Will America Ever Become A Truly Color Blind Society? Affirmative action provisions have had the unintended consequence of reinforcing racial identity and prejudice

By Paolo von Schirach

June 25, 2013

WASHINGTON – The only way to finally “resolve” the painfully complicated race  issue in America is to finally become a truly color blind society. The day in which anybody’s race becomes totally irrelevant on economic, social, cultural and moral issues, then and only then we shall be able to say that America managed to overcome this horribly divisive race problem. 

The problem with affirmative action

That said, some of the key remedial actions devised long ago to give a fighting chance to Blacks, (beyond land mark federal legislation of the 1960s that finally prohibited ant type of open discrimination on the basis of race or color), seem to have had the unintended  consequence of encouraging people –Blacks and Whites– to keep regarding race as a critical matter in adjudicating all sort of issues: from college admission to hiring staff.

If we look back at the policy goals, affirmative action legislation was intended as a tool that would give a chance to those who had been historically discriminated against. Quotas were aimed at insuring that at least some Blacks and other minorities could make it. Fair enough.

When it is good to be a minority

Still, the awareness that, for instance, a number of places in universities are reserved for African-Americans and other minorities has had the unintended consequence of encouraging Blacks to keep thinking of themselves as a previously oppressed minority now entitled to special treatment.

In other words, even today, a reasonably well-educated Black person has every interest in preserving his/her “Black identity” in order to benefit from a system that, in the name of overcoming past injustice, allows him or her to have an extra advantage in the competition for limited places in a university. In a truly color blind selection process, a process in which there is no goal to secure a “diverse” student body, this person would lose the extra advantage, and he or she may not make the cut.

Which is to say that, paradoxically, in an affirmative action context, being Black in many instances is in fact an asset rather than a liability. But this realization of the advantages of racial minority status also justifies the self-perpetuation of the old assumptions: “I deserve special treatment today. This is a totally legitimate way to redress past and present discrimination. Affirmative action is only a remedial tool to counter the effects of lingering racial prejudice”. 

Reinforcing racial identity

Which is to say that remedies such as affirmative action legislation, even if sincerely aimed at kick starting the creation of a level playing field, in reality encourage “minorities” to think of themselves not as citizens like everybody else but as a perpetually aggrieved group. And this because it is this status and only this status of minority entitled to redress that allows them to claim special treatment when it comes to going to college, getting a job or being awarded certain types of government contracts.

Quotas fuel prejudice

That said, it would be totally unfair to deny that racial prejudice is still alive and well in America. Unfortunately, even today, people are denied jobs, credit and a lot more simply because they are Black, and therefore assumed to be “untrustworthy, lazy, unproductive”, and what not. None of this is done overtly, because it would be illegal to do so. But it is done.

However, it is also true that affirmative action provisions aimed at overcoming the consequences of groundless prejudice tend to reinforce the racial divide. Blacks see them as necessary redress for past discrimination and present bias. But in so doing they keep thinking of themselves as a “Black minority” rather than citizens, as everybody else.

Whites see affirmative action as favors bestowed for political reasons on otherwise undeserving people. To the extent that Whites believe that Blacks get jobs they do not really deserve only because of quotas this helps reinforce rather than dilute racial prejudice.

“I am an American”

In a recent talk show featuring several conservative Blacks, (a small minority within the larger minority), it was refreshing to hear that most of them rejected the “African-American” label for themselves. “I am an American”, they said. “I happen to be Black. But I am an American”. Interesting. 

I call this rejection of (perpetually) aggrieved group identity an important step forward. When both Blacks and Whites will finally reject race as an issue likely to influence any type of judgement call America will have truly progressed.

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