RW #824, September 24, 1995

Affirmative! A Revolutionary View of the Fight for Real Equality
and the System's War on Affirmative Action

Powerful centers of the U.S. ruling class are moving to discredit and dismantle affirmative action.

From a revolutionary perspective it is clear that affirmative action programs have never come close to actually overcoming discrimination in the U.S. But what does it mean, given that reality, for the system to launch a frontal attack on affirmative action--and to accompany this attack with codewords about "reverse discrimination"? What is the meaning of someone like Jesse Helms--the Senator from North Carolina who defended Jim Crow segregation--spearheading an attack on affirmative action?!

The attack on affirmative action is an attempt to "close the book" on social reforms aimed at correcting inequality and injustice in U.S. society. The attack on affirmative action is a deliberate move to inflame divisions among the people. It is nothing less than a plan to justify inequality--to reinforce and intensify white supremacy and male supremacy in this society.

In many places the power structure has already moved to destroy programs that open up school admissions, hiring and government contracts to people who face discrimination--women, Black people, Latino people, Asian people and Native American people.

As the fall semester 1995 opens, an intense battle is building within the state university system of California--which has historically been a pacesetter in affirmative action and ethnic studies programs. The Governor of California, Pete Wilson, and the University Regents who answer to him have abolished affirmative action--students, faculty and campus workers throughout the state are organizing to fight against this.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, the Congress and the White House have all, in their own way, criticized and assaulted the existing affirmative action programs. And these steps are obviously just the start: There are many signs that leading politicians want to make the destruction of affirmative action a central theme in the coming 1996 presidential race.

To build support for their moves, the rulers are working to convince millions of people that affirmative action is unjust, unfair, unnecessary, and unproductive. The system is spreading poison and confusion--trying to convince every jobless white guy and every white student who doesn't get into college that they lost out because some "unqualified minority or woman" was unfairly given "their" seat at the table.

Such arguments are designed to disguise the real injustice: that the capitalist/imperialist system--and the monopoly capitalist class and their political representatives who run this system--are stifling the lives and hopes of millions of people. The attack on affirmative action is an attempt to defend existing inequality.

The issue here is really what kind of society do you want to live in: Do you want a society stamped from top to bottom by systematic discrimination against Black people and other oppressed nationalities? Do you want a society where women are kept in a second class status? Do you want a society where the power structure drives many sections of the people down while the monopoly capitalists profit from these inequalities and injustices?

It is in the interest of the great majority of people not only to stop the ruling class from "closing the book," but to throw the book wide open and ask: How can we get rid of this whole rotten capitalist-imperialist setup and build a just, new society--where we can really end male domination and white supremacy, and where the common people work in common for the common good?

Note: The term "racial minorities" is generally used in the mainstream press to describe Black people, Mexican people, Chicanos, Chinese people, Filipinos, Native peoples, Puerto Ricans, and other people that are not descended from European immigrants and are not considered "white." Sometimes women are even described as a "minority"! In this article we will used the term "oppressed nationalities" because it more accurately describes Black people, Chicanos, and others who have distinct histories of being subjugated and discriminated against as whole peoples by the U.S. ruling class.


Don't Pretend America
Is Colorblind

Opponents of affirmative action say it is not necessary to have special programs that open doors for Black people, women and other oppressed groups. They argue that society should not use "race and gender" as standards, it should simply be "colorblind." Affirmative action is not necessary, they say, because systematic legal discrimination is a thing of the past. As a result of such arguments, some white people have been suckered into saying things like, "We weren't alive a hundred years ago when there was slavery--why should we have to be responsible for things done that long ago?"


The United States today is a society deeply marked by intolerable, systematic discrimination.

RCP spokesperson Carl Dix recently told a group of students: "Let's get to the heart of the matter: This is America we're talking about--a country that has never been colorblind in how it deals with people. The quota for Black people in education in U.S. society was zero from the time they dragged the first African here in chains, up to the 1960s. The main qualification for getting a position in America--and this was straight-up out in the open--was to be a white male. Don't even bother to apply if you don't fit this category. That was the main qualification. And this is not a thing of the past. It is still overwhelmingly the case. But back then, they just wrote it down. Now they can't write it down, but the system still acts on this approach."

Black people, as a people, are kept down by a structure of political, economic, and social oppression which affects all classes of Black people, a structure of white supremacy that is rooted in the development of the capitalist system in this country, beginning with slavery, and remains an integral part of the system today.

In short, while the forms have changed, the oppression remains. Black people are still catching hell in America.

