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Affirmative Action Issues

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University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: October 13, 1998
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Introduction to Affirmative Action Issues

by Jeanne


Since the passage of Prop. 209 in California, and since the "backlash" duly noted by women, as well as people of color and of ethnic groups not in the U.S. mainstream majority, we have had to deal iwth issues of not only "equality" of access to what Robert K. Merton called "the goodies" provided by our society, but also the "fairness" of access.

Changing Patterns of Access

The primary arguments that concern me on this issue are how the patterns have changed over time and how we have failed to notice that the system responds to those very changes. Anthony Giddens said somewhere (sorry, I don't have source at hand) that the role of the sociologist was to explain the system, how it works, how people are affected by and affect it. Having successfully explained that, people change their behavior to act more efficiently within the system as we have explained it. But then, their changing their behavior alters the system, so that we have to study it again, and explain it all over again. And since effective explanations will cause people to change their patterns of behavior, the process will always go on. Sociologists, or at least the people who claim the right to study and explain the system, will never be out of work, for the system is ever changing.

Access as a Measure of the System's Willingness to Accept Feedback

Another way to look at this is to say that Giddens described an auto-poietic learning system, one that maintains itself by rules, and procedures for inventing new rules when needed, and which considers the problems that some people have with the rules in the system. In this model the sociologist helps understand the problems, clarifies alternatives that will work, and the problems over time disappear, or, more accurately, change. Then we have to study the problems again and seek viable alternatives that will work to lessen the problems. Engineers call it feedback and system correction. Habermas objected to Luchman's model because it failed to listen to and study the problems for correction and more effective results. Habermas called that a non-learning system.

Discrimination as a Ceiling to Access

Before affirmative action lots of people couldn't get through the ceiling. It wasn't even glass. They just never got a chance to go to some schools, to go into some jobs, to go where their skills and abilities might have otherwise taken them. The reason was race or gender or some factor (like Protestant or Catholic) other than their skills and abilities. Affirmative Action programs sought to end that discrimination and provide access.

The Crowd at the Gates

When affirmative action first played a role, it was one of the alternative solutions to the system blocking access. Many who were locked out had the skills and abilities to move on once access was opened. That part was easy. They needed little or no help. They just needed the door unlocked. But as they entered schools and careers, the doors needed to remain open. Often the next wave of applicants did need some help. Not much, maybe, but some. Providing that help cost more. And paying for it brought us to the threshold of resource distribution and fairness and equality all over again.

The System Has Changed

But the system was changed a little now. As Christopher H. Foreman, Jr. notes in BLACK AMERICA:The Road to Racial Uplift, once some of us had made it past the original gates, the ceiling moved. There was a very real need to deal with those whose skills were not developed, to deal with those who had been left much farther behind. And amongst those who had made it in the first wave, we began to notice a "glass" ceiling, one harder to see, harder to struggle against. And the same kind of help that had gotten us past the hurdles in the beginning didn't seem to work anymore. Women were quickly made aware that "affirmative action" had come to refer primarily to women of color. That made it seem to many who couldn't get to the gates fast enough that somehow the gates had closed again, and just as unfairly as before. One Black woman, feeling this, said: "Every time I get there, they change the rules." White women thought the doors had closed on them. But the system was changing, for people were changing their patterns of behavior.

Some Focus Points

I wish I had the answers. I don't. Many very bright and very caring people have addressed the problem. All I mean to do here is to set the tone for some of the topics. I'd like to ask some questions here I want us to discuss. I don't have the answers. I'm not sure anyone does. Just remember changing patterns of behavior in changing systems, some of which are learning, some non-learning, and most of which are changing all the time and hardly consistent. We shall read as much as we can. But the issues won't be solved in the time we have together. Mostly, I want you to learn how to think about the issues, so that you will have something to say about them, so no one will change the rules just as you get there, or at least so that you will have some alternatives if they do.

