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LOCAL Commentary :: Race and Ethnicity : U.S. Government

Affirmative Action and the Quest for Democracy

Michigan's recent ban on affirmative action is inspiring similar ballot initiatives in several other states, and this should be of deep concern to every citizen with a democratic social conscience. Coppin State University Humanities Professor Robert Birt argues that until U.S. citizens are ready to radically democratize the entire social order, we have a moral duty to defend and strengthen those limited achievements of reform.

As a citizen and educator, I am deeply appalled. For at stake is no minor shift of public policy, but rather the American principle of democratic equality. In particular, the anti-affirmative action measure--now practically a movement--suggests that America is abandoning her commitment to racial equality which was inspired by the civil rights movement, and subtly reverting to the ugly, antidemocratic tradition of white privilege and supremacy.

Affirmative Action is a fruit of our legacy of progressive social struggles, and especially of America's black freedom movement of the 1960s and 70s. Hence an attack on affirmative action may be seen as an attack on progressive movements, an effort to nullify those movements by negating their accomplishments. Progressive struggles are those movements of collective action which work to expand democracy, freedom, equality and economic justice and prosperity beyond the limits to which these are confined at any given time by the prevailing status quo. Abolitionism, labor movements, the women's movement and the Black freedom movements of the 1960s are all historic examples of progressive movements. All sought to expand democracy beyond the existing confines of slavery, class privilege, patriarchy and racial caste.

Short of total revolution in the social order, the expanding of freedom, equality and economic justice is normally achieved by instituting reform measures within the existing social and political system. Progressive thinkers and activists (even revolutionary ones) have usually promoted some kind of reform measure. Some of these measures are designed to extend civil liberties to those who were previously denied them (e.g. the ballot for white women in 1920 and Blacks in 1965). And redistributive economic measures have been proposed to encourage economic equality, or at least a modicum of economic well being for the poor and those of modest means. Social security, Medicare and financial aid to disadvantaged students are examples of such redistributive economic measures. Dr. Martin Luther King's proposal for an Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged was another such measure and a part of his plan for his Poor Peoples Campaign.

Affirmative action is a social reform measure intended to enforce civil liberties won by the Movement of the 1960s, and to extend economic opportunity to people of color who have been (and still are) excluded or hindered on racial grounds. Affirmative action has been extended to counter discrimination against women. It is intended to insure that hard won civil liberties and laws granting them are not reduced to a dead letter.

But a part of the intent is also to remedy the economic ravages of racism. Blacks were not only denied the right to vote or live wherever they wished if they had the money. The racial caste system also worked to maintain disproportionately high levels of poverty among Blacks by denying both economic and cultural opportunities needed for the achievement of a measure of prosperity. By requiring employers and universities to provide programs to undo the resulting damage, affirmative action seeks to offer some relief from the economic and social injuries of American apartheid.

Affirmative action is no panacea, no solution to the problems of poverty and racism. It serves mainly to reduce racial discrimination, and to open up spheres of economic opportunity that would otherwise be denied. I would like to see affirmative action rethought with the intent to more specifically address the poverty so widespread among millions of Black common folk. For affirmative action probably more readily benefits middle and upper class Blacks in their legitimate battles against discrimination than common black folk who face economic oppression as well as racism

But this is true of all social reforms. Yet we do not simply abandon them. Blacks as a whole got the right to vote in the 1960s, but it is the politicians (usually elected by our votes) and blacks of the business and professional classes who are able to gain the greatest benefits. It is they who have the money to live where they please and the resources to sue for discrimination if their rights are denied. The rights won by women most readily benefit the educated and well off. The gains won by labor more readily benefit skilled and organized workers in their battles against economic oppression and unemployment. But should we end women's suffrage and other rights won by women? Should we end worker's compensation or collective bargaining? The limitations of social reforms are not indictments of those reforms, but rather telling commentaries (with some redress) on the systemic inequities within our social order.

Short of a social revolution, the alternative to social reform is social regression, the likely return in new guises of old unmitigated forms of oppression. Without such reforms overt racial and economic injustice might again run rampant with impunity. We may regard affirmative action as a reform intended to insure that discrimination against people of color is at least mitigated. It is no solution to the problem of poverty of the masses any more than the 1964 civil rights act is a solution to racism. But its elimination would reduce even further what economic options that might still exist (however small) for all black people. As Dr. Martin L. King (who may have coined the expression "affirmative action") eventually realized, no social reform is the solution because racial and economic inequalities are embedded in the social structure of America. But anyone who seeks to end social reforms without ending the systemic social injustices and inequities which make them necessary is working against the best interests of the people. Until we are ready to radically democratize the entire social order, we have a moral duty to defend and strengthen those limited achievements of reform won by the blood and sacrifice of millions of people.

Dr. Robert E. Birt is professor in the Department of Humanities at Coppin State University.

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