The issue facing us today is not "paying for crimes committed a century ago." The question is: Are today's inequalities going to be fought and overthrown, or are they going to be defended and expanded?

Systematic Discrimination
in the U.S. Today

Opponents of affirmative action deny that there is systematic discrimination. They say that if discrimination is uncovered, it should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But, they insist, it is wrong to act as if whole sections of the population still face discrimination.

Opponents of affirmative action even point to Asian-American students in California and say that their relative success proves that other nationalities could succeed if they only wanted to. After all, it is said, Asian-Americans have also endured a century of discrimination and yet now make up 39% of the students admitted to an elite school like Berkeley.


The U.S. today remains a profoundly unequal society--deeply divided into rich and poor, where whole nationalities and women are oppressed. White supremacist and male supremacist methods, ideas, networks and standards are not a "thing of the past." They deeply mark the fundamental institutions and standards of society--in capitalist business, in legal decisions, in academic admissions, in the way countless resources, money and jobs are distributed.

It is not hard to prove this: Just look around! Go to an all-white suburb and compare it with the South Central ghettos of L.A. or the Pine Ridge reservation for the Lakota people.

Economic inequality in the U.S. is one measure of continued discrimination:

If the whole country suddenly suffered the level of poverty and unemployment that Black people experience every day--it would be considered a shocking national emergency, one of the deepest depressions in history.

Economic inequality is imposed, in large part, by "ghettoizing" oppressed nationalities in the poorest sections of the working class. Discrimination is clear in the way women and oppressed nationalties are largely kept off the privileged rungs of the class structure:

Two Nations documents that, in 1990, only 3.5% of all PhDs went to Black men and women. And that year, in the entire United States, only 34 Black people received PhDs in engineering, 25 in physics and chemistry, and only 11 Black people were awarded PhDs in Business Administration! There are many reasons that account for this: including that most Black people have fewer resources to make it through an extra decade of school, and that the standards of selection in "higher education" are mainly weighted against oppressed nationalities.

In short: Discrimination in the U.S. is systematic--that is, it exists throughout the society and constantly affects members of oppressed groups. And discrimination is also systemic--i.e., it is built into the most basic structures and institutions of the system in the U.S.

There is No
"Reverse Discrimination"

Opponents of affirmative action claim that affirmative action is "unfair" to white males and is "reverse discrimination." For example, when California Governor Pete Wilson signed the order wiping out affirmative action in state hiring, he said, "Granting preferential treatment to one individual on the basis of race or gender at the expense of another is...fundamentally unfair."

Opponents of affirmative action say "qualified white men" are losing jobs and opportunities because women, Black people and other oppressed nationalities are getting "special breaks."

White students are being told to blame affirmative action if they didn't get accepted at the college they wanted. And in a recent campaign ad, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms openly tried to stir up white workers to be "angry white men": "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but it had to go to a minority because of a racial quota."


There is all kinds of injustice in the way college admissions and hiring work in this society.

But it is just not true that affirmative action has turned the tables--and that now white people and men face "reverse discrimination." Overwhelmingly, women, Black people and other oppressed nationalities are still kept out of colleges and privileged jobs. Overwhelmingly, students from oppressed nationalities and women students continue to face hostility, unjust obstacles and profound inequality. Affirmative action has barely made a dent in that inequality.

In the University of California system, Black and Latino students are admitted in far less than their percentage of the population overall. Latinos are one quarter of California's population and only 15.5% of UC students. African-Americans are 7% of the state population and only 4.4% of the UC students. And in recent years the number of Black and Latino students has dropped.

There is a true saying among Black people: "We have to be twice as good to get half as far."

When white kids have trouble getting into college or getting a good job--it is not because of affirmative action and it is not because they are white.

Look at the numbers at the University of California campus at Berkeley: Sociologist Troy Duster told the New York Times about the competition to get into U.C. Berkeley: "You've got 9,000 kids with 4.0 averages competing for 3,500 places. Now obviously they can't all fit. But every one of them who gets turned away believes they got turned away because of affirmative action." Last year, 22,500 high school seniors applied to Berkeley, and 14,100 students got turned away. But only 538 Black students and 1,365 Latino students were accepted. Why should the 14,100 students who got turned down believe they were "cheated" because of affirmative action!

In Don't Believe the Hype, Farai Chideya cites a 1992 study which shows how children of wealthy alumni get privileged admittance to many U.S. colleges: "Thirty-six percent of Harvard legacy applicants were admitted, versus only 17 percent of all applicants...Notre Dame has a quota decreeing that 25 percent of each class be children of alumni. Yet the critics of `special preference' never bring up these policies."

