Defend Affirmative Action!

Published in 1917 West, No. 6, October 1995

Affirmative action is under attack in the courts and on the presidential campaign trail. In California, Governor Pete Wilson attempted to ride the perversely misnamed “California Civil Rights Initiative” all the way to the White House. A century ago, in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court justified its infamous “separate but equal” criteria for segregation with the ruling that, “legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts.” This ruling led to a wave of Jim Crow legislation throughout the Southern states segregating railroads, schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, swimming pools, etc. Today the proselytizers of the gospel of unbridled greed, who oppose the very idea that state intervention can or should be used to ameliorate social inequities, are seeking to gut what remains of the gains of the black struggles of the 1960s.

Federal government regulations aimed at curbing discrimination go back to the 1930s, but it was only the social turmoil of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s that produced any serious legislative intervention. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1964 provided the legal framework for challenging discriminatory employment practices. Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 in 1965 required federal contractors to ensure that all qualified applicants receive consideration regardless of race, creed or national origin. Under Richard Nixon, Johnson’s Republican successor, employers were required to develop timetables and goals for increasing employment of women and minorities in sectors where they were under-represented. By the 1970s many corporations were setting their own hiring and promotional quotas.

For a significant layer of women, as well as some blacks and other minorities, affirmative action helped level the playing field. Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who led the criminal assault on Iraq in 1991, reached the rank of general because of affirmative action. But for most people affirmative action has had little or no effect. The corporate boardrooms have remained overwhelmingly white and male, while poverty has remained disproportionately black and female. According to a report of the U.S. Census Bureau in 1993, 33 percent of black Americans were living in poverty whereas only 12 percent of whites were. Half of all households headed by black women fell below the poverty line, compared to 29.2 percent of those headed by a white women (Emerge, May).

‘Color-Blind’ Hypocrisy

Those attacking affirmative action today seek to cover their racist agenda with benign talk of “fairness,” “individual merit,” and “color neutrality.” One of the first successful attacks on affirmative action was the 1978 Bakke decision in which the Supreme Court asserted that “less qualified” applicants were being admitted to medical schools and outlawed specific quotas, while allowing color to be considered as one factor in admission policies. The emphasis on “qualifications” for job applicants and college students ignores the fact that test scores and grades (themselves skewed indications of aptitude or capacity) have never been the sole determinants of who is judged most suitable.

The U.S. is a society built on preferential treatment for rich white males and the systematic exclusion of women, blacks and other minorities from positions of power and even most skilled jobs. The foes of affirmative action pretend that preferences are contrary to the values of this society--but in reality preferences are the norm. The Civil Service has always awarded extra points to veterans, employers frequently favor job applicants with references from current employees, and colleges admit talented athletes (as well as children of wealthy alumni) regardless of their test scores. Claude Steele, a Stanford psychology professor recently noted that: “Overall, affirmative action causes little displacement of other students--less by far than other forms of preferences, like the one for children of alumni” (New York Times, 31 August).

Those who are so adamantly opposed to “quotas” for redressing racial and sexual oppression are frequently eager to employ them in situations where they expect to benefit, as Steven Holmes pointed out in his 10 March column in the New York Times:

“And what of quotas? In 1986, the Reagan Administration negotiated a trade agreement with Japan under which that country set a goal of American manufacturers gaining 20 percent of Japan’s market in computer chips. The policy though highly contentious, is still in force. Yet conservatives, who are often backers of free trade, saying purchasing decisions should be made solely on quality and merit, have generally not criticized the deal as a manipulation of the market.

“The computer chips agreement is rare in international trade negotiations--as are rigid quotas in affirmative action. But the use of numerical goals to measure the success of opening the Japanese market to American goods and services is not.”

Opposition to affirmative action is not based on egalitarian principle but rather on simple prejudice--the silence of the “color blindness and fairness” advocates on the racist application of the death penalty is deafening.

A Palliative--Not a Cure

We defend affirmative action because it opens some doors for women, blacks and other minorities--but it is a palliative, not a cure. This is a society in which racial and sexual discrimination are so deeply rooted that it will take a social revolution to begin to eliminate them. The much ballyhooed legislation of yesteryear, such as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act (1963) modified, but did not eliminate racial and gender discrimination. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to enshrine equality between the sexes in the Constitution was never ratified.

Affirmative action was intended to divert the energy of a generation of angry black youth from a struggle against the racist capitalist social order into the pursuit of individual opportunities for advancement through access to decent education and jobs. The gains of the 1960s have proven transitory, and today with the disappearance of an identifiable black political movement and the labor movement on the defensive, ruling-class demagogues are using the campaign against affirmative action as a battering ram in their multi-faceted assault on poor and working people.

