Every day it seems, the headlines carry another story of racist violence, from police gunning down unarmed Black men to white supremacists bombing Black churches — or killing parishioners!
This is only the most outward expression of the ugly and deep color line that runs through U.S. society. Less publicized, but no less destructive, is the ongoing economic discrimination that taints every aspect of life.
The Urban Institute recently put a spotlight on one small facet of America’s racial wealth gap. On average, white families hold seven times the assets of African American families.
Their report and an abundance of other research shows the divide has worsened since the so-called economic recovery that followed the Great Recession. It also exposes the big lie of a “color-blind” society, pushed by right-wing ideologues and white supremacists in their war against any measures that attempt to address racism, including affirmative action.
A vital program gutted. That war is about to heat up even more now. On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear a case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, that aims to abolish the consideration of race as a factor in college admissions.
The silver lining in this attack is the opportunity it presents to fight back and demand more. Economic justice demands that affirmative action not only be saved, but strengthened and joined with jobs programs and training that will close the Grand Canyon separating whites from people of color.
Affirmative action was introduced in the 1960s, the product of social pressure on government by the powerful Civil Rights Movement. At its height, it helped millions of people of color and women gain access to education, jobs, and other opportunities long denied. It made great strides in creating integrated workforces, particularly in the public sector. In turn, this strengthened the labor movement by making workers less prone to the bosses’ divide-and-conquer tactics.
Job training, apprenticeship programs, childcare, low tuition rates at public colleges, and other government programs played complementary and equally important roles in breaking down barriers to opportunity.
Yet from the start, these programs faced right-wing attacks at every turn, bankrolled by an economic elite determined to keep the status quo intact. Hypocritically, while the use of race as a factor was deemed evil, other preferences such as for veterans and alumni were still fine.
One of the original aspects of affirmative action that gave it teeth was quotas. This involved setting aside a number or percentage of positions for minority group members or women.
By 1974 this feature was especially under the gun.
In 1978, the Supreme Court leveled a major blow to equal opportunity when it banned the use of quotas in college admissions. In Bakke v. University of California, the high court lent credence to the racist notion that whites were being victimized by “reverse discrimination.” In the aftermath of that decision, affirmative action was watered down to “goals” and “targets” on paper.
Since then eight states have gone further and banned the use of race as a factor for public college admissions: California, Florida (by executive order of Gov. Jeb Bush!), Washington, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan and New Hampshire.
Currently 29 percent of all high school students in the nation live in those states. All of those states except Nebraska also banned affirmative action in public employment and contracts.
The negative impact of these laws can be seen wherever they exist. In Seattle’s Rainier Valley, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the U.S., all-white crews can be seen paving roads while darker-skinned residents desperately seek employment. A quick look at college campuses and many worksites will show the same trend.
Clearly, race and sex discrimination are not past history but present reality, especially for women of color, who are hit doubly hard.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts recently opined that “conditions have changed.” This is true, but not for the better as he implied. Things are getting worse under the pressure of predatory lending and racist banking practices, defunding of public education, shrinking of the public sector, and shredding of the safety net. All this and more is erasing gains won from decades of struggle.
The initial cry “Black Lives Matter,” came as a response to the police killings of unarmed Black men and youth. But increasingly, activists are confronting the entire systemic and institutionalized racist enchilada. In standing up for Black lives, this emerging movement is standing up for all poor and working people, — and drawing support from labor and social justice activists across a wide spectrum. The call for strengthening affirmative action is a demand, one of many, that can give this fight firepower.
Beating back the racist attack. By taking up affirmative action, the Supreme Court is inviting dialogue about where things truly stand in the U.S. on race.
So be it! It is an opportunity to educate on the need not only for affirmative action with quotas, but so much more too. For starters:
• Expand job training programs and apprenticeships and create a mass public works program.
• Publicly fund infrastructure improvements to provide quality schools and parks; free mass transit, healthcare, and childcare; and subsidized public housing.
Lois Danks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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