Recently, discussions surrounding affirmative action and its fairness have become more and more frequent. On Twitter, I often see the ignorant argument that it isn’t ‘fair’ because a more qualified white student may be passed over for a slightly lower-achieving person of color. But I was shocked after recently being pulled into an argument about affirmative action with my own cousin. Though I knew the children of this particular aunt had taken to their father’s conservative views, I didn’t know the indoctrination was so complete. As I gave evidence, from redlining, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration to wealth’s impact on academic performance, I was met with anecdotal evidence from him. “Well, Indian immigrants don’t have a problem attaining prosperity so…”, “A black guy was valedictorian at my school…” , “We’re Irish, and the discrimination we faced…” were all responses I heard. First of all, I would like to say that the United States has a population of 330 million; for any situation, an anecdote to refute the norm will exist. That is why stories are not accepted as good argumentation. They appeal to one’s emotions while statistics and facts appeal to one’s logic. That said, I’d like to put forth evidence based on logical reasoning for the existence, continuance, and amplification of affirmative action.
First, I’d like to start with the Irish claim. The Irish, Germans, Jews, and Asian-Americans are often pointed to by the white majority as examples of upward mobility. This, however, ignores multiple facets of the argument. First, it has never been illegal for any of those four groups to be educated in this country. Many first-generation immigrants were skilled craftsmen and professionals, and were able to immediately start creating wealth when they arrived in America. We did not enslave anyone from any of the groups. And the Irish, German, and Jewish were able to blend into the white majority when open discrimination against them was deemed politically incorrect. Suggesting that the situation is the same for African-Americans, that they have only failed to succeed because of themselves, is both offensive and ignorant to our own country’s history (and your privilege if you are a part of one of the groups). The existence of Jim Crow laws, redlining, and mass incarceration all have contributed in major ways to our oppression of African-Americans and subsequent need for affirmative action.
African-Americans, when compared to white Americans, are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line (kff.org). Unemployment and infant mortality rates among African-Americans are more than double the rates found in white America (Understandingprejudice.org). Legal discrimination against African-Americans just ended in 1950, with schools like Ole Miss, UT Austin, LSU and Charlottesville’s own UVA admitting their first African-American students as late as 1962 (complex.com). In addition, the practice of redlining created recurring problems with wealth and credit for African-Americans that persist today. An appraisal of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn stated bluntly “[c]olored infiltration a definitely adverse influence on neighborhood desirability ” (NYT). This left no room for misinterpretation; the policy was racist and unfair to the African-American community. Lines labeling black neighborhoods as hazardous discouraged investment and made it much harder for residents to obtain a loan. Additionally, the VA used the lines to determine who qualified for a housing loan; at a time when many family’s generational wealth began, African-Americans access to the equity and profitability of owning a home was cut off (NYT). With loans being nearly nonexistent, predatory lenders moved into the communities and further drained them with high interest rates justified by the same neighborhood rating that crippled the community in the first place. Only in 1968 did the Fair Housing Act actually abolish the practice. The legislation was strengthened and given the ‘teeth’ it needed to be enforced when it was amended in 1989. With property tax being the main source of funding for education, the system is inherently discriminatory. Poor neighborhoods invariably have less to offer students for education, therefore poor students are more likely to be unprepared for college. Today, our public school system is even more segregated than it was forty years ago when segregation was legal (WashingtonPost.com). This only furthers the point that the lines drawn were “self-fulfilling prophesies” (NYT) that condemned neighborhoods as soon as red lines were drawn around them.
Now that we’ve gone through the recent history of oppression by the United States, we’ll now move into our current history of oppression. One in three African-American men will be imprisoned in their lifetime, a rate more than five times higher than the rate for white males (Sentencing Project). Similar to males, black women are more than five times as likely to be jailed than white women. With felons losing the right to vote, travel abroad, bear arms, be employed in professional fields, or take part in social welfare programs like Social Security, food stamps, and government housing, the age of mass incarceration is the modern day tool of oppression that America has chosen to decimate the African-American community (nap.edu). With the War on Drugs coinciding with deregulation and the loss of factories in major industrial cities, many African-American males were forced into lives of crime to provide for their families; three strike laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the special treatment of crack all helped to decimate the black family, leaving single mothers to raise children. It is no coincidence that, when legal discrimination against African-Americans was outlawed, the prison population grew almost five fold, from 161 persons per 100,000 in 1972 to 767 persons per 100,000 in 2009. The negative effects of imprisonment are well documented, and yet we currently jail a quarter of all imprisoned people in the world. With a disproportionate amount of those prisoners being African-Americans, the motive behind mass incarceration and the War on Drugs is clear: it is the next wave of legal oppression of minority groups, black people especially.
For all of these reasons, affirmative action must exist. If a person succeeds in a system that is working against them, and has been for generations, they deserve to be rewarded. We have pushed an entire group of people into communities that we deemed to be the worst we had; we did not allow them into our schools, and we starved their neighborhoods of economic investment and growth. We’ve abandoned integration efforts, and our school systems reflect it. And we are currently locking African-Americans up at rates unseen by any other group in any other country in the world. If a black student gets admitted to a school with lesser qualifications and you feel wronged, just think to yourself how much that student and his/her family has overcome. It is not wrong or unfair to take all of these factors into consideration; in fact, I would argue that affirmative action doesn’t go far enough. We have three hundred and fifty years of legal, unbridled discrimination and about fifty of “equality”. Reparations in some form must be extended as an acknowledgement of our past actions as a country. More must be done to right the scales and lift up African-American students and at least make the playing field even. A good start would be the impeachment of Donald Trump and the end of the mass incarceration era.