From their inception, government-sponsored affirmative action programs were quite consciously used to exacerbate divisions in the working class. White males refused entry to college or turned down for jobs were informed, or assumed, that the reason they were not successful was that the position had been earmarked for a female or minority applicant. Today’s campaign against affirmative action is designed to distract attention from the fact that the capitalist elite is engaged in a massive program of enriching itself at the expense of everyone else. Those backward workers who think that the reactionary campaign against “reverse discrimination” will protect them from the ravages of “lean and mean” production, with its endless downsizing, outsourcing and speed-up, are deluding themselves.

Unemployment is a necessary feature of a capitalist economy--it exerts downward pressure on wages and provides a pool from which to draw workers in boom periods. When workers are forced to scramble for jobs, discriminatory hiring patterns fuel racism (and/or sexism), cheapen the cost of labor and strengthen the social dominance of the corporate rulers by dividing the working class against itself.

The false consciousness of the white plebeians who blame minorities and immigrants for plummeting living standards is paralleled by illusions among victims of discrimination that affirmative action proves liberals and government to be their friends. Black workers who are unaware of the history of the massive integrated class struggles of the 1930s that forged the industrial unions and won significant advances for all working people doubt that white workers can ever transcend their racism. Such pessimistic views can lead to indifference, or worse, in the face of employer attacks on hard-won union gains such as the seniority system.

Government intervention in the union movement is inevitably aimed at attacking the capacity of the workers to assert their own class interest. Weakening union protection will not benefit women or minorities--in fact such measures erode rights and living standards for all working people. The idea that a capitalist government, whether liberal or conservative, can be transformed into an instrument to advance the interests of the exploited and oppressed is suicidal. The government is the administrative apparatus of the capitalist state--it exists to serve and protect the system of organized social inequality and oppression that a market-driven economy requires and reproduces.

Break with the Republocrats! Build a Workers’ Party!

The divisions within the working class have blurred its vision and weakened its resistance to the capitalist assault. A large measure of the responsibility for this belongs to the servile class-collaborationist union leadership. Tied to the Democratic Party of racism and war and committed to the preservation of the rule of the capitalist oligarches, the corrupt, anti-communist union bureaucracy has squandered much of the strength of the once powerful institutions over which it presides. As a result today many workers accept the “logic” of fighting each other for a piece of a shrinking pie. American unionists desperately need a new, class-struggle leadership that starts from the elementary recognition that workers and bosses have nothing in common.

The recent wave of aggressive capitalist attacks on unionism and workers’ living standards can only be met through a determined counterattack. This means a return to the tactics that built the unions in the first place: refusal to obey anti-labor laws, mass pickets to stop scabs, plant seizures and hot-cargoing. A successful labor counteroffensive must include a struggle for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay to end unemployment. Such a campaign should be tied to a fight for the massive expansion of necessary public services--health care, housing, education and social infrastructure. A labor upsurge around such demands could unite employed and unemployed workers and galvanize mass support from millions of blacks, Latinos and other minorities whom the capitalists are throwing on the scrap heap.

A key objective for a resurgent labor movement must be to fight for union hiring halls as a means of ensuring that seniority rights are respected and that employers don’t get the chance to discriminate in hiring. To redress generations of injustice, a class-conscious union leadership would launch an aggressive campaign to recruit and train minority and women workers to fill “non-traditional” jobs--all at the expense of the capitalists, not white male workers.

Such policies, which are both necessary and long overdue, conflict with the interests and priorities of the bankers, corporate elites and their retinue of ideologues and publicists. But the vast bulk of the population has no stake in maintaining a system that produces extravagant wealth at one pole and unbelievable misery at the other. Capitalism is an irrational economic system that has long been a historical impediment to the advancement of human civilization. The dazzling displays of technical progress recorded in information technology in recent years do not change the fact that this is a decaying social order that is spinning out of control.

The future for humanity under capitalism can only be growing insecurity, social polarization, environmental degradation and, ultimately, thermonuclear war. But there is an alternative--the collective ownership of society’s productive capacity and the establishment of a democratically planned economy in which the principle of production for human need, not private profit, determines social priorities. It is high time for the American workers’ movement to break with the Democrats and Republicans--the twin parties of U.S. imperialism--and forge a workers’ party committed to the expropriation of the exploiters and the establishment of a workers’ government.

Posted: 06 May 2006