Affirmative action was initially created to combat years of institutional discrimination.
The Legal Information Institute of the law school of Cornell University defines affirmative action as “a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination between applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future. Applicants may be seeking admission to an educational program or looking for professional employment.” Although affirmative action was created to combat discrimination, it is often accused of promoting preferential treatment.
Scott Pious, editor of Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination, debunks the myths that often surround affirmative action, such as notions that “Affirmative action may have been necessary 30 years ago, but the playing field is fairly level today” or “The public doesn't support affirmative action anymore.” To the notion that affirmative action is no longer necessary, Pious notes that, “Despite the progress that has been made, the playing field is far from level. Women continue to earn 77 cents for every male dollar (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2010). Black people continue to have twice the unemployment rate of White people, twice the rate of infant mortality, and just over half the proportion of people who attend four years or more of college.” While opponents to affirmative action might claim that they simply reflect public opinion, Pious argues that, “according to the Pew Research Center (2007, p. 40), 70% of Americans are in favor of "affirmative action programs to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education." What the public opposes are quotas, set-asides, and ‘reverse discrimination.’” One could say that affirmative action has an image issue, as affirmative action is oftentimes synonymous with “quotas” when in reality quotas are illegal. However, when Americans are given the proper definition of affirmative action they are generally in favor of it.
Nevertheless, despite these reasons for affirmative action’s existence it has been steadily attacked since the 1970s. The Supreme Court recently upheld the ban on affirmative action in Michigan and in response Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered a powerful dissent in opposition to the ruling stating, “In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.” Indeed, this is the greatest issue with affirmative action—not that it exists, but that so often we are offended at the discussion of preferential treatment and loathe to recognize the deeply entrenched inequities that are the consequences of centuries of discrimination.
Although the opposition towards affirmative action is adamant about claiming fairness, dismissing affirmative action before institution inequities are fully addressed is a recipe for disaster and proof that our post-racial society is far from ready to deal with the legacies of racism and sexism. As Koritha Mitchell writes, “The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold Michigan's voter-approved ban on affirmative action in admissions to the state's public universities reinforces an ugly reality: that most Americans support affirmative action only when it is for whites and no one else. Nearly every time American rhetoric privileges states' rights, it leaves marginalized groups open to even bolder discrimination than they already encounter. Michigan is simply reminding us that the South has never been the only place where Americans believe that whites are the only ones who should enjoy equal protection.”
What is affirmative action’s connection to women?
As both the recent defeat of the Paycheck Fairness Act and the existence of Equal Pay Day reveals, women are still at a great disadvantage when it comes to pay. Contrary to popular believe, however, affirmative action has been a boon to women, particularly white women. Sally Kohn writes, “While people of color, individually and as groups, have been helped by affirmative action in the subsequent years, data and studies suggest women — white women in particular — have benefited disproportionately. According to one study, in 1995, 6 million women, the majority of whom were white, had jobs they wouldn’t have otherwise held but for affirmative action.”
Affirmative action has the potential to ameliorate the conditions of marginalized peoples, especially if we are paying attention to the intersections of race, class, and gender. It is important to note, however, that discriminatory practices are still legal for particular classes of people. For example, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against trans people in many states. The fact of the matter is that affirmative action does not take things far enough, especially when we consider how the wide range of discriminatory practices that still occur.
The erosion of affirmative action hurts the progress of justice, especially for women of color. If affirmative action is completely eroded, many women will face an even more difficult landscape in the public sphere.