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

On the 40th Anniverary of Martin Luther King’s Death

MLKOn the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, there are lots of remembrances of him from people who were in Memphis at the time (thanks to gtwain for that link) and others for whom his death forever shaped the rest of their lives (photo credit). I thought it appropriate today to put up some thoughts about the two issues that were most on the mind of King at the time of his death: war and poverty. It was exactly one year before he was killed (April 7, 1967) that King gave his famous “Riverside Speech” (at Riverside Church here in New York) in which he denounced the Vietnam War. In that speech he lists seven, very powerful reasons for his opposition, among the most moving today is this:

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

I think about this as I hear people today talk about violence and immediately shift the focus to angry, young, black men as if they had invented violence.

Of course, King was in Memphis in 1968 to draw attention to a protest by sanitation workers, a protest that he saw as central to the poor people’s movement he wanted to build.    When Dr.King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he spoke of “two evils” – the first was racial injustice and the second was poverty:

A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves. Take my own country for example. We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens – some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals – are bound to a miserable culture of poverty. In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. …So it is obvious that if man is to redeem his spiritual and moral “lag”, he must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” of the world. Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.

His words ring as true today as they did more than forty years ago.  My hope on this anniversary is that we can find the political will to carry forward the substance of Martin’s vision rather than simply reassure ourselves with ceremonial and self-congratulatory rhetoric that his dream has been realized.

Pew Report on Racial Views Deeply Flawed

On November 13, 2007, the Pew Research Center released a report on racial views of white and black Americans that captured much media attention and some response from bloggers. Much of the report’s analysis is odd, misguided, or weakly interpreted. The report, done in association with National Public Radio, is based on a telephone survey of more than 3,000 Americans, including an over-sample of 1007 African Americans, with only a 24 percent response rate.

The summary of the report on the Pew Research Center website is itself odd, misleading, and/or white-framed in much of it analysis of the state of racial matters in the United States. For example, the lead heading for this summary is in a large font size and virtually screams “Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class.” The first pie chart is headed with “Are Blacks Still a Single Race?” And, the first paragraph of textual analysis reads:

“African Americans see a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.”

In the first place, these are not the most significant findings in the survey from the point of view of a country with nearly four centuries of racial oppression as its foundation and continuing reality. The most important findings of the Pew survey are those that are not emphasized in the heading of the summary of the report on the website: that more than 80 percent of the African American respondents reported widespread racial discrimination in at least on major area of the society. Two thirds reported that African Americans always or often face discrimination in jobs or In seeking housing. Fifty percent said the same for shopping and restaurants. Also significant is that the survey found a majority of whites denying these realities reported by African Americans. (Is it odd to ask the discriminating group if they see the discrimination they or their peers do, and parallel that finding to what are called the “perceptions” of the targets of that discrimination?) The summary’s comments on these questions are well down in the report and only generally characterized.

The summary writers also report on a vague question about the state of black progress higher up in the second paragraph of the summary of the report, one that indicates that only a fifth of the respondents think things are better today for blacks than five years ago and that less than half (44 percent) think life will be better for blacks in the future. Then they report that whites (why, again?) are twice as likely to see black gains in recent years, and that a majority of whites think the future will be better for blacks.

The analysis is clearly framed from a white perspective, with no lead-in emphasis on the widespread racial discrimination cited by these African American respondents. Pleasing whites by not featuring the continuing racial discrimination seems to be the desire. Considering that whites created centuries of slavery and legal segregation, and ended all that less than four decades ago, this approach is suggestive of an establishment bias.

The opening story about a “divided race” is also problematic. The conclusions about a divided racial group mainly come from two questions in the survey, one asking “In the last ten years . . . have the values held by middle class black people and the values held by poor black people become more similar or more different” and another rather odd question asking, “Which of these statements comes closer to your view, even if it is not exactly right: Blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse; OR Blacks can still be thought of as a single race because they have so much in common.” On the first question 61 percent of the black respondents replied “more different,” while on the second question 53 percent said “single race” (37 percent chose “no longer . single race . so diverse”).

These questions are themselves so superficial as to be hard to interpret if not useless. The first question actually leaves out half of Black America, the working class half that is neither “poor” nor “middle class.” One cannot draw strong conclusions about the supposedly divided state of Black America and leave out half the population. In addition, the largely white-controlled (and often conservative) mass media hammer so hard on the “pathologies” of poor black Americans that it is not surprising that some black as well as many white respondents have stereotyped notions about the supposed (negative?) “values” of these poor Americans, most of whom in fact have many of the same positive values as the rest of the U.S. population with regard to issues of family, education, and the American dream. Significant here too is that the word “values” is left vague and undefined. What did the question (white) writers have in mind?

