Thursday, May 17, 2007

Affirmative Action: Soft Bigotry?

The other day I flipped the dial on my radio (ESPN is covering too much baseball for me) and wound up on "The Big One" (700 WLW - I am still not used to "W"s for radio call letters after forty years in the west). The talk show host was railing against affirmative action and used the term "soft bigotry" to describe his feelings about it. He suggested that if you are the recipient of affirmative action benefits, you are admitting that you are weak and in need of help. He says it is based on the idea that the white, well-endowed community pities other races and sees them as inferior (less able to make good for themselves) than whites. By creating affirmative action, advantaged whites were ensuring that other incomes and races would continue to see themselves as disadvantaged and inferior to the white community. On this basis, he called for the end of affirmative action so that everyone who achieves would know they had done so on their own, according to their own efforts, not based on a hand-out that disrespected them in a fundamental way.

What do you think of this idea?

I couldn't help but wonder if he had accounted for white privilege (kids who get into colleges on the strength of a parent's income or alumni status or get jobs because of family connections)?

President Bush, apparently, popularized (coined?) the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

I do see how there can be a point at which the affirmative action has an opposite effect to the one intended. When you know that an advantage is being given to you due to race or gender or income, perhaps there is less incentive to strive against the tendency to rest in that expectation. I saw this happen in my world growing up with regard to income expectations. Kids who had wealthy parents had little to no incentive to get jobs or take care of their possessions because they knew that more money stood behind them.

So how do you see affirmative action? Has it outlived its usefulness or is there some other kind of bigotry going on here that leads the far right to want to end it?


jo(e) said...

That kind of argument takes as its premise that the playing field is level. I would argue that the premise is wrong.

I think we cannot discuss affirmative action without acknowledging that we live in a country based on the ideology of white supremacy. We live in a country in which white people still occupy most of the top positions of power in the government, corporations, and other institutions. We live in a country in which white people have disproportionate access to resources and power.

In the United States, a black person with no criminal record who applies for a job is LESS LIKELY to receive a callback from a potential employer than a white applicant with a felony conviction. (Statistic from Devah Pager, "The Mark of a Criminal Record.")

Affirmative action is one small attempt to help level the playing field. It's not a perfect solution, but I am very suspicious of public figures who want to eliminate affirmative action without explaining how we might continue to work towards eradicating racism from our institutions and culture.

Dave said...

This so reminds me of the discussion we're having about the word "religion" over on PoMoXian list, except now the word in question is "bigot." The anti-affirmative action voices find the "soft bigotry" line so convenient, but I don't see them doing much of anything to seriously address the "hard bigotry" issues that are still active in our society.

Having said that, I think the host makes some valid observations about the potential (or in some cases actual) drawbacks of AA systems, but does he show any ability to recognize the necessity or benefits, or the circumstances that led to this approach being developed in the first place? Did he support AA at some time in the past but now has reason to believe that it's outlasted its purpose? My hunch is that he's looking for an angle to sow doubt and discord and to some extent at least is appealing to feelings of prejudice and victimhood that are held by many in his (presumably white and suburban or rural) audience.

If the issue is really disrespect, I think that people on the receiving end would sense that they are being disrespected and would make their feelings known.

Thomas Alex said...

I come from the other side of the globe and am not too familiar with American Politics, but i found this conversation interesting. The concept of "Affirmative Action" was recently imported to our countrys politics by Corporate tycoons on the face of increasing demands by "minority politicians". While the usage of the term was slightly modified to suit circumstances, i see the same Political & Economic reasoning in what is being attempted... lip service to a set of ideals which the majority does not care much about.
I saw this racial side of America in the couple of months that I was there. I think Joe is probably right when he supports Devah Pagers stats.."a black person with no criminal record who applies for a job is LESS LIKELY to receive a callback from a potential employer "... Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner talk about something similar in Freakonomics. Having said that, I also did see that the Labor Market in US is much more mature than it was say 50 years back. Black Americans seem to have more opportunities than in the past.
I therefore believe that Racism is a reality and it will continue to play an increasing role in American Politics and a decreasing role in American life (because of the phenomenon of 'mixing of cultures'). Affirmative action is like Joe correctly said, not a perfect solution...but a partial solution it is. Will it change our innermost preferences and biases, But it makes a big difference to some who are benefited by it.
Dave's observations about what the host was attempting to do are very valid. It is also true that an urban audience will probably not be receptive to the ideas discussed. However, im not sure if the people at the receiving end are in a position to make their feelings know. Even if they do, there will be very few who will listen. I think, whats going to happen is, in the long run a lot of the people at the receiving end will act and get themselves out of the position they are in society...hopefully.
Coming back to my country's context, theres something that worries the long run Affirmative Action breads a kind of dependency and a sense of entitlement.
Look forward to any thoughts you guys have...

Kansas Bob said...

I like a couple of thngs that Thomas said:

"lip service to a set of ideals which the majority does not care much about"

"in the long run Affirmative Action breads a kind of dependency and a sense of entitlement"

... I find these sadly to be true about AA.

