The importance of affirmative action

Race and gender barriers still dominate US workplaces and institutions

March 5, 2023 — Women gather for free hands-on training in utility careers provided by a local electric cooperative at a state-of-the-art training facility in Palmyra, Virginia. PHOTO: Northern Neck Electric Cooperative
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The recent Supreme Court decisions banning consideration of race in college admissions continue the socioeconomic assault on the least privileged in the U.S. In these cases (Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College; Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina), anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum accused two high-profile universities of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants.

While the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court found no basis for the accusations, it still used them to rule that race has no place in college applications, as if we live on some post-racial, feminist “level playing field.” This all unfolds as abortion, critical race theory and drag queen story hours are being outlawed.

A bad rap. Not surprisingly, affirmative action has always been misunderstood and misrepresented. Some claim that it steals opportunities from deserving white folks and rewards unqualified women and people of color. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that affirmative action places Black and Latinx people “where underperformance is all but inevitable.” Others simply pretend it has succeeded and is now unnecessary.

In reality, affirmative action counters undeniable racism, sexism and nepotism, and addresses the historical exclusion of women and people of color in education and the workplace. Controversies over “special consideration” being given to those other than white males are a distraction. It’s simply giving an equal opportunity to folks who have been systematically excluded.

Quotas enrage affirmative action opponents, because they are the best way to enforce it. Without quotas, we get the meaningless Rooney Rule of the National Football League, requiring only that non-white and women coaching candidates be interviewed, with no commitment to actually hiring any! Preferential treatment for white men cannot be combatted if we can’t see who is excluded and demand to affirmatively make space for them.

Affirmative action is often blasted for “only” having helped white women, based on some strides they have made. But workers of color made gains, too. Now, where affirmative action has been banned, public employment rates have decreased 7% for Hispanic men, 4% for Black women and 37% for Asian American women — and increased 4.7% for white men. This statistic especially belies the right wing “model minority” myth that Asian Americans have achieved equality and have no need for affirmative action. This myth divides people of color, denies Asian Americans opportunities they need, and scapegoats Black and Latinx people for receiving “unfair” advantages.

I am the only woman plumber left in the San Francisco Water Department (SFWD) after my female co-worker was killed on the job in a preventable accident. Affirmative action never went far enough! It needs to be strengthened, to reach people of all colors and genders — including poor white women.

Of course, equality and equity are not priorities when profit reigns supreme. Take Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), which is, except in rare cases, mere window dressing. DEI departments create eye-catching graphics valuing “everyone,” while racist, sexist pay gaps; hiring and firing abuses; and poor working conditions remain commonplace.

Bringing workers together. The Court has not outright banned affirmative action on the job, and that is a good thing. Such programs are a means for some to finally climb out of poverty. They are one way for all people of color and women to demand their rights and equality, and a proven strategy for integrating many segregated workplaces.

My union job at SFWD means I work shoulder-to-shoulder with people of many backgrounds. It gives me, a queer white woman, allies in fighting the bosses, and helps me connect my mistreatment to the oppression that others face.

This reform is a critical tool for the entire working class. The fight to win it came out of the movements that exploded in the 1960’s and 1970’s — civil rights, anti-war, feminist, and queer. Fierce fighters of every stripe were a part of all those movements, many demonstrating solidarity across race and sex lines, based on their common humanity and working-class connections.

Now, we need the most militant rank-and-file union fighters to push the broader labor movement to restore affirmative action, in the public and private sectors. The labor upsurge is thanks to affirmative action empowering women and people of color to break down barriers to union membership. Today’s revitalized movement needs to demand public, union jobs programs to provide a living wage for all — and insist no one is left behind.

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