The situation of blacks in the workplace without AA [Affirmative Action] is not difficult to imagine. The racist impact of irrelevant job requirements will continue, perpetrating the victimizing effects of inferior ghetto education and the racial bias that has denied blacks training and work experience. Unless AA measures reduce the racist impact of seniority-based layoff, blacks will, as always, move down during recessions into unemployment. Should blacks wait until recessions are eliminated (until capitalism is fundamentally restructured) to achieve job security? Without AA, desirable jobs will be distributed through a white pipeline, as an ingrained practice in America’s two segregated societies.
...The aim of AA is to break that racist barrier. Without that pressure, even in an expanding economy, occupational segregation will continue. Blacks will remain second-class citizens. Gertrude Ezorsky, Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action, 1996.
The question of racial oppression in the US against peoples of African origin remains unsettled well over two hundred years after the country’s foundation.
Some would like to believe that the question was substantially solved after the Civil War with the liberation of African slaves from their bondage.
Still others would like to believe that the question was largely solved with the Civil Rights “revolution” of the 1960s when legal segregation was overturned and historical racially-based legal obstacles to voting were abolished.
And still others would like to believe that the final racial barrier was shattered when Barack Obama was elected, breaking the ultimate glass ceiling.
For many well-meaning liberals, only a mopping-up of the vestiges of racism remains: the abusive impact of language, attitudes, individual relations, micro-aggressions, etc. remain problematic. And, of course, these attitudes can fester into collective violence organized by the police or the so-called “alt-right.” From this perspective, the race question can neatly be absorbed into a vast rainbow of worthy causes, an intersection of dozens, if not hundreds, of group grievances for which liberal academics have concocted an umbrella word: “intersectionality.”
The wholly unique history of depredation and alienation experienced by a people forcibly “exported” to foreign lands for slave labor and subsequently scorned because of skin color is cast into a cauldron of -ism’s that range from the most benign to the most harsh, systemic, and unimaginably violent, elevating the slight and trivializing the brutal.
It is the relativizing of oppression that allows vast numbers of otherwise disinterested citizens to remonstrate against second-hand smoke while ignoring the slaughter of hundreds of thousands at the hands of the US military in its imperial campaigns throughout the world.
African Americans today fall behind their white counterparts in every objective, material standard of well-being, from life expectancy to accumulated wealth. Despite the relative successes of an upper stratum (petty bourgeoisie) of US Blacks who have parlayed education, social or political contacts, professional prowess, ethnocentric entrepreneurship, or fealty to power to its advantage, most African Americans occupy the lowest, most precarious rungs of the US working class.
Black citizens often live in bantustan-like neighborhoods, isolated from better housing, better schools, and better human services. Where Northern, urban African Americans have historically been confined to city ghettos, they are now being ethnically cleansed from inner cities by a process of gentrification motivated by young, white professionals enamored with the amenities of urban living. Today, Blacks are herded into declining suburban ghettos where they were formerly denied residence.
It is no exaggeration to say that the segregation of Blacks and whites is as great or even greater than ever, with a consequent disparity of advantage.
The Liberal Moment
The high point of progress against racism and its effects occurred in the 1960s coincident with the growth in breadth, militancy, and unity of many decades of anti-racist activism. New Deal liberals, prodded by a largely Communist left and CIO working-class radicalism laid the foundation for the direct action and broad-based movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Democratic Party, long an unholy alliance of Northern liberals and Southern racists, acutely felt the pressure from this movement. A unique conjuncture of sympathy for an assassinated President’s initiative, the rare audacity of a succeeding President, Lyndon Johnson, obsessed with leaving an historic legacy and repairing the international image of the US, widespread outrage over officially sanctioned violence in the South, and, most importantly, a disruptive mass movement for racial justice culminated in unparalleled legislation expanding civil, political, and human rights for US Blacks. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked the high-water point in the struggle against racism. The history since that juncture has been one of defending, enforcing or, most tragically, witnessing the erosion of those gains.