It is sad how greed and power have always seemed to corrupt people in our histroy. Whether the topic is slavery, civil rights, job out-sourcing, immigration or whatever it seems that greedy and powerful people tend to capitalize on the most vulnerable and powerless amongst us.

Bilbo said...

I agree with Jo that the "playing field is level" premise is not convinced it is based on an "ideology of white supremacy"...but...rather suspect it has more to do with the tradtional good o'le boy system that is often in place in business transactions. In my neck of the woods the demographics have changed so much in the past 20 years that the affirmative action deconstructions may want to hold off their plans to get back to the good old days before affirmative action because they may need it themselves in the near my profession minorities have made significant inroads into various leadership positions and I suspect that trend will continue. Personally I do empathize with the spirit of affirmative action but also think the policy might need to be tweaked due to the major demographic changes that seem to be happening pretty much across the country....

Ish Engle said...

While I see the point that AA was necessary at one point, and admit that some form of balancer needs to be in play, what I don't see is how anyone can look at AA and not see it as a form of bigotry.

Sure, in the 70s and 80s it had some real needs, but their are many cases now where the playing field would be level without AA. As an example, if two suburbanite kids with similar backgrounds and transcripts apply to the same college, but one is a minority and the other isn't, the minority gets in. The fact that they are equal in every measurable way doesn't factor in.
How can anyone say "that's fair"? Isn't preferential treatment on the basis of skin by definition "bigotry"?
I don't claim that there is no problem, I just claim its time to tweak the current system. Dave said, "If the issue is really disrespect, I think that people on the receiving end would sense that they are being disrespected and would make their feelings known." To this I would ask, did whites express a disgust at preferential treatment before AA? Why whould minorities express contempt at it now?

Dave said...

Ish, I'll answer your question about disrespect. What you said demonstrates my point. Do you think that preferential treatment for whites prior to AA "disrespected" them, or should have been regarded as a "hand-out"? Probably not, but this is the comparison that the radio host was trying to make - that AA disrespected the people it was intended to benefit.

That kind of thinking grows out of the assumption that AA is motivated by the pity of affluent whites. Maybe that is how some in the "noblesse oblige" crowd feel, but I don't think that's the best explanation. AA is intended to promote cultural and ethnic diversity, which is an asset to any corporation or educational institution that understands its value. I agree that skin color is an inadequate indicator, so AA programs ought to be modified to take a wider range of factors into consideration. But much of the effort nowadays is being directed at simply eliminating them altogether.

I also see bigotry more as being about hostile or negative views toward a particular group rather than preferential treatment for the privileged.

From Websters: Main Entry: big·ot
Pronunciation: 'bi-g&t
Function: noun
Etymology: French, hypocrite, bigot
: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

julieunplugged said...

I wonder about the role of economics in the AA configuration. As minority communities assimilate into the middle class, perhaps there is some need to modify what qualifies someone for scholarships or enrollments or jobs. Otoh, it's only been 40+ years since the Civil Rights movement and we have 350 years of oppression for which to compensate. So I don't know that it's already time to change things. I don't know how or who makes that determination either.

julieunplugged said...

Jo(e) I agree, but the way, that the ones decrying AA are often the least interested in racial justice.

Ish Engle said...


You're thought on the amount of minorities who are middle class is foundational to much of my thinking. I grew up the son of a soldier, and one thing about military communities is that there is very little intolerance. Seeing groups of kids from a variety of ethnic backgrounds is more common than finding a homogenous group. I guess this has clouded my thinking, as I saw minorities as just as (and in many cases more) qualified than me for many different things.

My point is that the system is broken. I'm not for scrapping it, but I am for modification. The need is not as great as it was for the simple reason that more and more middle class folk are minorities.

As for minorities realizing that AA is not the solution, check out . This article by Walt Williams makes a good case that AA is having a negative effect on minorities, and needs modification.

brian said...

It's amazing how language can be distorted to promote one's own agenda. Conservatives referring to AA as "soft bigotry" is so reminiscent of the double-speak in George Orwell's 1984 that it's scary.

As soon as the playing field is level, we can end affirmative action. Last time I checked, the damage done to blacks in this country over the last 400 years was far from being repaired.

It's easy to call for the elimination of a hand-up and for the promotion of "color-blind" society when you're part of the group sitting in the advantaged position. Of course a color blind society is ideal. But, pretending to have one when we don't isn't the solution. Affirmative action does sometimes have unintended consequences. But, until someone comes up with a better idea, I think it should stay.

julieunplugged said...

Brian, this is how it came across to me - that conservatives had found a way to use the language of liberals to critique liberal goals.

Do you think economics should be factored into AA or should it still be across the board race related?

Ish Engle said...

AA also makes a false assumption; that what is holding back minorities is outside interference. Several studies are now looking into this concept, and realizing that there is tremendous pressure inside minority groups (especially in urban settings) to discourage advancement.

This internal pressure will never be overcome by AA, and will always keep an "unlevel playing field." Once again, there need to be changes to AA, as it is in growing numbers reverse discrimination and, for many people, soft bigotry.