Governor Wilson recently claimed that unqualified women were getting firefighter jobs. But then it surfaced that a rigged procedure was still keeping women from passing the physical examination.

Similarly it is ridiculous to claim that "racial quotas" are everywhere preventing "qualified white men" from getting jobs. One caller to an L.A. talk show revealed that as an airline pilot trainer, his program was required to admit four Black people, two Latinos and four women to a training class of 200 people. 95% of the class were white males. Yet, this caller said, everywhere he went he ran into applicants for airline pilot jobs who were convinced that they had lost their place to a woman.

Talk about "reverse discrimination" against white people is a scam and needs to be exposed.

There is no such thing as "reverse discrimination" in this social system. European-Americans do not face discrimination as a group. The truth is that on every level, and in every part of society, discrimination and racism are not working "in reverse." They are working the same way they have always worked throughout the history of this country. They are working against Black people and other oppressed nationalities, and women.

Taking a stand against this actual discrimination and racism--a stand against white supremacy--is not the same thing as being against white people. The answer to the question "why should ordinary white people have to pay for this?" is that the system should have to pay--it should be overthrown and done away with. Anyone who feels messed over by this system--who identifies not with the rulers but with the victims of this system--anyone with a sense of justice should feel deeply moved to join wholeheartedly in this fight.

The Myth of Lowering Standards

Opponents of affirmative action say these programs have been lowering the quality of education--by admitting "unqualified" students. And they say this will just end up producing less qualified professionals in key posts.

Glynn Custred, one of the originators of the anti-affirmative action initiative in California said, "Are we going to be a remedial institution or an institution of higher education?"

Rolling Stone recently asked: "...which would you prefer, the higher-scoring or lower-scoring brain surgeon operating on you?"


Affirmative action programs have not lowered standards in education at a school like Berkeley (even according to official test scores and grades). The New York Times (June 5, 1995) reported that: "In 1984, when 60% of Berkeley undergraduates were white, the mean [average] grade point average for freshmen was 3.62 out of a possible 4.0, and the mean SAT was 1,155 of a possible combined score of 1,600. In 1994, when whites constituted only a third of the undergraduates, the mean G.P.A. was 3.84 and the mean SAT was 1,255. Those numbers have risen for every ethnic group according to data released by campus officials... In other words, average grades and SAT scores at UC Berkeley have gone up during the period of affirmative action."

According to official statistics, there is little difference between the grades of affirmative action students and the rest of the student body. In 1993, over 83% of all those enrolled under affirmative action programs at Berkeley met the same grade and test score criteria everyone else meets.

Ask those who look down on affirmative action students, "How would you have done in a ghetto high school? Would you have been able to survive your first year in college after a ghetto education?"

What proof is there that high scores and good grades make you a better doctor--or anything else? Let's compare the careers of two medical students made famous by the Bakke court decision: In 1973, five African-American students were admitted to the University of California Medical School at Davis. Though all of them were excellent students--they would not have been admitted purely on the basis of undergraduate grades. Alan Bakke, a white student, was not admitted and filed suit saying he had been discriminated against because he was white. In June 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and Bakke was ordered admitted and the special program was abolished.

In medical school, the five Black students set up a primary care clinic at Davis and served the people as volunteers. They couldn't get any of their white classmates to join them.

Where are they today? The career of Patrick Chavis is typical of the Black medical students. He returned to South Central Los Angeles, where he had grown up, and serves there as one of that community's few doctors.

Alan Bakke--the "angry white male" who the courts considered "better qualified"--is now an anaesthesiologist who works off and on at a medical facility in hospital-rich Rochester, Minnesota. The New York Times wrote (June 11, 1995), "He doesn't seem to have set the world on fire as a doctor."

The New York Times sums up, "If Chavis hadn't gone into medical school, his patients wouldn't be treated by some better-qualified white obstetrician; they'd have no doctor at all and their babies would be delivered the way Chavis was--by whoever happened to be on duty at the emergency room of the county hospital."

Test Scores Don't
Measure Merit!

When California's governor called for ending affirmative action in the state university system, his spokesman said, "We plan to make it clear that affirmative action is no longer the standard; the standard is merit." Opponents of affirmative action across the country claim that test scores and grades are the only "fair" and "objective" measures of merit--for both college admissions and jobs.


Let's look more closely at this talk of "merit." When Wilson's spokesman said students would from now on be judged by "merit," he wasn't looking for students willing to be doctors in poor and oppressed communities. He wasn't talking about people with the ability to creatively challenge outmoded ideas in science, or art, or philosophy. He wasn't talking about students with a desire to fight for a better world!

