Unpacking Race and Class: When Affirmative Action Doesn’t Affirm

When I was a college student at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, I had my first encounter with a Republican student. Coming from Chicago, a Democratic town, it blew my mind to hear arguments from my conservative classmates justifying President Ronald Reagan’s policies, which hit African Americans hard and some would argue took black progress back several notches. Notably, Reagan’s deaf ear to civil rights issues became apparent during his two administrations, which dismantled federal civil rights enforcement.

I remember one particularly trying argument with a fellow resident adviser, a young Republican who often wore ties and button-down shirts to the most casual of campus affairs. We had been talking about the difficulty for African Americans of getting middle class jobs, and affirmative action – giving preference to blacks – was not the answer he said.

How is it giving African American’s preference if they have limited access, I asked. Well, you’re giving blacks preference above others, he responded. It’s the principle. What he was really saying was it was unfair on principle for blacks to receive any preferences above whites, who all along had been receiving an unacknowledged preference. We can call it affirmative action for whites. And that the preferences whites were receiving (and still receive to some extent) have been unacknowledged for so long demonstrates what it is to be white in America. Whites expected access. That was the norm. The Nixon Administration’s affirmative action policies tried to shift that balance a bit. But even with those policies, African Americans still made up a small percentage of the middle class workforce.

This brings me to a piece I read in the New York Times by columnist Thomas B. Edsall. Generally, I like to read his column, because he finds interesting polls, studies and statistics about political strategies and demographics. But in the column titled “Have Democrats Failed the White Working Class?” Edsall offers a problematic frame for his argument.

He starts out the piece asking what have Democrats done for white working class voters and relies on two studies to conclude that the party hasn’t done much for them lately.

“At work and at home, their lives are worse than they were a generation ago,” he writes. “Their real incomes have fallen, their employment opportunities have diminished, their families have crumbled and their ties to society are fraying.”

“This is how daily life feels, to many in the white working class,” he continues. “Unlike blacks and Hispanics, whites are not the beneficiaries of affirmative action programs designed to open doors to higher education and better jobs for underrepresented minorities; if anything, these programs serve only to limit their horizons.”

Contrary to Edsall’s argument that blacks have received great benefits from Democratic policies, black mobility hasn’t improved much either. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the black unemployment rate has stubbornly stayed twice the rate of whites. In November 2014 the black unemployment rate was 11.1 percent while for whites it was 4.9 percent.

In his column, Edsall cites the work of Andrew Cherlin who looks at racial and economic change in Baltimore at the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel in “Labor’s Love Lost” published by Russell Sage. Cherlin’s work looks fascinating and I look forward to reading it, as it coincides with my research on black steelworkers in Chicago from 1942-1976.

But Edsall’s frame implies that black working-class families have fared better than white working-class families. Using Cherlin’s work, Edsall makes a case that Democratic civil rights policies of the 1970s that helped blacks did no favors for the white working-class. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans were locked out of the higher paying jobs through hiring practices that were sanctioned if not protected by the union. It wasn’t until the 1970s that African Americans began to experience greater opportunity and options in steel mills across the country. Many of these newly instituted affirmative action polices for seniority, promotion and apprenticeships also benefited white workers who were sometimes trapped in dead end jobs. Edsall makes no mention of these benefits across racial lines.

As these changes began taking hold, the steel industry started to shrink, partly in response to foreign competition. These great jobs in steel that provided a means for people with no more than a high school degree were disappearing and now black and white working class communities were feeling the hit.

To read Edsall’s piece, we would believe that whites took the hardest blow as Democratic policies providing civil rights for blacks and more rights and autonomy for women took its toll on the white working class. The upshot, Edsall says, is that lack of jobs for men and a liberal cultural shift that allowed men to walk away from family obligations have left white working-class women in a downward spiral, many unmarried, with children and working low-wage jobs. He points out that the percentage of white unmarried mothers without a college degree jumped from 18 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2010. Yet, according to U.S. Census data the percentage of African American unmarried mothers increased from 37.8 percent of families in 1980 to 52.6 percent in 2010.

Edsall goes on to use a 2012 Pew Research poll, which compares black and white responses to the question: “When your children are your age, will their standard of living be worse, the same or better than yours?” Blacks’ responses were by far more optimistic than whites’. But this comparison figure says more about the mindset of blacks and whites than it does about actual disparity. In this same Pew poll, 30 percent of whites and 30 percent of blacks believed they were in the lower classes. The black percentage was unchanged in the last four years. But for whites this sentiment grew from 23 percent in 2008.

Perception can be deceptive. Henry J. Kaiser Foundation data shows that 10 percent of whites live in poverty, while 27 percent of blacks do.

Edsall states clearly that the numbers he presents are based on perception, but he offers no data to show readers the reality that whites, blacks and Latinos live. Without the numbers to show this reality, it is easy to walk away from Edsall’s column thinking that black lives are pretty good, while white lives are the worse for wear. In reality, economic difficulties are becoming the norm for people across racial lines, yet blacks still have the greater struggle.

Only now as we continue to see wages stagnate, while CEO incomes hover above the stratosphere, a growing percentage of white are people feeling a shove down the economic ladder. The so-called economic recovery has been too slow for many. Audiences can and should debate the merits of Democratic and Republican policies, but to do so the debate has to be based on facts, not perceptions. Unfortunately, when it comes to race, perception tends to win out.

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