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Is affirmative action the same as reparations?

Charles Henry, professor emeritus, African American studies | November 13, 2020

During Black History Month in February of 2001, the radical turned conservative activist David Horowitz offered the campus newspapers of some 50 elite universities (including Berkeley) an advertisement entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea for Blacks—and Racist Too.”

Reason Eight was labeled “Reparations to African Americans Have Already Been Paid” and stated that since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and President Johnson’s “Great Society” in 1965, Blacks had benefited from millions of dollars in the form of welfare payments and racial preferences in jobs, contracts and educational admissions.

California voters would seem to agree because on November 3rd a majority failed to overturn the state’s ban on affirmative action. Yet less than a month prior to the election the state legislature passed, and the governor signed, a bill calling for a state commission to study the issue of reparations and make recommendations.

Of course, although Horowitz seems to suggest that affirmative action was successful in lifting Blacks up to equality, he never supported it (he also ignores the fact that there are more White welfare recipients than Black recipients). He was part of the new conservative movement ushered in by Ronald Reagan and foreshadowed by the Bakke decision that sought to use the civil rights laws enacted in the sixties to benefit Whites.

This new conservatism adopted Martin Luther King Jr. as one of its heroes claiming that in a “color blind” society the content of one’s character was paramount. Conservative activists like Horowitz charged Blacks with “reverse racism” against individual Whites while ignoring the fact that the Constitution and statutes of the early republic are filled with distinctions between groups: men and women, property-owners and the propertyless, slaves and non-slaves, foreigners and non-foreigners, etc.

The irony of America’s new-found abhorrence of racial classification reached a peak in 1978 when the Supreme Court turned the Brown decision on its head in the Bakke case. Now the Court reasoned that the 14th Amendment’s due process clause applied to Whites as well as Blacks and that limited affirmative action could be allowed on the grounds that it enriched the learning environment of Whites.

In short, a program designed to equalize educational opportunity for a group long discriminated against was now only possible if it also enriched Whites. And, in fact, White women would turn out to be the major beneficiaries of affirmative action.

A large core of the 70 million-plus voters who supported Trump in 2020 hold fast to the belief that Whites are the victims of people of color, immigrants, feminists, etc. Trump, in fact, is the victim-in-chief attacked on all sides. Another group on the left live in a post-structuralist, post-essentialist world of shifting identities that see race as an ideology.

A larger group of voters at the national level have come to acknowledge that the past 40 years have witnessed an intensification of racial inequality manifest in virtually every segment of society. The words of Thurgood Marshall during the Bakke decision are as true today as when they were written: “It is unnecessary in twentieth-century America to have individual Negroes demonstrate that they have been victims of racial discrimination; the racism of our society has been so pervasive that none, regardless of wealth or position, has managed to escape its impact…. A whole people were marked as inferior by law. And that mark has endured.”

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