Affirmative Action – Part of the Strategy for Dismantling Structural Racism?

Last week, we asked for your opinions regarding the impact of Affirmative Action policies on structural racism. Your perspectives enriched our understanding of these issues and we wanted to share some of our favorites below.


I am a child of Affirmative Action. My inner city school did not send students to Northwestern. I was blessed to graduate high school in 1966. My older brother graduated in 1964, he became a marine recon graduate instead of a college graduate. He has done well but I always wonder what he would have been if he could have gone to a school like Northwestern. Because of Northwestern I was able to earn a Master’s degree from Boston University and a Juris Doctorate from Boston College Law School. I served my community as a public defender and as a prosecutor and eventually as a judge. My being on the bench changed the discussions within the Juvenile Court judges group. I know Affirmative Action changed the course of my life. I am a project kid. So many of my friends died before I graduated from college. My parents had a limited education. I was the second oldest of seven children and the first to attend college. I know that there were so many friends who were as capable or more capable who never got the same opportunity as I did. I have received many honors, including an Honorary Doctorate. I have been honored by my two post graduate schools. If not for Affirmative Action I could not have made the impact that I have been blessed to have had on the lives of children in my community. Our children are locked out of careers because they are not given the same opportunity that I was given. – Hon. Harris


Yes, affirmative action does transform structural racism. Years ago, in graduate school, I did a lot of research on the history of the black labor movement, and the revolutionary developments including strikes in the steel industry and major court decisions – that black workers were responsible for that led to the policy of affirmative action, mandated by the courts, and administered starting in the federal government. I wanted to say that there is A LOT of research on why affirmative action works, how it attacks structural racism, and what the intentions of affirmative action are – Affirmative action was intended to be a form of reparations to make up for centuries of white privilege and black subordination, initially in the labor market, before it spread to a broad restorative policy. – Susan Anderson


I have been a long-time supporter of affirmative action both in theory and in practice. I have no illusions about the capacity of those with power to limit and subvert affirmative action programs: I have seen it done a hundred times (Derrick Bell, for one, wrote eloquently about this). But we have come a long way since the 1990s—the era in which we battled Prop 209—an era marked by a powerful ‘colorblind’ denial of racism. The existence of and power of structural racism is increasingly undeniable, due in part to the election of a white supremacist President and the racial fault lines laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the brilliance and persistence of #BlackLivesMatter and the voter registration work done from 2016 until now, mostly in the South. Similarly, the existence of and power of sexism is increasingly undeniable in the #metoo era.

In the right conditions—and it increasingly looks like this might be one– we might win a ballot initiative and get State-level judicial recognition for affirmative action. In the 1970s and 1980s, we thought that winning key victories in the courts would turn the trick. But, after the setbacks dealt by SCOTUS to the affirmative action programs of that era, I think we have also learned that winning legal recognition for affirmative action can only get us so far. The underlying question is whether or not the balance of power has shifted in this state (or the United States as a whole) in favor of a multi-racial coalition in which people of color and women of all of color in particular have significant stakes and leadership. I think we are heading in that direction within the Democratic Party. But we are definitely not there, either within the Dems or in the courts.

So, what are the reasons to fight for affirmative action in 2020? Well, racism and sexism are certainly alive and well in California and the country as a whole. And the argument that state action is needed to assure people of color and women of access to state contracts and public sector jobs is an important one to make. We can prove that when Prop 209 became law, women and people of color lost the majority of their public sector contracts and public sector jobs. We can also argue that when more people of color and women have access to public sector contracts and jobs, everyone benefits. This can unfortunately most easily be shown now by looking at the causes of the giant racial inequities in Covid-19 infection and morbidity rates. We can also show that when minorities and women get more opportunities, so do all poor and otherwise marginalized people. But in making the case, we must recognize that affirmative action is not the solution to racism or sexism; it’s just a set of tools that can be of use in those efforts. At this pivotal moment in American history, we must learn to talk about social justice in a broader way and challenge the people of this State and the nation to imagine the “complete restructuring of American society.”

