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Are We There Yet? Revising and Questioning Affirmative Action

Dr. Robin Hughes

Are we there yet? My children would ask every 30 minutes of our 12-hour holiday trek from Fishers, Indiana, to my hometown, Fort Worth, Texas. Gas stations were the ultimate disappointment for my youngest child, who would argue at each of the four gas station stops. At the end of the trip, I had to convince her that the gas station was a necessary stop along the road. We have to push forward, and nope, we were not there yet. While we no longer make that trek and my youngest finally got it after a while, I still experience similar questions and assumptions about those gas station stops and getting there. 

Dr. Robin L. HughesDr. Robin L. HughesBecause I claim antiracism scholarship and practice antiracism in every space where I am present, I am often questioned and challenged. One of my all-time favorite assertions is that affirmative action is a form of reverse discrimination. They claim, “All policies should be color-blind, otherwise “we” are practicing reverse discrimination and racism against white people.”

My counterargument hasn’t changed. Affirmative Action policies were a start to combat racial discrimination. I believe that we, well, most of us, that 50 years later, we might be further along. In other words, Affirmative Action should have been a beginning policy step, along with lots of educational practice, for organizations to move towards treating everyone equitably across racial categories. After all, in any society where racial differences are indeed valued, after a while, there would be no need for such policies, no need to argue for colorblindness, because racism wouldn’t exist—. Well, I say with all clarity, we, These United States, are not there yet.

There are too many clear indications that in America, individuals, organizations, institutions, etc., continue to discriminate based on race, gender, class, orientation, etc. Data from The American Bar Association and many other scientific reports are clear that “something” is still out there and that “it” is racism. Further? Turn the gaslight up, institutionalized racism has become our norm.

Proof? Let’s take, for instance, hiring practices, where the argument about reverse discrimination seems most pervasive. When we drill down to who is employed, recruited, and hired by an organization, the illogical doesn’t make sense. We often hear, “We can’t find any,” and “We are hiring the most qualified”. If the applicants all happen to be white, well, that is the most qualified pool. However, given my experience and from what is gleaned from research, both of those subtext-filled innuendos are used as divisive maneuvers to explain why people of color do not seem to appear in the “pool.” Ultimately, these normative responses tend to lead to some assumptions at the very start of the search. The first assumption is that everyone serving on the search committee views each file through an equitable lens. 2.) Assumption two, the pool of applicants is not filled with friends and family and just hook-ups from the thinking inside the box, lid closed committee. 3.) The final assumption is that everyone on the committee is culturally competent. My take? I argue that the mantras of quality and can’t find any more correctly reveal that an organization does not know where to look, and quality speaks to so-called implicit bias (see the Harvard study). In other words, who have you chosen to serve on the committee and why?

The quality and can’t find any narratives just doesn’t make sense given the extensive research evidence that shows that individuals tend to naturally recruit and hire people who are culturally and racially similar to themselves. According to The American Bar Association, those individuals also pass along opportunities to others who travel or network in similar circles. If those similar circles and situations are always, let’s say, similar (male and white), and historically, the same “racial” groups have held most of the positions in organizations, then guess who is hired or promoted--perpetually? Need another quickie and eye-opening proof? Check out the organizational charts at your institutions if you like. Just look at the pictures of your campuses’ faculty, and pay close attention to upper administration. While minorities are encouraged to apply, those pictures are not a figment of your imagination. They may be encouraged, but are you hiring? Naw, we are not there yet.

So what is taking us so long? Easy, we decided to sit at the gas station [a collective but my vote was not counted as a majority]. Research is clear regarding how race and racism impact us all in the United States and beyond. However, some of those discussions are no longer tolerated in many places. Some parts of history have been suppressed in many states, books banned, curriculum and conversations disappeared, and even research agendas are on hold or downright outlawed and controlled. Who knew that the racial reckoning of 2020 would have evoked such a silencing and chilling impact on mere discussions about race and racism? Ultimately, none of this should be a surprise, given how individuals choose to live in the United States.

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