Part 1: What Is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action:
What the Debate Is Really About

By Glenn Omatsu

Don't get fooled by the current debate over affirmative action.

Affirmative action is not a "quota," a "racial preference" favoring minorities, or "reverse discrimination" against whites ã as opponents claim. And contrary to what some politicians are telling you, ending affirmative action will not create a colorblind society or a world where jobs and college admissions will be based on merit.

There was a time not too long ago when affirmative action was defined as goals, policies, and timetables to deal with the institutional barriers facing minorities and women in education and employment. These barriers are formidable. For example, white men make up 48% of the college-educated workforce, but are 90% of the officers and 88% of the directors of U.S. corporations, 86% of partners in major law firms, and 85% of tenured college professors. Affirmative action arose to combat the quotas and historical discrimination that systematically bar minorities and women from opportunities in schools and the workplace.

Obviously, remembering what affirmative action is - and what it is not - is a necessary first step for sorting out the political controversy surrounding the issue. But it is only a first step. The controversy has moved far beyond a dispute over definitions or even facts. The controversy today is political and centers on two different visions of what America is, and what it should become. Understanding these two political visions is the key to understanding the controversy over affirmative action.

The two visions emerged most sharply at the birth of affirmative action during the momentous battles for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement began as a campaign to end racial segregation - but quickly evolved into a larger movement for human rights. People demonstrated, sat in, and went to jail not for affirmative action but for larger demands such as the right to education, decent housing, jobs, and an end to racism and sexism. Propelling this movement forward was a shared vision of a new society built around justice, equality, and dignity.

This shared vision was based on an analysis of the face of power and domination in America. From the time of the founding of this nation, the structure of power has revolved around three interrelated systems of oppression: race, gender, and class. This harsh reality has always clashed with the fundamental ideals of this country, namely liberty and justice for all. The contradiction between these ideals and the harsh reality has defined the content of American history.

Of course, the vision of the Civil Rights Movement was not the only political vision in America in the 1950s and 1960s. There were also those vehemently opposed to Civil Rights. These opponents were not only men who wore white sheets or swastikas. They included „respectable¾ and powerful people: politicians, corporate executives, and a host of others with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

These opponents did not speak out against Civil Rights with the language of racists and sexists. Rather, they spoke out as defenders of state rights, upholders of the sanctity of private property, guardians of individual liberties, and protectors of academic standards. However, behind their lofty rhetoric was a hardboiled understanding that wealth and power in America revolved around the preservation of privileges for the few, not rights for the many.

The clash between the vision of the Civil Rights Movement and that of opponents can best be understood by focusing on one arena of struggle: higher education. In America, college education was long the province of a select few. The Civil Rights Movement - along with companion efforts, such as the GI Bill of Rights - challenged this elitist view. Through broad demands ã such as the demand for open admissions - people called for the right of higher education for all. Meanwhile, opponents of the Civil Rights Movement emphasized the maintenance of "academic standards" to preserve college education for a few. But through the clash between these two visions, many in America came to understand how arguments like "academic standards" could serve as a smokescreen to justify the exclusion of large numbers of poor, women, and youth of color from institutions of higher learning.

The Civil Rights Movement was powerful - but not powerful enough to gain its central demand of ending institutional racism and sexism in America. The structure of power in America remained intact - but with some important changes such as an end to legalized segregation.

Affirmative action was one small reform emerging from this period. Affirmative action was shaped by the demands of the Civil Rights Movement - namely, an end to institutional racism and sexism - as well as by the opposition of powerful opponents. Thus, affirmative action arose as a limited reform. It was limited to three specific areas: jobs in the public sector, government contracts, and college admissions. Affirmative action, along with other reforms, opened some opportunities for minorities and women, while not dismantling institutional racism and sexism. However, collectively the reforms arising from the Civil Rights Movement reflected a society in motion toward human rights for all.

Meanwhile, the opponents of Civil Rights never went away. They remained in the background, waiting for a chance to take back even the smallest of reforms. During the past two decades, they have gained that opportunity. We now live in a time when the rich and the powerful have gotten even more rich and powerful. The world's largest corporations boldly assault living standards by cutting jobs and the wages and benefits of remaining employees. To justify the attack on human rights, they advance new theories defending inequality and elitism and old theories promoting racism.

In the scramble to defend affirmative action, it is easy to lose track of what the debate is really about. The controversy today is not about affirmative action. Fundamentally, it is a clash between two political visions of what America is and what America will become.

Understanding the controversy in this way enables us to appreciate both its intensity and complexity. But more important, it enables us to forge a strategy stressing education and mobilization.

(Glenn Omatsu teaches Asian American Studies at UCLA and Cal State Northridge. To help others understand the affirmative action controversy, he has compiled a 400-entry bibliography listing recent articles. Contact him at UCLA, (310) 825-3415 - or e-mail: - for a copy of this bibliography.)

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV