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"Affirmative Action, R.I.P."

May/June 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

by Salim Muwakkil

Affirmative action, as we have known it, is probably dead. Good riddance. For the past quarter of a century, many blacks have looked to affirmative action, despite its shortcomings, as a symbol of America's longdenied promise of racial equality.

But its original purpose, as a means to help compensate African-Americans for slavery and its racist legacy, has long since been lost. With affirmative action's racial aspects toned down for the consumption of white voters, it has become less a hand-up for poor blacks than a stepladder to the middle class for many white American families....

The original purpose of affirmative action policies was to chip away at racespecific disparities between black and white Americans. But according to most studies,... the major beneficiaries of these policies have been white women....

By de-emphasizing affirmative action's racial aspects, liberals succeeded in making the programs more palatable but less effective. The raging right-wingers who have seized control of Congress have no intention of making it either more effective or more palatable; they have targeted it for death....

The notion of legislative recompense for racial injustice was never wildly popular in a land so steeped in traditions of white supremacy, but national leaders 30 years ago at least understood the need for compensatory justice. Of course, their motives were not entirely pure.

During the 60?s, when federal programs were fast designed to "take affirmative action to overcome the effects of prior discrimination," American cities were going up in smoke. From 1964 to 1969, some 65 U.S. cities exploded in violent upheavals. Aside from the toll in lives and property, the situation was bad for business. Studies assessing the violence found that racist hiring policies had been a precipitating factor. Affirmative action was born in that smoke-charred climate.

The policy's Democratic architects were praised for devising a relatively innocuous way to redistribute some of the United States' maldistributed wealth. Support for the policies was bipartisan; during a time of economic expansion, most Americans thought the measures deserved a try....

The concept of affirmative action essentially is a euphemism for reparations, and this point is lost when its advocates urge its expansion across race lines. African-Americans were deeply damaged by the institution of slavery; indeed, they were created by slavery.

Until this society understands the need to devote itself to repairing that damage, it seems certain that we will continue to drift from crisis to crisis, until we reach one too many.

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