The Color of Our Character: Our Discussion on Affirmative Action is Wrong

Affirmative Action, Protesters
Protesters hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. The high court heard arguments on Fisher V. University of Texas at Austin and are tasked with ruling on whether the university's consideration of race in admissions is constitutional. | Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Here we go again with affirmative action.

Every time the subject is raised in the public consciousness, as it's being raised in a big way now by the Supreme Court as it once again considers the use of affirmative action in admissions at the University of Texas, I get uneasy.

I guess I've always known that AA has been under threat since its inception in the late '60s, always known that it would wind up a political non-starter with both Republicans and Democrats who hate the notion (Republicans openly, Democrats privately) that the historical and current effects of racism require us as a country to actually do something. That notion has become even more alien forty years later as we try and claim full "post-racial" status and, thanks to the outsized influence of the radical right, move further and further away from any idea of collective good, to say nothing of the idea of collective redress. In such an atmosphere, affirmative action strikes many non-colored people these days as unfair mostly because it's unnecessary -- a relic from another age, like the Freedmen's Bureau that was set up for emancipated slaves after the Civil War. Forty acres and a mule, and all that.

I submit that we are not post-racial, but post-justice. That is, we are not over racism but we are eager to leave off addressing it via public policy of any kind. This is why, when it comes to race and particularly to blackness, we long ago replaced urgent-sounding phrases like "affirmative action" with softer, purely descriptive terms like "diversity." I have nothing against diversity, but it ultimately means something optional, something that would be nice to have in a school or a workplace, but if you don't "achieve" diversity... oh well. Start over, or just scrap it altogether. Laissez-faire, consequence-free "diversity" has replaced the moral urgency of racial justice and all the action that goes along with it, yet it's the word that the University of Texas and even the NAACP have had to adopt in order to keep the spirit of affirmative action legitimate to white folks.

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The strategy hasn't really worked; ironically, the inoffensive "diversity" in some ways has simply become the new bogeyman for those people determined, in some cases obsessed, to stamp out any lingering impulses the public sector (which is funded by all of us, I should say) might have to achieve racial balance. Yet overall we are as racially imbalanced as ever, a fact evidenced not merely by the state of university admissions at Texas and elsewhere (UC, anyone?), but by ancient assumptions of privilege and non-privilege that go strictly by color. Abigail Fisher, the white woman who sued the University of Texas, sees herself as having been robbed of a spot that was "taken" by some presumably unqualified candidate of color, a view of entitlement that affirmative action is meant to counter.

Plaintiff Abigail Noel Fisher speaks to the media after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in her case on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. | Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Plaintiff Abigail Noel Fisher speaks to the media after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in her case on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. | Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It's very telling how a single white person will be denied something she wants and make a federal case out of it -- literally -- while whole generations of African Americans who are denied access to fundamental civil and pursuit-of-happiness rights guaranteed by the Constitution are accused of being self-pitying if they dare to bring any of this up. Not all exclusion is created equal, to put it mildly.

Yet the message that affirmative action is bad for us and our national morale has been pounded into our heads so long, it'll take some deprogramming to understand just what's at stake if the Supreme Court rescinds the right of the University of Texas to use race as a factor in its admissions. Remember that one of the many insults lobbed at President Obama from his detractors was that, as a black man, he was at some point a beneficiary of affirmative action. Must have been. All those blacks folks getting unfairly ahead -- the operative word here is "unfairly." That very privileged belief bordering on racial paranoia that blacks succeed only via affirmative action is the best argument I can think of to keep it in place. Besides, we never got that forty acres. Not even close.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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