Nice Looking Bottle…Too Bad We’re Not Going Back In

There are many anti-affirmative action pundits who believe this to be the case, and I’m here, as a practitioner of Affirmative Action, Civil Rights and Diversity Programs and Policy, to set them straight.  The election of an African-American to the highest office in the land does not automatically wipe out over 200 years of discrimination and bigotry; not to mention 400+ years of oppressing Black people and stealing land from the Native Americans in order to form this new Nation.  From the reports of rising incidents of hate crimes, it is only a matter of time before we will see the increase in discrimination complaints and incidents on the job, at schools, on the streets WHERE YOU LIVE.  Especially in the job market, considering the economy is gone to hell in a handbasket on will not come back for a while – it will become much easier to fire and lay off people of color and blame it on the economy rather than true reorganization and elimination of jobs – it will become less detectable to the discerning eye.

First off, let’s settle the issue of what is Affirmative Action, by stating what IT IS NOT.

Affirmative Action is NOT A QUOTA.  That was outlawed in the Supreme Court Decision of University of California v. Bakke in 1978.

Affirmative Action does not place unqualified individuals in jobs or awards companies contracting opportunities because of their protected group status (see Adarand Contractors v. Pena, another Supreme Court decision issued in 1995).  It is a concept that recognizes past discrimination and allows for the development of proactive, affirmative measures to prevent discrimination and facilitate an objective, meritorious selection process, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious or national origin, or disabled status.  It allows for good-faith efforts to recruit protected group individuals for positions they have been historically eliminated from competition.

President Lyndon Johnson, in stating the Government’s role in correcting past discrimination, was heard to state, “We must take affirmative action to correct past discrimination…” and the phrase “Affirmative Action” was born.

Now that it’s been settled what Affirmative Action is, let’s get down to the discussion.

The issue of preserving and maintaining the concept of Affirmative Action is a catch-22 for the President-Elect, because I believe he knows he is universally expected to take an affirmative position on issues of discrimination, civil rights and civil liberties; yet he must walk a fine line not to be seen as being too sympathetic to the concepts and activism that now allow him to partake of the unique power he now holds as President of the United States.  And I have learned in my 22 years as an EEO practitioner, that electing a Democrat does not translate or equal to strengthened or preserved Civil Rights laws and affirmative action policies, despite the fact that the Democratic Party promotes itself as one of the “big tent” and “inclusion”.

If anything, depending upon the President’s position on Affirmative Action and Civil Rights can be compared to the State of California in terms of political policy development – “As goes California, so goes the rest of the Nation” is what used to be said in terms of policy development and implementation.  Similarly, this concept was seen in former President Bill Clinton’s position on Affirmative Action, “Mend it, Don’t End It.”

What came from President Clinton’s lukewarm affirmation were systematic, strategic attacks to dismantle Affirmative Action, and what was worse, an African-American man who obtained his wealth as a result of affirmative action, was leading the charge.  When California Businessman Ward Connerly lead the campaign to eliminate affirmative action in education, contracting and employment in the State of California, and successfully got Proposition 209 – the California Civil Rights Initiative, on the electoral ballot in 1996, many EEO practitioners like me saw the writing on the wall, but because it was going on in California, the rest of the country believed there were enough “liberal Californians” to vote correctly and defeat the proposition, just like people thought “liberal California” voters would do the right thing and defeat the passage of Proposition 8, denying gays the right to marry in the recent election.  Once again, supporters got caught flat-footed, unprepared and failed to reach out to key demographics to educate voters about the damage the proposition could cause, just as we were 12 years ago with Prop. 209.

Once again, the State of California demonstrated in areas of civil rights that she wasn’t as “liberal” as has been perceived by the rest of the Country.  Hell, we couldn’t even elect the nation’s first African-American governor 20 years ago when Tom Bradley ran for the office.  We see states like Virginia and Massachusetts both elect African-American governors while California has yet to do so.  We’ve even seen Massachusetts legalize the right for gay people to marry while California passed a ballot initiative denying them the same right.  Anyway, I digress.  Here’s what happened with the first major challenge to affirmative action at the ballot box.

