Many people, even well-meaning, thoughtful, and intelligent liberal people, have a major issue with affirmative action policies. In fact, folks from all over the ideological map struggle to understand any program or policy that allows for race to be taken into account. Whether they be housing, hiring, promoting, legal, whatever. People see what looks like textbook racism – looking at a person’s skin colour instead of hir credentials – and goggle at the seeming hypocrisy of it. Why is it okay to look at race to give certain people an advantage, but not the other way around? Two wrongs don’t make a right!
I get it. I really do. I can even sympathize a bit. I lay the blame for this confusion not at the feet of the individuals who lack understanding, but rather at a society that is terrified to discuss race for fear it will reopen old wounds. After a major victory in the 1960s, we began to get gun-shy about the topic of race. Beyond some superficial bromides about “colour blindness” and pulled quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., we have become entrenched in the position that less is more when it comes to discussing these kinds of social issues.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the notorious “judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” line from King’s I Have a Dream speech thrown out in an attempt to deride affirmative action programs, as though Dr. King wasn’t an avid supporter of AA (he was), or that skin colour was the only thing he ever talked about. Part of the reason King’s Dream was called that is because it was not yet a reality. If I dream of being rich, acting like I’m already rich is going to screw me over pretty hard. Instead, I have to buckle down, put in the work, commit myself, and whore myself out to enough rich widows to make that dream a reality.
So in my ongoing quest to open up the dialogue and equip people with a more sophisticated understanding of race, and in line with my preferred method of pedagogy, I offer you an analogy. Suppose you had to make a decision about a cancerous tumour, or perhaps to separate this analogy from my job a bit, a limb with gangrene. Imagine that the disease was spreading, and you had to figure out the best course of action to take in order to address it.
Now obviously we could just leave the limb alone and let it all rot away. There are very few people who would choose that option, because it’s needlessly and insanely destructive and potentially fatal. Taking the ‘do nothing’ approach off the table, one course of action is to simply amputate at the site of the infection. Cut away all the dead/dying tissue and nothing else. This would be the most ‘fair’ way of going about it – remove the problem and leave the healthy tissue that hasn’t done anything wrong completely alone.
The problem with this option, as anyone who has even a superficial understanding of medicine [cough cough ME cough] knows, is that gangrene is a subtle problem that it notoriously difficult to remove surgically. The body has a problem, and short of a surgical instrument so precise that it rivals any technology that humanity has ever created, the rot will continue even after the surgery. Simply cutting away the obviously-diseased tissue is not a sufficient remedy.
Which leaves us with the only remaining option – cutting above the rot to ensure that the spread is halted. This involves removing some uninfected tissue, because it is impossible to know precisely which cells are at risk. It is perhaps a clumsier approach than ideal, but it is the best way to ensure that the problem stops before the problem becomes even worse. Now, if you were one of the healthy cells that was about to be amputated, I’m sure you’d find this a manifestly unjust course of action. After all, you don’t have gangrene – why are you being ‘punished’ for a problem that doesn’t affect you? This question, while seemingly reasonable, becomes obviously invalid when considered in this context. Time and again, we have people who are essentially standing up and decrying the amputation option, arguing that King’s dream was about leaving healthy cells alone, not cutting them off!
To step away from the analogy, when we recognize that society has a problem with racism, the need for (and virtue of) affirmative action-style programs becomes apparent. We can force ourselves to be blind to the issue except in egregious circumstances (i.e., ‘colour blind’ approaches), which will only result in the continuation of the status quo until it progresses to levels where we begin to see severe dysfunction without the need for intentional malice. Our other, smarter option is to take an active approach (i.e., from an anti-racist standpoint, which includes affirmative action) and recognize the need for intervention in order to save society as a whole.
Those who argue against affirmative action, or any race-conscious policy, on the grounds of ‘reverse racism’* are basically arguing that cutting people is wrong. And it is – I am not in favour of people being allowed to go around with knives and carving each other up. That would be bad. However, that argument is far removed from anything relevant to the issue. Racism isn’t wrong just because it’s wrong, racism is wrong because it has the effect of harming society (particularly the minority groups, but it handicaps us all, regardless of who we are). Failing to understand the problem in any kind of depth repeatedly puts us in the position of railing against “reverse surgery”.
Of course, this analogy assumes that affirmative action is akin to cutting off part of a limb. Where the analogy breaks down is that AA policies do not simply halt the progression of systemic racism – they can reverse the problem, giving us an opportunity to actually regrow the limb. This is not simply sacrificing a part to save the whole, this is taking a temporary loss and investing in ourselves – all of our selves – in order to actually improve society in the long term. There is also very little evidence to suggest that the ‘healthy’ cells (i.e., white people ‘cheated’ out of a job by an AA hire) exist in nearly the numbers that are claimed. If we are insistent on continuing to think of this in a medical context, we would perhaps be better served by thinking of AA as a skin graft or a marrow transplant rather than an amputation.
The problem is that race is a more complicated topic than can be adequately understood through selective mining of a few passages from one speech from one black leader in one context 50 years ago. It’s a conversation that needs to keep happening – not until the problem is “solved” (whatever that would look like), but until we are sufficiently fluent in the language of race to constructively and skillfully navigate the problems that will inevitably come up. Failing to achieve this doesn’t simply put us at the risk of cutting ourselves off at the knees, but of failing to solve the problem in time to save the rest of the leg.
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*This is an exceedingly stupid phrase. Racism is racism – there is no such thing as reverse, unless you wish to make the argument that racism from whites against other groups is the way racism is ‘supposed to work’.