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.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s 58-page dissent is a painfully necessary document that asks the nation to live up to its creed, but we desperately need to take this conversation in another direction. Rather than focus on the disadvantages of groups hurt by this decision, Americans must confront the unearned advantage of whiteness that inspired Michigan’s Proposal 2 in the first place. In short, Proposal 2 — and every instance of the sort of rhetoric that aligns with it — amounts to a declaration that setting a quota for whites of at least 75 percent is the American way.
The nation’s most effective, and palatable, affirmation action has always been for whites. In the early days of the republic, how else could land have been distributed to whites and not to Native Americans? The requirement for land was being white; the government set it aside for whites. How else could whites have secured the vast majority of land in the South (where blacks often outnumbered them) after Emancipation? The Homestead Act of 1863 and other government programs ensured that land was set aside for whites. How else did 98 percent of Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans granted between 1932 and 1962 go to whites? Numerous historians have shown that the federal government sanctioned discriminatory practices that ensured that access to home ownership was set aside for whites. And those homes not only enabled whites to build wealth; they also provided access to public schools that prepared their children for college. The same principles shaped the years after World War II. Thus, while G.I. Bill benefits yielded college degrees and small businesses for whites, black and brown veterans more often returned home to collect insult and injury.
Today, being white remains the unspoken — but most important — qualification in college admissions and hiring. As a result, being mediocre is OK as long as you are white. Ever notice that it is only when someone isn’t white that everyone begins working to ensure that standards are not being relaxed “because of race”? Likewise, people only worry that someone is “getting a leg up because of race” when the candidate is not white. In other words, race should be a factor in one’s favor only if they are white. This logic is so acceptable that we are not even supposed to notice it; as long as the person is white, everyone pretends that the decision to welcome them was simply about merit and that “race” had nothing to do with it.
In this climate, the notion that affirmative action is “reverse discrimination” if it benefits non-whites is the height of disingenuousness and cowardice. If it is true that black and brown people generally inhabit lower economic and social positions because they are less qualified, then why is it so important to ignore the many ways that government programs set aside resources and opportunities for whites? Americans cannot reasonably declare that marginalized populations are placed at an advantage when we refuse to notice the advantages of dominant groups. How can we know the difference between an unfair benefit and a very belated attempt at equalizing opportunity when we are not honest enough to concede that the rules have always favored particular people? It is long past time to admit that dominant groups do not prevail because their members are so exemplary but because the system is set up to ensure that they win even when they are mediocre.
I have been surrounded by whites my whole life, and that has not translated into being surrounded by excellence. When a candidate is white, they can be considered a “good fit” even when their qualifications are not all that impressive, but a candidate of color has to be exceptional (and put whites at ease) in order to get the same designation. I have also been surrounded by heterosexuals my whole life, and that has not meant being surrounded by excellence. It has not even meant being surrounded by high moral standards and stability. Why are we so committed to ensuring that no one feels convicted to speak these truths? Why are we so comfortable being, in Eric Holder’s memorable words, a nation of cowards?
Dominant American discourse expects — demands — that no one, especially people of color, notice that being white gives people unearned advantages from which they never stop benefiting. It is time to stop pretending that American inequality corresponds with different groups’ qualifications, work ethic, or merit. We should ask ourselves why it is OK to notice the disadvantages that some groups face but offensive to acknowledge the unearned advantages that produce those obstacles.
If you believe in an equal playing field, you must acknowledge the rugged terrain that past and present discrimination for some, coupled with unearned privilege for others, creates. At the very least, those who value equal opportunity cannot let those who don’t get away with lies, including lies of omission. Whether it is Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who supported Proposal 2, or a friend or colleague who agrees with him, we should make our fellow Americans own the belief that undergirds their stance: “I should not have to compete with non-whites based on merit. I suspect I will lose if being white isn’t the qualification that matters most.”
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