To a great extent, the gains of the 1960s reached the limits of bourgeois democratic, rights-based reform. Unlike a revolutionary change brought on by the US Civil War, a war that overturned an entire politico-socio-economic system (while leaving the deplorable material conditions of Blacks largely intact), liberal reformism promises opportunity but does not promise the delivery of outcomes. In other words, liberal reformism may open closed doors without providing the means to pass through those doors.
The legislation of the mid-1960s opened many doors for African Americans, but failed to offer most of them the material essentials-- the education, the jobs, the living conditions, etc.-- to successfully pass through those doors toward real equality.
Just as the promise of 40 acres and a mule never materialized to liberate former slaves, liberal reformism fails to offer Blacks the socio-economic foundation that would liberate the African American working class in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To grant that foundation would challenge the most sacred values of capitalism and open further doors to the emancipation of the entire working class.
The aftermath of the Civil Rights era brought two promising developments: a movement to desegregate public schools in both the South and the North and an emerging commitment to affirmative action.
Beyond the Limits of Reformism?
Of all of the potential reforms targeting racism, desegregating public schools and forcing children to bear the burden of social change was the least likely to come at a cost to capitalism or disrupt existing power relations. Nonetheless, there was great promise in dramatically improving the education available to Black youth by putting them in the same classroom with white youth, where the quality of teaching, resources, facilities, and options are consistently higher.
While minimalist in economic sacrifice, public school integration met intense opposition from highly organized racists who rallied many under the bogus banners of “forced busing,” “school choice,” and “neighborhood schools.” It made no difference that elites had embraced publicly subsidized busing and travel out of neighborhoods for their children’s attendance at private and parochial schools. The hypocrisy was only underscored by the use of busing and the abandonment of neighborhoods to avoid attendance at integrated schools.
Nonetheless integration of city schools persisted. Of course the problem of better education for Blacks remained unsolved because of the even greater class disparity between urban and suburban schools. To achieve some parity for Blacks would necessarily involve consolidating school districts across this class line at some additional material cost and with social and political cost to the existing racial barriers.
This dramatic step for parity education for African Americans was quashed with the Burger Supreme Court decision of 1974, Milliken v. Bradley.
The Burger majority effectively removed any legal obligation of suburban school districts to participate in school desegregation unless they could be shown to be intentionally racist, placing an untenable onus upon reformers. The urban Detroit school district was 75% Black when it originally appealed for judicial relief. With the Supreme Court denying relief, it was 90% Black by 1987.
Dissenting Justice Douglas caustically noted: “...the task of equity is to provide a unitary system for the affected area where, as here, the State washes its hands of its own creations.” One should clarify: the capitalist state washes its hands of its own creation.
With a substantial legal obstacle placed before it, the reformist desegregation movement collapsed well before it achieved any real educational parity for African Americans. Liberal reformist leaders surrendered without a further fight. Since Milliken v Bradley, it has been a persistent battle to protect the limited gains made from opportunist politicians.
Beyond the Limits of Reformism?
The other promising reform stoked by the Civil Rights movement-- and potentially the most significant-- was the policy of affirmative action, a policy designed to move beyond allowing participation in the US economy to actually leveling the employment playing field for US Blacks. Marxist political economist, Victor Perlo, calls affirmative action “...the principal mechanism designed to reduce discrimination against African Americans.”
Among the most thoughtful, passionate advocates for affirmative action is the liberal philosopher Gertrude Ezorsky. Her brief, concise book, Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action, is the classic on the policy. From first reading her book many years ago, I remember well her central datum that jobs are acquired overwhelming through contacts or personal networks. It caused me to reflect on my own work history from digging a basement for a neighbor when I was thirteen through the rest of my employments. Without exception, every job was gotten through family, friend, or other acquaintance. Every thoughtful person, except for the mythical “self-made man/woman,” will concede this datum.
Of course this means that those limited to the worst jobs through racism will only produce and reproduce, through their limited networks, still others locked into bad jobs.
It is this cycle that affirmative action promises to break by guaranteeing Black representation in workplaces proportional to African American representation in the population.