My Questions

  1. When the gates were first opened and the crowd with well developed skills and abilities rushed through, did they make it on their own, or did the system actually give them an advantage, and if so, what was that advantage?

  2. How does the community decide how long to keep the gates open before the discrimination of the past is no longer the primary consideration?

  3. What if the gate slams shut just before you get there? Is that bad luck? Social injustice? Should the gates remain open indefinitely?

  4. What does the gate or ceiling represent? We all use the symbolism, but do we always mean the same thing? If the gate is discrimination, and discrimination is temporarily forbidden by law, does that make it OK if it happens after the period designated to cure it? If the gate or the ceiling is not discrimination, then what is it?

  5. Discrimination is illegal, even after Prop. 29. So how could the gate close, if discrimination is still illegal?

  6. When the gate is open, or the glass ceiling removed, everyone wants in, the not-so-worthy as well as the worthy. How does a society decide how to draw the line between worthy and not-so-worthy?

  7. How do we avoid fraudulent claims to worthiness and fraudulent claims to "belonging"? Do we need to avoid them, or does their prevalence alert us to the fact that system variables have changed, and that we must reframe the questions?

Please notice that almost all of these are value questions weighing the tensions between the individual and the group and the tensions between groups. That's one reason we have such difficulty with the answers. I would like to suggest several theories that might help us focus effectively on the questions. Please bring others from your readings.

  1. Tension between the fact and the norm.

    Habermas notes that there is always tension between the actual facts and the out-of-awareness normative expectations. Dworkin notes the tension between the fact pattern and the choice of law to govern the issue. Kimberle Crenshaw alerts us to the norm of "white men" as a single category, when in fact it is an intersection of race and gender.

  2. Tension between the freedom of the individual and the good of the community.

    We live in a country founded on individual achievement and freedom to act. But we no longer have a frontier to which we can banish discontents and misfits. The loss of the frontier for us and for the rest of the world has to be a major factor in our patterns of behavior. And the loss of "space" means greater stress, greater tension than many of us were accustomed to dealing with.

  3. An increasing need to focus on global issues.

    As the world shrinks. Interdependence of individuals, of communities, of nations, of the world.

  4. The construction of reality. The construction of identity. In what context shall we measure who has skills, who has abilities? Conceptions of identity and of reality depend on our world view, depend on the extent to which we believe the individual or the community plays the greater role. These are matters of belief, for value always comes to belief, and yet they affect the perception we have of the world.

  5. Privileging subjectivity and wicked little unstated assumptions. The privileging of subjectivity almost demands that there be unstated assumptions. Consider Kimberle Crenshaw's work on intersectionality.

    A brief excerpt from Foreman's paper. Go to the site and read.

    The Brookings Review Spring 1998 Vol. 16 No. 2 Pages 8-11 © 1998 The Brookings Institution All Rights Reserved.

    from "BLACK AMERICA: The Road to Racial Uplift," by CHRISTOPHER H. FOREMAN, Jr.

    "From the beginning, "civil rights" was a misleading term, perhaps an outright misnomer. The moral, legal, and rhetorical pursuit of collective rights of access was but an essential strategy in a multifront war for a much larger prize: the uplift of a people, once mostly enslaved, afterward still widely despised. “Civil rights” could never mean just individual rights, any more than NAACP denoted a National Association for the Advancement of Coherent Principles. Indeed, black leaders and organizations have always known that they must pursue the vast and varied interests of their stigmatized and marginalized constituents by any realistic mechanism available. Rights were more a means than an end. If progress appears to have stalled, it is largely because the successive strategies embraced by the champions of racial uplift have all encountered their practical and political limits. For the most part these strategies have not so much failed as fallen victim to inevitable exhaustion and diminishing returns."

    "The symposium in this issue of the Brookings Review concentrates specifically on what might be called “the black predicament.” This represents another conscious editorial choice, grounded in the conviction that the great social question of the new millennium is less likely to be "can we all get along?" than "can we all get ahead?"

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