I think now is an excellent time to have these conversations. We now recognize supermarket clerks, delivery people, postal workers, janitors and non-professional hospital workers—mostly low-paid people of color– as heroes. We can now see what happens to a society without a public health system that has let racism determine the distribution of health for hundreds of years. Sure, let’s talk about affirmative action’s benefits. But let’s also talk about the society we must become to deal with both our present challenges and the bigger challenges of climate change that are coming soon. Let us learn a new, inclusive language that invites all—including angry white men—into a social contract that serves us well. (Stacey Abrams has mastered this new language.) Let us be very practical, and talk about affirmative action’s benefits, but let’s also be visionaries, calling on regular people to embrace the basic truth that what benefits those who were left out and left behind can benefit us all. – Andy Barlow


Systemic racism is embedded in the financial strength of this country. It was from the hands and feet and backs of people of color who grew America to what it is today. If anything it demonstrates the opportunistic mindset and breeding of white males.

We were taught to be transactional. We were taught to not dream big. We were taught to be okay with a white male leader to dominate over and decide for – and that includes white women.

Power through dominance is very luring without EQ. In recent years we have seen the beginning of EQ as a viable selector for leaders. Women dominate in this area. When we get more leaders with high EQ we can turn things around – brick by brick. That is why more women and people of color on corporate boards is key. Which is why repealing Prop 209 so that more women and people of color can increase wealth so that they are in financial positions to elect women and people of color into positions of leadership so that we can swing the pendulum micro millimeter by micro millimeter.

We won’t be able to change without accepting our racist beginnings and we can’t accept our beginnings with out high EQ. – Anonymous


I agree with you as a recipient of affirmative action aid. Those that spurn it are unfamiliar with American history and/or seek personal benefit while pulling up the ladder. The truth about race and class here is difficult to take in while maintaining sanity and equilibrium.
Black American Leaders are not of one mind. I tip to Dr. West and the mature late Malcolm X, but I listen to all of them,
See a well meaning young denier, here:
https://www.c-span.org/video/?465330-1/depth-jason-riley
Note the most bitter critique of Obama from Cornell West:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnCOutrlRRQ
While appreciating the Obama’s, as a two-election supporter, I had many issues with him. Much of what they experienced may not be known for a generation. I spoke to a Secret Service veteran who revealed that threats against Pres. Obama increased 5 fold over his predecessors. Was he threatened by the elites?
And then, there is criticism of Dr. West:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlo7-Mp_LCo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhwodDOpeAk
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhwodDOpeAk
What about Thomas Sowell? ,,, Yikes!!!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53TgxsB1_Lo
Chief Justice Thomas:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCj-al7z-Nk
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heQjKdHu1P4
Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcZLU_QtUb4
New Malcolm X Biography, Manning Marable (Audio Book):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBVoeNlfgXk
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpd9kA4d70E
-Widmon Butler


The good news is that I view Affirmative Action is outdated & destructive to current & future Black struggles for equality. The per head cost for any employee is productivity & utility now; so we do our best since the Best always wins. – Arnold Wright


The question raised by your email is critically important. I don’t have a lot to add to what you’ve already said, but reading the email reminded me of one of the major points made by Eric Foner in his history of Reconstruction: that the most empowering right for formerly enslaved people was the right to own property. Not accidentally, it was that right that came under the most systematic attack from the “Restoration”, the KKK and later Jim Crow.
Business and property ownership still matter, and despite antipathy to their more mechanical applications, affirmative action programs recognize this truth. – Jeremy


Mellon Foundation on Twitter: “What is the role of the #arts and #humanities—and of individuals—in combating structural racism and promoting #diversity as a value unto itself? @michele_norris and Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) explore in these videos from our #Mellon50 symposium” / Twitter https://bit.ly/2zR9NUC


