Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Lash, Part II

In discussing whether Barack Obama should come out in support of class-based affirmative action (an idea forwarded by Jon Chait), Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a point I hadn't thought of before:
I have a radical theory: If you never address white paranoia, class-based Affirmative Action is doomed. What Chait isn't seeing (and I submit this with much respect, because I am a fan) is that racism poisons everything. The War on Poverty programs were also class-based, but that didn't stop white racists from demonizing these programs a handouts to Negroes. Welfare supported more white people than black, but that didn't stop people from turning poor black women into welfare queens. The theory of class-based Affirmative Action as "great politics" rest on a foundation which black folks have always found wanting--the ability of crucial swaths of white people to not cut off their nose to spite their face. But, in regards to race, this country entire history is based on white people cutting off their nose to spite their face.

In my previous "lash" post, I noted that the term "backlash" is somewhat of a misnomer -- it acts as if the racist White response was a reaction to a particularly policy, differentiable from previous White behavior that was...well, every bit as hostile and racist. The default setting in America -- regardless of what policies we choose or how much or little the White power structure agrees to bend to Black demands -- is for racism to be produced, albeit at varying levels. The trick is figuring out how to produce anti-racism -- and that's something that we've yet to bottle.

I support class-based affirmative action, but only in tandem with race-based AA, because I think they are separate sources of disadvantage that need to be remedied separately. Nonetheless, I have to admit I figured that replacing racial affirmative action with a class-based system would have at least diffused White anger on the issue, and would still accomplish some good given the disproportionate placement of people of color in the ranks of the economic underclass. Hell, that was even an argument the replacement advocates made themselves: class-based affirmative action would still primarily help people of color, so what's the fuss?

But as Coates reminds us, even programs which primarily help Whites (such as welfare) will engender White opposition and "backlash" if they are perceived to be aiding Black people. And perhaps no program has more indelibly been associated with "aiding undeserving Blacks while stomping on the dreams of hardworking Whites" than affirmative action.

I've noted before how racist ideology in America has proven itself to be incredibly mutable -- it can adapt itself to nearly any change in environment, changing its justifications and rationalizations without a hitch. If affirmative action switches from a race to class basis, and it still results in any meaningful assistance being given to Black students, expect the educational equivalent of "welfare queens" to pop up. It's a prediction that's never failed in the past.


schiller1979 said...

Yes, more white people get welfare benefits than do African American people. But I believe it’s also true that a higher percentage of the African American population gets welfare benefits than is the case with the white population. The former fact is yet another refutation of the crude “welfare queen” argument. But the latter fact is pertinent to the more-relevant issue of whether the structure of welfare programs has subsidized one-parent families. The argument is that while impoverishment that arises from a higher incidence of single parenthood affects both white and African American families, it has a greater affect on African Americans as a community, because a higher proportion of that community is affected. It’s the argument Pat Moynihan made in his 1965 report that was entitled, in the parlance of the time: “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action“. http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm He wrote that “The fundamental problem … is that of family structure. The evidence — not final, but powerfully persuasive — is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.“ The incidence of single parenthood has greatly increased in the meantime.

Anonymous said...

The fact that there may be racialized complaints about colorblind affirmative action does not refute the utility of such programs because it does not demonstrate that the volume of complaints will fail to go down. (I would imagine that for all the complaints about "welfare queens," if welfare eligibility were determined by race, the "lash" as you call it would be far greater.)

Simply put, a marginal improvement in the popularity of AA may be enough to justify making it colorblind, and since we don't have any numbers in front of us, we're just guessing.

Anonymous said...

Its interesting that in Brazil where race-based and class-based affirmative action programs were combined, whites actually showed more interest and sympathy for affirmative action (because poor whites, who comprise a substantial portion of the Brazilian population, were benefiting), but also in anti-racist activity more generally. My theory is that because affirmative action was presented as part of a broad social justice project to aid marginalized and excluded people (blacks, women, indigenous Brazilians and the poor all benefit from affirmative action policies) it increased sympathy across oppressed groups, whereas in the United States poor whites and blacks seem to be competing for political resources and attention.

I wrote about this in my thesis which I forgot to send you I just now realized, although I ended up not including the bit I asked you about, I'll send you a copy now that I remember. I plan on posting about it soon too, I've begun to keep a blog so I'll keep writing now that I've graduated, apcole86.blogspot.com

PG said...

There may be some foundation in schiller1979's claim that part of the hostility to welfare is due to the perception that welfare encourages/ rewards sexual promiscuity.

To the best of my historical recollection, there was much less hostility toward welfare programs when they assisted two-parent families and widowed women. Take housing projects, for example. In 1937, Congress passed the United States Housing Act which provided for the creation of local public housing authorities to provide "decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families" (42 USC 1437) and to replace slums using Federal funds. These projects predominately were filled with two-parent families and widowed women, and were not seen as shameful places to live. Welfare became highly disreputable in American politics once it was extended to benefit never-married and divorced women. There's also an argument that the change in norms regarding women's working outside the home, such that conservatives now declare simultaneously that children need their mothers at home and that single mothers need to work instead of staying home, made AFDC less popular.

Incidentally, I have a white friend whose white cousin is on welfare, and he still regards it as a bad thing even though it helps a family member he cares about (although doesn't much respect). The "welfare queen" myths were directed at black women who were seen as *liars* -- women who manufactured husbands and children, who deliberately got pregnant for more money and who avoided marriage in order to take more government money. In contrast, white welfare recipients are seen as merely lazy, shiftless and ignorant (generally stereotyped to places like Appalachia).

Finally, the 1996 welfare reform has changed the demographics of the welfare rolls; I think they are now minority white.

Superdestroyer said...

One of the problems with race based affirmative action is that its bad effects are magnified by rampant credentialism in the U.S.

Many middle class Americans have the anecdotal story of the high school graduation where the white and Asian girls were fighting to be valdictorian but end up attending state universities while the black girl who graduated 10th in her class had been admitted to an Ivy league or similar university.

Every white person in the graduation audience will assume that the black student was admitted on a quota and that her life will be easier because getting the Ivy League degree will open doors and provide opportunities that the white students with better grades, higher SAT scores, and fuller resumes will never get while attending enormous state university.

Unless you can convince Americans that the dumbest person at Georgetown is not really smarter than the smartest person at George Mason University, middle class whites will resent race based affirmative action.

Of course, what makes it worse is that AA benefits recent immigrants more than the decedents of slaves.

PG said...


Do you actually have this anecdote, or are you basing your claim on vague friends' stories? I'm curious because I attended a high school where the Asian kids went to "public Ivy"/ Ivy League schools, and the black kids went to the state schools, HBCs and the military. Maybe we just weren't middle class enough (given that a fifth of the freshman class didn't graduate on time, very possible).