Affirmative Action Is a Radical Social Policy Out of Step with American Ideals

Guests on this show:

Kevin Gaines: Director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at University of Michigan. A historian, Dr. Gaines is the author of Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century and most recently American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates in the Civil Rights Era.

Read Dr. Gaines’ essay, “Whose Integration Was It: An Introduction”

Read Dr Gaines’ paper for “Historians Reflect on the War in Iraq: A Roundatable”

Scot Brown : is Assistant Professor of History at UCLA. His writings on African American resistance, social movements, and cultural nationalism have appeared in the Black Scholar, American National Biography, Journal of Black Studies, Journal of Negro History and Contributions in Black Studies. He is
the author of Fighting for Us: Maulana Karenga, the Us Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism.

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Myth: Affirmative Action Is a Radical Social Policy Out of Step with American Ideals.

Fact: Affirmative action does not represent a radical set of social policies. Nor was it the brainchild of radical civil rights activists. In fact, affirmative action policies were developed by moderate American politicians who sought to promote modest programs designed to begin the process of dismantling contemporary forms of institutional discrimination in the workplace, in higher education, and with respect to public contracting.
Lyndon Johnson
Richard Nixon

In fact, affirmative action is the result of an initiative introduced by President Johnson — a Southern politician who once carried the banner of the segregated South — to create real opportunities for people of color in the waning days of the massive Civil Rights Movement. More interestingly, although the concept of affirmatively moving to do away with the built-in obstacles to minority advancement was initially articulated by a Democratic administration, affirmative action was most aggressively advanced by the very Republican Nixon Administration.

Affirmative action was framed by the business-oriented Nixon administration as an incentive structure to encourage contractors to rethink the way that partnerships were developed and the way that exclusive social networking mechanisms denied meaningful opportunity to people of color and Euro-American women. In short, contractors and employers were urged to rethink the way that business was done. In this respect, affirmative action reflected the Nixon Administration’s view that federal dollars should be spent in a manner that encouraged contractors and employers to assess their application pool and thereby ascertain whether there were ongoing barriers that unfairly precluded the full participation of traditionally excluded groups.

President Nixon and others realized that in the aftermath of a broad societal upheaval to end patterns of segregation and unequal opportunity, a business-as-usual approach would simply not be enough to alter the every-day practices of exclusion that had become entrenched across multiple industries. Despite the gradual emergence of a consensus that economic and social apartheid had been morally bankrupt, the notion that non-discrimination required businessmen and other decision-makers to change their long established practices to promote equal opportunity remained a controversial and ultimately unwelcome idea. Affirmative action was designed to meet that resistance and inertia, prompting instead new patterns of decision-making to dismantle the barriers to opportunity. Against this backdrop of entrenched exclusion, affirmative action does not represent a movement from nondiscrimination to “preferential treatment.” Instead, it represents a policy designed to make the idea of non-discrimination something more than a mere rhetorical promise.

Not surprisingly, affirmative action actually enjoyed broad bipartisan support across the Democratic and Republican parties and was promoted by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Of course, it was opposed by various political figures who had also opposed the major Civil Rights legislative efforts in the 1960s. It was not until President Reagan was elected to office in 1980, however, that the ideological and political assault on affirmative action moved to center stage in American politics. Initially, then, affirmative action was not widely regarded as a contradiction to the newly minted American commitment to non-discrimination. Rather, its architects understood it to be an essential governmental policy necessary to provide an incentive to promote a new vision of equality.

So why has affirmative action been miscast as a concession to militants, as a radical move unsupported by most decision-makers?

When these important policies are misrepresented, it becomes easier to encourage Americans to fight back against this perceived outrage. When we imagine the “culprits” behind affirmative action to be Black radicals who held the country hostage, or weak-minded white liberals who discourage personal responsibility and hard work, the policies become easier to challenge. Opponents of equal opportunity claim that rather than pushing back the clock on progress, ending affirmative action is an imperative to correct the erroneous path our society has been walking down for nearly four decades. If we challenge their fraudulent claims about affirmative action’s origins, we can expose these claims for what they are: merely an attempt to stereotype vital policies by ignoring their central purpose.

Mythbusting Homework:

To read a timeline of the history of affirmative action, please click

Try to think about the circumstances of your family in 1961, 1965, and 1969 — the years when Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon articulated a vision for affirmative action.  Was your family in a privileged or subordinate position? Is it a radical idea to suggest that decision makers in American institutions would have to rethink the utility of employment traditions developed during the era of American Apartheid, in the post-apartheid era?



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