the use of immigrants as cheap labor by exempting them from the standards and pay that one would reserve for white workers. Over time, many groups that were not originally “white” have been able to become white through a process of assimilation and the accumulation of resources — this group includes Italians, Irish, and Jews. (Read more about how the Irish and Jews became white) However, whiteness needs an “Other” to define itself by, and those whose skin is most different from the skin color associated with “whiteness” — that is to say, people of color–are forever shut out from the benefits of white privilege. As a result, people of color are shut out from all the opportunities that whiteness reserves for itself, and instead are damaged by all the ways in which a system that rewards whites and subordinates others maintains the status quo of white domination.

Did you know?

It’s great to be white in America:

If you are white in America you can expect…

* to live long enough to receive social security benefits

* that your child will live longer than a Black child

* to be only 25% as likely as a black family to live below the poverty line

* to be only half as likely to be unemployed as a Black person

* to score higher on standardized test that are calibrated to your performance

* to be more likely to have access to costly preparation for standardized tests

* to be more likely attend a high school that teaches a substantial number of “AP” courses

* to be more likely to have a relative who attended the college or university of your choice than a person of color

* to be less than 1/3 as likely to be murdered as Latinos and Asians and less than 1/6 as likely as Blacks

* to be more likely to have inherited a home or some other form of wealth

* to be able to live in an integrated neighborhood if you so choose

* to be called back for a job interview (even if you have a criminal record and your competition doesn’t!)


Rebecca Blank America Becoming, Racial Trends and their Consequences, Vol. 1

HUD report on discrimination in metropolitian housing markets

United Nations development programme press release: May 25, 1993

Those who have benefited from white privilege are unaware of it because of the way in which whiteness operates. Whites find themselves reaping the fruit of trees that they never planted, but that were there as long as they can recall — always just there and to which they have always been entitled. Their ignorance as to who planted, and tended the tree in the first place thwarts the efforts of those who are trying to shake the fruits loose for themselves in the post-civil rights era. The MCRI is an attempt to keep whiteness, and its “serendipitous” fruits above the reach of people of color and to hinder their ability to negotiate for resources and opportunities in the institutions in which they live and work.

Peggy McIntosh introduces a way of thinking about racism that is often ignored. Even those of us who have come to understand that racism manifests itself not only in the the actions of individual, irrational actors, but also in society’s structures and institutions, think of racism as something that puts subordinated others at a disadvantage. Racism, in the form of white privilege, however, puts whites at an advantage. McIntosh describes white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.” Not only does it put whites at an advantage, there is no mechanism by which it is brought to their attention. Consequently, whites are often oblivious to the reality of white privilege and, therefore, come to view disparities in wealth, educational, employment and — and even in health outcomes — as normal. Click HERE to learn more about the Invisible Knapsack.


Our Constitution was built on such special rights – for whites: property rights, contract rights, voting rights, the right to own human beings during the era of chattel slavery (and to “recover” Blacks if they dared steal themselves away since to escape from slavery would have been considered a theft, of oneself!), the right to benefit in the form of tax breaks and increased political representation under the 3/5 compromise (which allowed whites to have political representation apportioned based on their own own numbers plus the sum of 3/5 of a person for each slave within the state borders, but NOT be taxed based on such fractions of humanity) are all witness to this reality.

Since reconstruction, non-whites seeking to assert the same rights as whites have been rebuffed as seeking “special rights.” Just 20 years after the abolition of slavery, African Americans seeking federal enforcement of anti-discrimination laws were admonished by the Supreme Court to stop making a federal case out of their predicament and to learn to make do like everyone else. Framing civil rights as “preferential treatment,” the Supreme Court intoned, “Slavery is over,” you can’t be the “special favorites of the laws” forever.

Believe it or not!

