Affirmative Action: How We Blew It For Black America


This is how affirmative action dies. And when the conservatives finally kill it, it will be in no small part the Left who’s also led it—mutated, glitchy and plundered—to its final place in the gallows.

Descendants of slaves won it. It was developed for them. An instrument to temper the enduring deprivation that resulted from the outrageous, centuries-long system of free labor, racial apartheid, and the pogroms of violence and terrorism. It only later became something like the village bicycle of government anti-discriminatory policy we recognize today. One by which any demographic numerically less than white males might siphon off a little of what was originally conceived with definite specificity: in national atonement for the aforementioned horrors by providing descendants of slaves a measure of advantage going forward in a society that is uniquely programmed to be black-averse.

And it functioned, if only very briefly, exactly as advertised.

A 1991 demographic report—citing the “increased opportunities provided by the civil rights movement”—found that the number of black families in the middle class had “doubled in the 1980s, and virtually quadrupled since 1967.” Then its growth stalled. And when black America began backsliding into poverty, the government just shrugged in resignation and convinced everyone it was the drugs, the culture, the old pull of that supposedly innate heathenry and not the generations of injustice which are in fact always pressing heavily and grievous upon them, conditioning absolutely everything; the natural, rushing flood-surge of adversity as soon as the legislative cork is withdrawn.

And when it stopped, boy, did affirmative action ever stop functioning for black America.

It became gender-provisioned, so that individuals who faced discrimination vastly different in nature than the kind faced by African-Americans—and who were often already situated within larger group-networks of wealth and social capital—had a turn-key policy to facilitate even greater opportunity and economic advantage. It became so that certain essential distinctions—like whose ancestors were brought here below deck on ships and whose had boarded a plane—were veiled in the country’s radically new demographics. The country had lifted quotas, throttled up immigration and—voilà!—society had a conscience-easing but thoroughly justice-corroding option of seeing outcomes in black American life that reflected the trajectories of black immigrants rather than native-born blacks.

But the above photo—taken from a 2017 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How a Group That Defended Affirmative Action Evolved Into an Anti-Trump Force,” captures another, maybe slightly less obvious influence on the program’s demise; namely, the way in which the singular justice claim of descendants of slaves tends to vanish inside of the potpourri-style politics duly observed and celebrated by much of the contemporary left. Writing about By Any Means Necessary—a college campus movement started in 1995 to preserve policies that considered race in admissions—the article’s author says, “Since its founding, the group has expanded its reach beyond a single issue, and its membership beyond individual campuses. Its members have joined national movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and have taken on the issues of sexual assault and immigrants’ rights.”

The contention that all of these groups’ justice claims have an uncomplicated point of convergence is—as Yvette Carnell at Breaking Brown has been consistently pointing out now for years—essentially utopic. Immigrants’ rights is a cause which is particularly fraught with tension in relation to the well-being of black America. And if the suggestion is that you can be, on one hand, in favor of immigrant rights and open borders, and on the other hand meaningfully invested in the preservation and vitality of black labor—which is to say, black life—then all observable evidence concerning the erosion of the African-American labor force alongside a rising immigrant population should render that claim ignorant at minimum and, in the end, discretely—though, demonstrably—anti-black.

Looking at the (d)evolution and eventual fate of affirmative action, it’s worth honestly considering what black America nets after its struggle’s incorporation into a blended politics. One which—insofar as it even does recognize the unique history of native-born descendants of slaves—routinely shelves the business of advocating for specific, reparative policy in favor of building an electorally-competitive coalition. But can a group whose exclusion from national life is so systemically unlike any other group’s in this country really be expected to throw its franchise in with that arrangement absent some mention of reparative justice on the platform? Otherwise, what are the limits of diffuse group advocacy with respect to the black agenda, and how does it avoid being abandoned once it’s seen as having outlived its usefulness as an accessory-issue in advancing the cluster of competing interests?

These are some of the central questions informing the Breaking Brown project in this particular moment in U.S. politics. And—provided what’s looming on the horizon for the black community—they’re quite astute and urgent ones. After all, what good was the moral authority and righteousness being earned while this anti-Trump ‘force’ was out advocating for and defending the rights of non-citizens—the Federal DREAM act, Immigrant rights, DACA & DAPA, Open Borders—now that the conservative courts are poised to take a stump grinder over what’s left of its foundational issue?