Of course not. He doesn't think that kind of merit deserves special treatment and admission to so-called "higher education." For the authorities and bourgeois academic experts, the merit standard means grades and test scores. And it is not true that this conservative standard has been undermined by affirmative action. Unfortunately grades and tests have been and remain the main standards by which students are admitted to college.

Grades do not measure merit, period. Sometimes they measure little more than ambition--including the willingness to play by the rules. The so-called "standardized tests" reward the inequality between poor and rich schools.

Test scores and grades measure a highly biased range of values and knowledge: individualism, "Standard English," a peculiar bourgeois form of "abstract reasoning," culturally biased references, and the ability to spit back whatever is expected of you. They do not reward solving problems in a collective and social way. And most of all, these standardized tests measure people's skill at taking tests!

What kind of society considers it "merit" to go to an all-white school with Advanced Placement courses--in a wealthy suburb where your parents pay for $600 worth of tutoring to get high scores on the SATs?

For students from oppressed communities the whole experience in U.S. schools is often alienating and hostile--and gets more hostile the closer they get to a college campus. You are often told that "to make it," you have to reject your parent's culture, class, language and values. The life experiences of oppressed nationality peoples is relegated to tiny, ghettoized "ethnic studies" programs that are always under attack. One UC student said, "We're not taught our history in the schools; our literature. Nothing in the schools reflects us. From there on, the student is taught a kind of inferiority complex."

In short: Test scores and grades are the gatekeepers of capitalism, white supremacy and elitism in education. SATs and GPAs are good measures if you want to promote a future generation that do what they are told, look out for number one, and serve the machinery of capitalist profit. But that's nothing to uphold.

In a new, revolutionary society, education would not be a competition. And it would not be about personal ambition and financial gain. Humanity needs people who are studying the world in order to change it. The elitist standards, tests and teaching methods and curriculums of today should be thrown out the window--and radical, liberating new forms of education developed.

No Peace For Racists

Opponents of affirmative action argue that "affirmative action is an experiment that failed"--and they claim it failed because Black people proved incapable of seizing the opportunities offered.

Wilson openly talks about "people who cannot compete" in a system supposedly "based on merit." A recent pseudo-scientific book, The Bell Curve, has been widely promoted in the media, on campuses and in the business world to promote exactly these conclusions.


Today, one of the most common and underhanded forms of white chauvinism (racism) is to admit--with a little arm-twisting or even upfront and willingly--that Black people's situation is one of being far worse off than whites but then to blame Black people themselves for this situation: "They have been given their chance to `make it' and they have failed--so it must have been their own fault and it just shows that they are inferior." So this racist argument goes.

First of all, as we have shown, the last 30 years were not an experiment in equality. Affirmative action never created a "level playing field" between the different nationalities and the sexes.

If inequality still exists today, after 30 years of affirmative action, it only proves that affirmative action did not go far enough. Not nearly far enough!

The fact that opponents of affirmative action are promoting theories of white superiority (sometimes openly, sometimes under cover) just goes to show how sinister and unenlightened they are. Theories of white superiority have absolutely no basis in reality--but they have always (especially throughout the history of the U.S.) been useful justifications for the merciless exploitation of oppressed nationalities. Students from privileged sections of white people often "excel" because they are privileged and "fit in." Meanwhile, students from oppressed nationalities or women often don't "excel" because the deck is still heavily stacked against them--and sometimes because it turns their stomachs to do what is demanded of them.

California Governor Wilson now tells youth who battle their way in segregated inner-city schools--without decent books or advanced placement programs or computers or a place to study or even enough food--that they are "free to compete" with students from wealthy white suburban schools with all advantages. That's not "fair" or "equal"--it is white supremacy and class advantage disguised as "fair competition."

A system rooted in private ownership and dominated by monopoly capitalist corporations can never produce justice, equality, or decent lives for the countless millions it exploits. And its defenders will always create justifications for continuing to exploit working people and whole nations. To end inequality, discrimination, white supremacy and male supremacy, the dominant system and institutions of the U.S. need to be overthrown and replaced. And this system's stubborn ideologies of racism and sexism need to be exposed and defeated.

These are the tasks at hand.

Fredrick Douglass, the Black anti-slavery leader, said: "Power concedes nothing without a struggle." To beat back the attacks on affirmative action, we need to unite the people, and fight the powers-that-be. Nothing less will do.

This is a time for resistance.
This is a time for justice.
This is a time for equality.
This is a time for heroes.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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