While ‘60s liberals acknowledged both the necessity and promise of affirmative action (Title 7, Civil Rights Act 1964), they were slow to devise plans or seek implementation of the policy. Ezorsky notes that, ironically, two of the more effective plans were enacted during the Nixon Administration. The 1969 Labor Department Philadelphia Plan saw the representation of Blacks in the construction trades go from 1% to 12% in Philadelphia. And Nixon’s 1971 Executive order 11246 required “that dated numerical targets for hiring, training, and promoting minorities be set by firms that hold government contracts but have underutilized minorities…” (Ezorsky, p.37)
Affirmative action got as much attention in the 1976 Democratic Party platform as did fisheries. When mentioned, it was conflated with the Black unemployment rate. Even less attention was given by the Carter Administration, in practice.
Ezorsky concedes that “[t]he affirmative action programs begun in the 1960s have been diminished in the 1980s in response to a different political climate.”
The Democratic National Committee’s 1986 83-page statement of principles, New Choices in a Changing America, written and endorsed by the Party’s luminaries, contains not one endorsement (or mention) of affirmative action. In its place were vague policies directed at unemployment and job training.
Affirmative action was dead.
Because Ezorsky grasps the historical specificity of US racial oppression, she recognizes a strong need for restorative justice, a justice that must go beyond merely establishing opportunity. The liberal conception of justice as fairness-- everyone playing by the same rules-- professes a distance, a willful blindness to outcomes. But blindness to outcomes fails to acknowledge that inequality of means determines outcomes even when equality of opportunity is assured.
Thus, an equal opportunity to apply for acceptance from Harvard means little to the gifted African American student saddled with a third-rate education; an “equal opportunity” job-training program in the suburbs means nothing to a motivated potential employee lacking the financial resources to travel to the suburbs; and the right to stay at the Greenbrier resort counts for little to the vacationer who would have to devote an entire paycheck for a visit.
Of course it is the class dimension that arises with these examples, an “intersection” with racism that academics and “middle class” liberals seldom recognize.
Consequently, restorative justice-- like affirmative action, but unlike merely establishing civil rights-- depends on a redistribution of society’s resources. For Blacks to finally enjoy justice, they must acquire a material foundation beyond newly minted rights in order to participate productively in society and enjoy its benefits.
Obviously capitalism opposes any redistribution of assets or any reordering of power relations, unless it comes at the expense of the working class. And that opposition explains the stillbirth of affirmative action. It has disappeared almost entirely from the mainstream conversation.
Could affirmative action succeed in bringing racial justice to African Americans under capitalism?
Probably not, but the struggle for affirmative action would bring Blacks closer, and would attack racism at its core.
Anti-racism for the Twenty-first Century
The shallow and patronizing anti-racism that occupies much of the left-- the language-scolding, the tokenism, the guilt-driven deference-- leaves the structure of racial oppression untouched.
Nor does the idea of “reparations” attack that structure. Reparations draw upon hollow legalisms: the notion that a retributive settlement can be negotiated with a guilty party and magically restore justice to a people kept back for centuries. It fundamentally looks to the past, promising to repair damages incurred, but with no promise of delivering future justice. Further, reparations fail to explain how any settlement would be distributed in a way that benefits those most aggrieved. Like other liberal answers to racism, it fails to recognize the fact of class.
Any attack on the structure of US racism must recognize that eliminating the racial ghettos of poverty, inferior education, poor housing, mass incarceration, poor health care etc. must attack the economic ghetto of centuries of super exploitation, unemployment, underemployment, and inadequate jobs.
In his classic reprise on the subject, Economics of Racism II, Victor Perlo writes:
A program to achieve economic equality [for Blacks] has two main requirements:
- Affirmative action; that is, specific measures to improve the economic conditions of African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and sections of the Asian population;
- Measures to advance the conditions of the entire working class. (Perlo, p. 281)
Any anti-racist reforms must, therefore, revisit affirmative action. An authentic People's anti-racist strategy must place restorative measures at the center of our efforts-- measures that afford African Americans the minimal means to march through the doors of opportunity won in the great Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.