The whole point of affirmative action is to end structural racism. It is based on a reparations model, not a formal equality model, and that is why the push back is so strong. None of us in my generation of POC in the academy would be professors if not for affirmative action, and our work is the intellectual engine for the fight against structural inequality: prisons, health care, education, housing, you name it. In many better paid blue collar jobs – building trades, police, fire, oil industry – explicit goals and time tables for inclusion of women and people of color meant income security and intergenerational wealth for the first time in many families. It is true that we have not seen this on the scale we need, but only because we didn’t go far enough. – Mari Matsuda


I want to emphasize that I am writing in my personal capacity as someone who has been involved with civil rights work for over 40 years. During those years I was very involved fighting the California Bakke decision, doing education and outreach on the Weber v. Kaiser Aluminum issue, and also working on MBE/WBE issues with you. I also gave several speeches on affirmative action during the Proposition 209 debates.

In my mind, affirmative action was established to not only further equal opportunity, but to “make up” for the underrepresentation of racial minorities in education, professions, contracting, etc. caused by decades of official and unofficial racism practiced by businesses, governments and populations. Perhaps some people may have thought that with equal opportunity and affirmative action, racism as a pronounced American value, policy and practice would vanish because Americans were “enlightened” and “compassionate”. Of course, that was naïve thinking because American racism is so endemic to the economic foundations of the United States economic system, i.e it was built upon slavery, the British slave trade, and the concept that workers were the property of the capitalists and farmers to be exploited and punished with both private and governmental violence. Not surprisingly, the minimum wage didn’t come into effect until 1935 along with the NLRA. But Congress specifically exempted agricultural workers and domestic workers from the FLSA and NLRA. (These were largely African-Americans, Mexicans and Filipinos.) So, racism is an inseparable part of U.S. capitalism just as much as U.S. capitalism’s internal drive is inextricably linked to racism. Just witness the uneven impact of COVID-19 on jobs, unemployment, victims, etc. U.S. economic leaders have historically decided not to provide for universal health care (unlike European countries), universal college education, universal childcare, etc. even though it can afford to finance it. And, government and business policies have resulted in a bloated military budget to the detriment of basis social services, safety nets, etc. (To put things in perspective, the EEOC’s budget is about 1.5 times the costs of a fighter plane according to Ed Lee’s nephew who used to work at Boeing.). But to this date, the greatest percentage of EEOC charges are 54% retaliation (up from about 30% 10 years ago) and 35% race discrimination (largely by African-Americans alleging harassment and termination).

The “damage” resulting from the policies and practices of redlining, segregation, racial violence by private and government entities, substandard schools and housing, employment discrimination, denial of voting rights, etc. strengthened racism and were part of the skeleton or structure that kept American capitalism alive and beneficial for many whites. Affirmative Action was like David without his slingshot against Goliath.

Affirmative action gave opportunities to generations of people of color who were historically locked out. It did make some changes and provided for some portions of the Black, Brown, Asian communities to move up to the middle class and beyond. One of the major regrets that I have from the Prop 209 battle is that we did not fully describe the many good things and achievements that the “unqualified” affirmative action recipients accomplished. So many of us have made a difference in the lives of our communities of color and in communities generally. But we have not told our story well and often. Unfortunately, more attention is paid to athletes and actors/performers of color because they generate revenue for the big leagues, corporations, TV advertising, etc. At its core, Affirmative Action was a demand for inclusion in the existing economic structure and a bet that AA could play a key role to equality.

But just because AA did not dismantle structural racism nor make the “revolutionary” change that some might have thought, it has still made differences in peoples lives. Lawyers, business people, doctors have gone on to lead institutions, join Congress, become elected officials and fight for policies that are more just. Without them, things might be seriously worse. – Bill Tamayo


Current Events:
If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of race with the ongoing coronavirus, join our friends on Friday, May 8th for a new webinar: #RaceAnd Pandemics: COVID-19 and Global Diseases Through a Structural Lens. Tickets can be found on Eventbrite at https://bit.ly/2Yy0X8F​.