From the beginning, law has played a central role in demarcating who was white and who was not. Although we have come to see these categories as natural, race is actually a product of numerous legal rules that prescribe certain behaviors, create certain privileges and disabilities, and distribute them to various members of the population. Consider, for example, the rule of hypodescent, that is to say– the “one-drop-rule” of racial identity. In this case, while one drop of blood might render a white looking person Black, no amount of white blood could render any person “with discernible Negro blood” white. The only explanation for this asymmetry is that whiteness as an identity is to be kept separate from and above everything (and everyone) else not embraced by this identity.

Thus, Virginia’s 1924 Act for the “Preservation of Racial Integrity,” defined whiteness as white a person with “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.” Exceptions were made, however, for individuals with less that 1/16th Indian blood as concession to honor the role of Pochohantas in the life of the state of Virginia. Interestingly, the very person for whom the exception was made, however, would not herself have been able to enjoy the benefits of whiteness. As a full-blooded Indian, she would have remained “nonwhite.”

Just one generation after the demise of slavery, the Supreme Court saw the plaintiff’s claims for access to the same accommodations, facilities and services as whites as an unwelcome attempt to access those rights that had been reserved for whites. Whites comprised the universe of people who could possess such rights. Thus, whiteness was (and arguably still is) the requisite admission ticket to partake in the American Dream. It is guarded with great care, and for non-whites (and even for white women) the path to access to the privileges reserved for white men is a long and tortuous one. In this light, Black men did not gain the simple emblem of citizenship – the right to vote – until 1865. The franchise would not be extended to women until 1920, and to Native Americans until 1924!

Once established, the privileges associated with whiteness have become the basis for future entitlement and they have been extraordinarily difficult to subvert. Many whites have responded to political demands and even governmental policies designed to modestly dismantle their privileges as a violation of their civil rights. Laws promoting school integration, desegregating public accommodations, the protection of voting rights, and even the repeal of miscegenation laws were all met with venomous denunciation (and sometimes violence), and characterized as special rights that unjustly impinged on white rights.


Most Americans are aware that there is a huge advantage to being considered white in America. This accounts for why, when Professor Andrew Hacker, a prominent sociologist, asked his white students what amount of money they felt they would need to “compensate” them if they were told that they would become suddenly and irrevocably black, many of the students indicated that they would need $50 million, or perhaps $1 million for each year of their remaining life. In so doing, Hacker’s students were admitting something that the vast majority of us intuitively understand: white privilege provides a host of advantages, many of them monetary. To preview Hacker’s book, “Two Nations: Black and White, Seperate, Hostile and Unequal,” click HERE.


Affirmative action is a modest effort to derail the stream of resources available to those who benefit from white privilege; and it has been met with a vitriolic backlash. Michigan’s Proposal 2 is just one example of a broader effort to place the privileges of whiteness outside of the reach of people of color. In this respect, it represents an effort to stem the diminishing over representation of those who have historically benefited from racial privilege.


Colorblindness is a “preference,” a preference for the status quo. It allows institutional and structural forms of racism to continue unabated. To understand the nature of white privilege, however, allows one to re-frame the affirmative action debate, to move it away from notions of preferential treatment and toward a viable conception of equality, with whiteness no longer the norm.

Mythbusting Homework:

1. Can you…

— …arrange to be in the company of people of your race most of the time?

— …be pretty sure of your ability to rent or purchase housing in an area you can afford and in which you would want to live?

— …be pretty sure that your neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to you?

— …turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of your race widely represented?

— …be sure that your children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race?

— …choose public accommodations without fearing that people of your race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places you have chosen?

— …be sure that if you need legal or medical help, your race will not work against you?.

— …choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match your skin?

— …swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of your race?

— …do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit your race?

— …criticize our government and talk about how much you fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider?

— …be pretty sure that if you ask to talk to the “person in charge”, you will be facing a person of your race?

— …worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking?

[source: Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack ]

2. Ask these questions of your friends or colleagues of different races, and consider the similarities and differences in their answers

3. Can you identify any others?



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