Race-Based Affirmation Action Remains Necessary

Following the recent results in the West Virginia primary, we should be well aware of the continuing significance of race and racism in U.S. society. Exit polling (such as at CNN) shows that a significant number of whites who voted there said that race played a role in their decision. This continuing significance is not limited to politics, but also remains salient in other areas of social life, including employment and college/university admissions. (photo credit)

In the last debate on April 16th, Barack Obama made some comments on affirmative action (followed with some more by Hillary Clinton) in which he seemed to suggest his support for ending race-based  admissions policies at selective colleges and universities, replacing them with class-based policies. In a recent blog post, Kahlenberg argues that Obama should continue in this vein, that it will help him win over the support of the so-called “Reagan Democrats” (a group of voters who, as recent polls have shown in their head-to-head match-ups with McCain, either of these Democrats would lose in the general election anyway). As he did in his book from 1996, Kahlenberg reiterates in the blog that class-based affirmative action “would be colorblind but not blind to history” and “reinforce the common interests of working-class voters,” thereby assisting Obama in his pursuit of the White House.

Unfortunately Kahlenberg and other proponents of setting the sun on race-based affirmative action fail to recognize the legacy of white racism and the continuing impact of the white racial frame in U.S. society. One simple reason of this is the fact that affirmative action benefits other groups, including veterans, persons with disabilities, and women, yet the focus is on race. As pointed by Bowen and Bok, the reality is that very few students of color benefit from race-sensitive admissions policies at selective colleges and universities, so what we need is more transparency on what exactly affirmative action is, rather than mischaracterize what it does.

Kahlenberg and others also fail to account for exactly WHY we have  race-based affirmative action policies to begin with, and argue that our society today is colorblind so we should end these policies. As a variety of studies (here and here and here) have documented, and along with the results from the primary Tuesday night, U.S. society is far from colorblind. Some states have already moved in the direction Kahlenberg has wished for, and the results haven’t been promising: following the passage of Prop 209 in California, for example, black enrollment at UCLA has dropped considerably. A decline in black enrollment has also commenced at the University of Texas at Austin, following then-Governor Bush’s “Texas 10 percent Plan”, as well as brother Jeb’s similar “One Florida Plan” led to a decline in black enrollment at the University of Florida (though through recruitment efforts, black enrollment rebounded). One reason why this has happened is the fact that the majority of poor people are white in this country.

We need to understand why race-based affirmative action remains necessary in dealing with racial inequality and misunderstanding. As Bowen and Bok point out, whites need contact with students of color in order to prepare for interactions within an increasingly globalized society.

And finally, as Kahlenberg and Barack Obama (at least based on his recent statements on this issue) fail to realize is that Barack’s daughters may indeed be in a privileged position in terms of socioeconomic status. However, they remain black in U.S. society, and race can operate independently. For example, research has found that job applicants with “white-sounding names” such as Greg were 50 percent more likely to receive called for interviews than applicants with “black-sounding names” such as Jamal. In addition to future employers, will Barack’s daughters be viewed any differently from police officers, judges, teachers, or salespeople because of their more favorable socioeconomic status? Obama shouldn’t bother to pander to Reagan Democrats on this issue, since (1) they largely won’t vote for him anyway; and (2) it is bad policy.

~ John D. Foster, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff


  1. Adia

    Great posting, John. I love how in our society we continue to stick with policies that are proven failures: class-based affirmative action, abstinence-only education, war in Iraq…Then we blame the lack of progress on those who are most affected by the failed policies, rather than on the policies themselves. Nice.

  2. JDF

    Thanks so much for your comment. Jessie Daniel’s recent blog concerning Pat Buchanan’s remarks are very telling about the continuing significance of race, and more specifically the false assertion amongst many whites that blacks “dwell on the past” and whites are colorblind, and yet the exit polling reveals the opposite. We should note that Hillary Clinton had consistently led in polls among black Democrats until following the Iowa caucuses. Yet those like Buchanan continue to cry foul. Did you see the clips of white West Virginians talking about why they weren’t voting for Obama? Beliefs that he was a Muslim, or suspicion regarding his middle name. It is certain that these smears based on lies and racism will continue in the months to come.

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