Much like medication prescribed to cure ailments, legal measures aimed to redress past wrongs bring with them new, unforeseen problems that rival the ills they were meant to correct. Nearly every treatment devised to counter the effects of cancer in turn bring with them undesirable consequences, such as the well known severe hair loss associated with chemotherapy.
In recent history, the world reaction to the horror Nazis inflicted upon Holocaust victims likely impacted the post-World War II decision to create the state of Israel as a haven for the Jewish people, with little forethought about the entrenched Palestinian population traditionally residing there. This lack of prescience set the stage for the volatile interplay of the Middle East that continues 70 years later.
The above are examples taken from the world of science and international diplomacy, respectively, but the same concept might be applied to other, seemly dissimilar realms. In this instance, they occur in the topsy-turvy world of politics, even when well-meaning souls have the audacity to promote solutions for the betterment of humanity. As the story continues, the duel phenomena of affirmative action and reverse discrimination interact and influence each other in unpredictable ways.
The cause of equality
“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
—From a June 4, 1965 commencement speech by Lyndon Baines Johnson at Howard University.
The push for equality among America’s population of color gained momentum in the second half of the 20th century, accelerated with President Lyndon Johnson’s application of his “Great Society” in the mid 1960s. A major component of this push towards a more compassionate life for America as a whole was the “War on Poverty.” Earmarked to improve the lot of citizens regardless of ethnicity, Johnson envisioned sweeping changes to include higher wages (along with training to qualify the poor for better jobs), the quality of housing, healthcare, and educational opportunities for the traditionally disadvantaged.
The methodology to implement these fine ideals has, in hindsight, been criticized for being ill conceived, but no one could question Johnson’s ardent commitment to do the right thing. Using the political acumen he acquired as a congressman (where he paradoxically voted against all the civil rights legislation between 1937 and 1956) and senator, he introduced a furry of bills to uplift the common man.
Among them were measures to contest pervasive discrimination in the hiring process for coveted jobs, along with admission practices for matriculation into prestigious colleges and universities. This idea, popularly known as affirmation action, has its roots in the unfulfilled legacy of President John F. Kennedy and his Executive Order 10925, which mandated that those who secured government contracts “…take ‘affirmative action’ to ensure” the people they employed would be selected “without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin.”
To be sure, this approach yielded dramatic results. Black people gained entry into professions they’d previously been excluded from, as unemployment among their ranks plummeted. The median family income among African Americans rose from 1960 onward, according to the Pew Research Center. Most tellingly, 1965’s Appalachia Regional Development Act brought economic assistance to that stereotypical, 13-state bastion of White deficiency, proving that Johnson’s “unconditional war on poverty in America” could improve the lot of Americans of all races.
Alas, these overtures were no “magic bullet.” For every area that witnessed significant improvement as a result of the steps taken by the Johnson administration, others were overlooked. More poignantly, relaxation of standards to enable minority access to the job market, and especially to gain enrollment in selective institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, this meant that talented White candidates with better credentials were excluded. The most prominent example of this is the University of California (U.C.) vs. (Allan) Bakke decision of 1978.
Bakke, an ex-United States Marine Corps officer and engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, had been denied admission to the U.C. Davis Medical School at the age of 33 (an example of the practice of age discrimination allowed in higher education during that time). During the same period, several Hispanics and one Black student gained entry with better grades and lower scores in the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) than Bakke, which motivated him to file a lawsuit. The suit resulted in a split decision, although Bakke gained admission (he went on to become an anesthesiologist) as the court maintained the validity of affirmative action.
The outcome stands as the most important piece of legislation since 1954’s Brown vs. the Board of Education, in a battle for racial equality that shows no signs of gaining closure. Even after the dust settles in an individual case like Bakke, the debate still goes on.
Not just Black and White
“Alan Smithee” is a pseudonym for those in the entertainment industry who wish to distance themselves from a particular project for whatever reason. We’ll use it here as a moniker for an actor-who wishes to remain anonymous in relating his personal experiences negotiating the racial mine fields of these United States. Originally from the South, he made his living in the defense industry before embracing his passion for acting.
He started off his interview by declaring he has no recollection of benefitting from affirmative action in his working career. As for the hue and cry so pervasive in the country at the moment, he has no sympathy for the sob stories sung by the “make America great” faithful.
“Those people are just full of it!” he retorts.
Not a knowing recipient of racial quotas or preferential treatment, he is none-the-less adamant that such programs are a necessity.
“We have to make the playing field level somehow,” he said.
The discontent that permeates the media is, in his opinion, just sour grapes for those nostalgic for the way things were.
“What they’re really saying is ‘We takin’ back what’s ours!’”
He says his most telling experience with discrimination comes not from the Whites in authority, but other ethnic groups in the blue collar arena.
“On assembly lines preferential treatment comes from a mindset of ‘I gotta help my own.’”
He explains this by reasoning that he might do the same if placed in the same position.
“A.P.” is a native southern Californian whose faculty with mathematics anchored his success up the academic ladder, to his current posting at a research center adjacent to the Bay Area. Identifying as Jewish, he acknowledges his formative years mirror his present professional environment in that both enclaves place a premium on “…being on the ‘right side of history’.”
This may be interpreted as saying ticklish subjects like affirmative action and reverse discrimination might be touched on superficially, albeit without any attempts at in-depth examination or reflection.
“There is a lot of political correctness and I think that there is a lot of self-censorship,” he notes.
“I now live in Silicon Valley and it is the same way.”
Moving on the political realm, he expresses a degree of compassion for the “perception of victimization” prevalent today.
“I think that I can understand how a certain number of White Americans might feel marginalized/victimized, and then end up voting for Trump as a result.
“This feeling is held by working class White people, and Whites (who aren’t necessarily working class),” he continued, “…who feel like they reside outside of the ‘elite establishment’ (whatever that may mean). This is really a class issue misconstrued as a race issue.”
Surprisingly, A.P. has an alternative view of the benefits of affirmation action, even though he has not directly profited from it.
“It has made institutions more diverse, and thus has given me the opportunity to meet people from walks of life that I maybe otherwise wouldn’t have met,” he said.