Affirmative Action: Time to flip the narrative!

A resilient four-minute cartoon depicting the historic obstacles blacks overcome through Affirmative Action is once again appearing in Facebook and blog posts years after the African American Policy Forum produced it.

“The Race” is a metaphor depicting blacks and whites on a racetrack with the running times measured in years and centuries. As the race gets underway, blacks are at first held back for centuries and when finally green lit to advance around the track, obstacles such as slavery, poor education, discrimination, and economic disparities become tangible roadblocks as the white racers soar past with privilege and societal endorsements. Little is left for the imagination in the production’s message. But it offers a lot to ponder about the lack of gains by African Americans when statistics show that a black college student having the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout.

“The animation was created by my colleague and me to push back against the widely shared but incorrect framing of affirmative action as preferential treatment,” says Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw a prominent figure in Critical Race Theory and currently a professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School. Crenshaw specializes in race and gender issues. “As you can see,” says Crenshaw, “We frame affirmative action as removing barriers and obstacles that stand in the way of people of color. Offsetting the effects of these obstacles is definitely not preferential, but simply equal treatment.”

The colleague who worked on the concept of “The Race” with Dr. Crenshaw is Dr. Luke Charles Harris, the former Chair of the Department of political science at Vassar College. He teaches American Politics and Constitutional Law; and the Co-founder of the African American Policy Forum. He has argued for decades that Affirmative Action not only breaks down barriers but helps to overcome centuries of privilege. White college candidates benefit from family legacy and alumni associations that support them in their closed societies, and regardless of how incompetent they might be they find acceptance.

When reached by theGrio, Crenshaw and Harris expressed great excitement that the debate over Affirmative action is still alive and well on the Internet. If you consider of the power of the Internet to launch social and political change one knows that the seeds of a good idea could flourish as it gains traction online. Just this week, The Washington Post published a piece written by Richard Rothstein, “Why race-based affirmative action in college admissions still matters” which argued:

“Specific recruitment of African Americans, in contrast, should not be seen as a voluntary policy choice but rather as a Constitutional obligation to remedy past discrimination. That our reactionary Supreme Court has misinterpreted the Constitution to deny this obligation is no excuse for progressives to forget the distinction.”

Recent Supreme Court rulings along with the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States have led many to believe that affirmative action policies are no longer needed. That argument is framed as opportunities given to blacks, minorities and women take away from white men. But the Economic Policy Institute as well as the Pew research center have reported that black unemployment has consistently been twice as high as white unemployment for 50 years, the gap in household income between whites and blacks have not narrowed in the last 50 years, there are still more blacks below the poverty line than any other ethnic group and schools are more segregated today than they were in the ’80. Incarceration rates for black men have quadrupled since 1960 and have tripled for black women. Opponents of Affirmative Action say policies for job acceptance and educational enrollment should be “colorblind” but the fact is America on the whole is not.

So it is important for Americans of all races to look around and determine are barriers coming down? Is the playing field level? Are educational and job opportunities equally distributed. On all accounts, no! Even if there is preferential treatment based on race or gender, there are still guarantees that equality can be met. But for the economic wellbeing of the nation on the whole, the practice should not be allowed to be scrapped based on concerns that it discriminates agains the privileged. Luke Visconti, founder and CEO of DiversityInc, a national leader in diversity management says, “Ultimately affirmative action programs are necessary to provide access for people who were prevented access by reasons of racism. They are a benefit to our entire society because increasing wealth for underrepresented groups increases wealth for all.” He gives this example, “If our society caught black households up it would be the equivalent of injecting the entire GDP of Japan into our economy.”

Crenshaw and Harris told theGrio that there needs to be an “Affirmative Action Coming Out Day” when people of all walks of life admit that the benefitted from having a level playing field at some time in their lives. They said this would force the narrative from being concerned about the privileged to breaking down barriers and uplifting the disenfranchised.

Follow Will J. Wright on Twitter:@willjwright

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