Affirmative Action 101: Critical Questions

Sometimes critical questions yield faster results than absorbing information, and they’re always good to ask no matter what subject is being considered or read about.  They are especially important when white folks create and/or confront myths about affirmative action.  White arguments against affirmative action tend to share the same basic formula and they follow a noticeable pattern, so many of the most common ones (although there are more) have been reproduced below in quotes.  Some of them are paraphrased from conservative editorials/articles, and some of them are from actual conversations with white folks. This shit is seriously useful, whether you’re asking these questions of yourself or others.

“A person of color got this job because of affirmative action and I’m more qualified than they are.”

—How do you know that?

  • It’s straight up racist for white folks to assume we are, as a fact, inherently more “qualified” than PoC, or to assume affirmative action gets them hired over well-deserving white folks simply because they aren’t white.  This is not what affirmative action does.  It removes racial barriers that have been in place for centuries in order to create access to institutions and opportunities that have long been reserved for whites.  Whites cannot be disenfranchised when they own the franchise. Furthermore, think of it this way: how many job applicants personally know fellow job applicants, let alone the credentials of fellow job applicants?

“People should only get hired based on achievement, not based on race.”

—Why do you assume someone was hired simply based on their race?  Why couldn’t a person of color also be hired based on their achievement?

  • Again, it’s straight up racist to assume PoC can’t get hired based on achievement, because this thinking suggests only whites achieve and PoC do not. Racism in this particular context of employment involves histories of prevented access, discrimination, and segregation that benefited whites as much as it oppressed and disadvantaged PoC. We white folks have been privileged to enjoy access to institutions based on our race for centuries, and affirmative action seeks to disrupt this system.

“A student of color who performs at a lower standard shouldn’t be accepted to a university over a white student who got better grades.”

—What “standard” are you using as a point of reference, and why should grades or “performance” be the guiding criteria for the opportunity of education? Why is the white student the only one that deserves to learn?

  • Even if whites make the assumption that all students of color have “bad” grades, their grades say nothing about their potential talent as university students.  Even if whites make the assumption that all white students have “good” grades, their grades say nothing about their potential talent either.  Depending on the high school a white student attends, their grades could have everything to do with being skilled at memorization and test-taking, or the opportunity to take SAT courses that are only available to the privileged few.  “Bad” grades can be attributed to everything from missed attendance due to caring for family, to homelessness, to lack of transportation, to violence, and a whole host of other social issues that white privilege shields from the majority of white folks.  For white students, it is not a matter of having an excess of intellect; for students of color, it is not a matter of failing to possess intellect.

“Affirmative action allows ‘unprepared minorities’ into positions where they may not succeed.”

—Doesn’t this argument presuppose that all “minorities” are “unprepared” and doomed to failure? Are you suggesting white folks are always prepared and never fail?

  • Never should we ever as white folks sit back and decide what PoC are or aren’t capable of. This is racist bullshit. We have designed and upheld systems of oppression in employment and education by excluding PoC for centuries, and affirmative action provides the intervention to create change in these systems. When affirmative action policies attempt to prevent racism in hiring and admission processes, they should give fully prepared applicants of color a chance that did not previously exist.  The focus here should be on the chance, not the applicant.  These policies are about changing the system, not about creating preferences.

“It is unfair to allow anyone to get special treatment because of their race.”

—Like the special treatment white people have been giving themselves for centuries?

  • This question should answer itself. But if that doesn’t satisfy, then it should be understood that a few laws passing that make discrimination illegal doesn’t come even remotely close to “special treatment.”
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