At the time of this challenge I was working for the Department of Transportation in 1996 in the office of Civil Rights. My boss and I wrote three White Papers to the powers that be in DC, and presented analytical findings of what would happen if Prop. 209 passed.  Mind you, we were tasked to research this proposition and present the results in hopes of getting the Federal Government to challenge both the state of California and its Governor, Pete Wilson, on the issue of affirmative action.

No matter.  Clinton was running for re-election, and did not want to upset his chances of winning California’s 55 electoral votes by challenging California’s governor on this issue, so Connerly’s proposition was allowed to go UNCHALLENGED.  The initiative even survived a Supreme Court challenge of its semantics – the court challenged was to get Connerly to spell out to voters in clear language that the California Civil Rights Initiative was not one that would strengthen Civil Rights in California as it was being promoted, but to systematically dismantle Affirmative Action in California’s government operations.  Connerly’s success facilitated similar initiatives in Washington State, Michigan, Colorado, Florida – he made boatloads of money going around the country in a single-handed attempt to dismantle Affirmative Action, for the past 12 years or so, until it was discovered that he wasn’t in the business of dismantling affirmative action because of personal beliefs or values, but because there was money to be made in the oppression of ethnic people.

Similarly, because Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, the first media meme to be spun is “The Era of Bigotry and Discrimination is over because America has elected a Black Man as President.” Those of us who know better, have already begun to cry “bullshyt” because the tendency to discriminate does not check itself at the door because a person of ethnicity or color has managed to walk through it.  This thinking facilitates a relaxing of vigilance when we start thinking “We Made It”.  Just because an African-American, a Latino, an Asian or Native American; a white female or a disabled individual, can now be seen heading up corporations, running for elected office, being nominated to the Federal Judiciary or Cabinet-level positions, does not mean in any way, shape or form, that “We’ve MADE IT.” If anything, these accomplishments, while historic and significant, should instill in all of us a need to increase our vigilance just to maintain what has been accomplished, and to set the stage to accomplish even more that America is capable of which proclaims her greatness.

Does the election of Barack Obama really signal the end for the need to keep Affirmative Action/Diversity/Civil Rights and Liberties policies, processes and regulations in place?  America is unique in that this country has always been a diverse, melting pot of people from every continent and culture – a culture that forced all of us to learn how to live together in order to merely survive.  While the separartions of races does not go unmentioned, and has a great deal to do with the history of our nation, it became painfully apparent over decades that regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religious or national origin, if America was going to survive as a Nation, the separations had to be done away with and inclusion facilitated.  When wars were fought – America couldn’t just send all the white guys to fight; they had to include Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and women (even though she tried to lock up all the Japanese-Americans in shameful fashion during WWII) in the Armed Forces.

When elected officials began to realize they couldn’t win their offices without ensuring everyone had a right to vote and they realized they needed EVERYBODY to vote (which the South is just beginning to learn because they resisted the longest); when the Federal Government realized it couldn’t demand companies comply with anti-discrimination laws in education, employment, military service, etc., unless it were willing to set the Standard for compliance by self-implementation and demanding compliance from companies desiring to do business with the Government – the laws were written, but the human instict against change is to RESIST as long as possible until it becomes impossible and futile to continue to resist it.  Without the concept of Affirmative Action, the equal employment opportunity laws and regulations could not be enforced.  Without Affirmative Action, there is no righting of past wrongs (and that is all Affirmative Action does is right past wrongs).

So we have an African-American President, but the significance of his election is a direct result of the concept of Affirmative Action in righting the past wrongs of discrimination – therefore, to make the assumption that because America will now be lead by an African-American for the next four years, Affirmative action is no longer needed, to act on this assumption will be done at one’s own peril, because by the mere fact that an African-American is President, also indicates that those who have benefited the most from Affirmative Action; we’re not going to let go of the gains achieved that easily.  It is easier to live with this genie let out of the bottle than trying to put it back in.

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