Why We Need Affirmative Action

by John E. Farley

Today, affirmative action is under unprecedented attack. Its opponents cry, "Unfair reverse discrimination!", while its supporters seek to justify it as a way of compensating for past discrimination. In my view, there is no need to fall back on PAST discrimination to justify affirmative action, and it may have been a major tactical error for its supporters to rely so much on past discrimination as a justification of affirmative action. In fact, there is plenty of justification to be found in the present. Two decades of study and research in race and ethnic relations have made one thing abundantly clear to me. Even with affirmative action (and much more so if it were to be eliminated), African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians face grossly unequal opportunity in American society. Consider the following facts. If you are born as a member of any of these groups, you will be two to three times as likely to be born into poverty, and up to twice as likely to die before reaching the age of one year, as you would if you were born white. If you are lucky enough to survive that first year, you will be far more likely than the rest of Americans to grow up in neighborhoods where many or most people are poor because nearly all the good-paying jobs have fled the neighborhood or been automated out of existence in the past few decades. (Or, if you are American Indian, on a reservation on land the whites didn't want in the first place, and where the good-paying jobs never existed.)

In these areas where no decent jobs are available, families suffer because few if any men are able to find the kinds of jobs that enable them to provide economic support for families. Consequently, marriage rates have plummeted and divorce and separation rates soared. Mothers struggle to support their children with fast-food jobs or welfare checks that, in real inflation-adjusted dollars, have shrunk steadily in the face of efforts to reduce the ballooning federal deficit. When children reach school age, they attend schools where expectations are low, belief in their ability to succeed is often non-existent, and, in many cases, poor funding or financial mismanagement means crumbling buildings, outdated books, no computers, and outmoded labs. Health problems abound, because our ghettos, barrios, and Indian reservations have become dumping grounds for hazardous materials and industries that pollute but do not employ. They abound, too, because African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians are two to three times as likely to lack any medical insurance, and those who do have insurance are often on Medicaid, which is again under the federal budget ax.

Can anyone seriously believe that people in racial and ethnic groups who grow up in such conditions have the same opportunities in life as the average white American? Affirmative action has been a means to partially - and only partially - offset the continuing reality of unequal opportunity in American society. It has had real benefits - the most obvious being the growth of the black and Hispanic middle classes over the past few decades. But these benefits have not been enough to offset the continuing, and in some ways worsening, economic abandonment, environmental destruction, and educational neglect of the areas where most African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians live. To now take away the one thing that was partially offsetting these forces would be to guarantee increased racial inequality in the future. Abolishing affirmative action might be the politically popular thing to do, but in no way is it the right thing to do or the fair thing to do.

This article was originally published as a Commentary in the Edwardsville (Illinois) Intelligencer in July, 1995.

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