The question about “single race” is also so vague and ill-defined that its results are hard to interpret. First, a majority of these black respondents do not see a divided race, a finding that is not emphasized in the Pew report. Secondly, the word “diverse” in the question can mean several things, since it is not specified for the respondents. What kind of diversity do the respondents have in mind who chose the first presented option? The resulting data indicate more about poor question-writing by the survey researchers than a finding one can feel confident about interpreting. One also has to wonder again about the role of the mostly white-controlled mass media in generating inaccurate notions of a splintered African Americans group even in some African American minds.

Several conservative talk show hosts and mainstream media commentators, including Juan Williams for NPR, picked up on another vaguely worded, and loaded, question asked in the survey: “Which of these statements comes closer to your views: Racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead OR Blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Fifty-three percent chose the latter option, with 30 percent choosing the discrimination option. Again, this is written from a white racial frame, as it poses a false dichotomy. One can easily choose both options of individual responsibility and racial discrimination in assessing the problems for “many black people.”

Racial discrimination and oppression, as other questions in the survey mentioned above indicate, are well recognized by a majority of these African American respondents as creating very serious limitations on black lives–a view that is unsurprising given that this country has only had freedom from slavery and legal segregation now for about 38 of its 400 years (less than 10 percent of its history!). Given the intense accent on individualism, it is not surprising that African Americans, like other Americans, typically accent individual responsibility for what goes on in individual lives. That does not lessen the reality of racial oppression, nor their knowledge of that oppression from everyday experience.

Racism, Suburban Sprawl and Imagining a Green Future

I ran across this interview with Van Jones via AlterNet. In it, Jones is talking about the new book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. Jones does a nice job of connecting some dots that may seem disparate to many, like the link between suburban sprawl and racism. Here’s a short bit from the interview:

Sprawl is a response to racial fear and anxiety on the part of white elites. The ‘burbs were designed as a vehicle to get away from people of color, investing more in the white infrastructure as they moved away from the city, and the neighborhoods where people of color live. The other side of that is the disinvestment for the communities that remain behind; the money follows the new suburban development. Those that remain in the inner city continue to lose in this scenario.

When asked in a follow-up question what’s preventing environmentalists and inner-city residents, who both have an interest in stopping sprawl, from working together, Jones does not hesitate to name the issue:

“Racism. It is the reason that people move away from each other. People don’t want to talk about why people call this a “good” neighborhood or that one a “bad” neighborhood, but often it has to do with the race of the people that live there. White people divorce themselves from the bad neighborhoods and move to the suburbs. The black community has a lot of built-up feelings about our history, about the racism we experience. There is some healing that needs to take place there, so these communities have some issues, and don’t want to work with each other, necessarily. There are a lot of feelings there.”

And, Jones goes on to make the connection clear between racism, the current system of incarceration, and what this means in terms of working for a green future :

“The incarceration industry is the new Jim Crow; you don’t have to call him the “N word” if you just call him a felon. There are the same amount of drug problems in the ‘burbs that there are in the inner city, but in the ‘burbs the white kids get counseling, they don’t go to prison. Generally speaking, they only call the police in the ‘hood. The system has responded with compassion to white kids. …Again, the new Jim Crow is incarceration. This is the barrier that separates people from the lives they want to live. You go to the back of the line as a felon. You lose your voting rights, can’t get a good job, you’re denied student loans. It is devastating. We spend less money on public schools than on locking people up; it’s far easier to go to prison than to get a scholarship. … This distorts economic development. The current economic strategy is to take poor black kids, put them in jail in rural areas, and give poor white kids jobs as guards in that prison. That is the economic strategy. Rural towns can’t compete with industry, farms are all going away, so prison is an economic boon for rural communities. Come on, we can’t come up with a better strategy than that? In California, for example, nearly 10 percent of the state budget goes to the prison system, and that could grow to 15 percent or even higher. When you lock up a state budget like that, where is the money to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency? … We can have a Gulag or a green economy. But we can’t have both. If we train former prisoners and guards to put up solar panels, they are already on their way to becoming electrical engineers. If we train them to double pane glass, they are on their way to be a glazer: a good union job and green path out of poverty. Bamboo, it’s so different than timber, you can cut it and it grows back quickly. If we can train folks to do the green thing, they can then walk to the front of the line in an economy based on green jobs instead of an economy from pollution-based jobs. That is where these issues connect. What we need is a green wave that can lift all boats, that can lift folks out of poverty.”

Jones’ is much-needed voice. If there are any folks in the Bay Area interested in these issues, Jones’ Ella Baker Center is hosting an event on November 14, called “Green Cities, Brown Folks,” as part of their on-going “Solutions Salon.” And, if you can’t make it to the event, try that Donation button and drop a dollar. These folks are doing good work.