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Fighting “Affirmative Action” and Not Racism

April 29th, 2011

In Oklahoma, there is a bill that passed the legislature putting before voters a constitutional amendment that would ban “affirmative action” in the state government.

In the past, I have remarked on the confusion associated with this term: “affirmative action” in fact refers to a set of rules and guidelines which inform employers that when they hire, administer, and fire employees, non-relevant considerations such as race and gender must not play any part. Examples of “affirmative action” include rules about extending hiring information in broad environments, not just targeting one community or social group; or, if you employ men and women for the same position, you cannot pay the men more than the women.

What people often mislabel as “affirmative action” is quotas, a rudimentary practice of enforcing equality in a workplace which is identified as suffering from discriminatory practices. For example, if an office hires two hundred people, and 99% are white despite whites being only 70% of the qualified workforce, this is fairly substantial evidence of discrimination. Since such discrimination is rarely overt and cannot be redressed directly, the only options are to (a) allow the discrimination to continue unchecked, or (b) impose a requirement that hiring must reflect the makeup of the local qualified workforce–e.g., if the percentage of qualified workers of African-American descent in an area is 10%, then an office hiring 200 people should have 20 African-American workers. Quotas take into account standard deviations, and if an employer can demonstrate that they could not find enough qualified candidates to fill the quota, they are off the hook.

While quotas are seen as oppressive and unfair, this is primarily based on disinformation and misunderstanding. Quotas are attacked, usually using apocryphal and exaggerated stories of quotas run amok, creating the impression that they cause workplaces in which unqualified, undeserving minorities are hired and then become impervious to dismissal no matter how badly they perform. These stories are often taken as representative of the rules of quotas by managers, who, fearful of being sued, will sometimes follow the false rules instead of following the actual rules, thus providing more fodder to show that “quotas” are unreasonable.

The fact is, if hiring is equal and fair in the first place, quotas would never apply in any way, shape, or form. And when they do apply, they never require any employer to hire anyone who is not qualified, nor do they provide one iota or special protection or special preference to a worker once they are hired.

So, back to the Oklahoma bill. It took me a little bit to find the specific legislation, but eventually I found it listed as Senate Joint Resolution 15. It would amend the state constitution to read:

Section 36. A. The state shall not grant preferential treatment to, or discriminate against, any individual or group on the basis of race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.

Now, that sounds reasonable. However, note the language: “preferential treatment.” Also note the word “group.” Those are the key terms. “Preferential treatment” has long been a code word for people who attack affirmative action. The basic idea is that the effects of discrimination are partly or wholly ignored, and the immediate effects of quota-based hiring are considered completely out of context. Imagine considering sending a person to prison but ignoring the crime they committed; it would seem a horrific injustice. This is how affirmative action’s critics view it: not as a redress to an imbalance, but as a special boon, a bonus given only to minorities and women at the expense of white men.

Now, the rest of the language is pretty much the same as standing law. Here is Oklahoma’s state law on equal employment, a.k.a. affirmative action:

Title 25 O.S. 1302 – It is a discriminatory practice for an employer:

(1) To fail to refuse to hire, to discharge, or otherwise to discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation or the terms, conditions, privileges, or responsibilities of employment, because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or handicap unless such action is related to a bonafide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the employer’s business or enterprise.

(2) To limit, segregate, or classify an employee in a way which would deprive or tend to deprive an individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect the status of an employee, because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or handicap unless such action is related to a bonafide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the employer’s business or enterprise.

The only real differences are in the terms “preferential treatment” and “group,” and that is what they likely hope will kill off quotas.

Discrimination is not overt. Very few employers ever announce that they are hiring based on race or gender. As a result, it is impossible to address the damages of discrimination specifically, on a case-by-case basis. Instead, it can only effectively be addressed in a general way, i.e. quotas. What this may mean, however, is that if a workplace is hiring an individual, but because of past discrimination, white men have been hired over women and minorities and an imbalance exists, a qualified but less-experienced black person may be hired over a more experienced white person. This could be termed as “preferential treatment” for the individual. Since it could be argued that it is the group which is being given preference, the new legislation adds that term. Of course, the group is not actually being given preference–it is being compensated for preference given to white men. But this is the consideration that conservatives hope to dance around.

In effect, the amendment would, if effective in what it is designed to accomplish, forbid the use of quotas in the state. Racial and gender discrimination would therefore go unchecked, leaving strong “preferential treatment” only for whites and men.

The impetus behind this bill was made rather transparent Wednesday through the comments of one rather infamous Oklahoma state legislator named Sally Kern. On the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, she made this statement:

We have heard tonight already that in prison there’s more black people. Yes there are, and that’s tragic. It’s tragic that our prisons here in Oklahoma – what are they, 99-percent occupancy? But the other side of the story, perhaps we need to consider: Is this just because they are black, that they are in prison or could it be because they didn’t want to work hard in school? And white people oftentimes don’t want to work hard in school, or Asians oftentimes. But a lot of times that’s what happens. I’ve taught school for 20 years and I saw a lot of, a lot of people of color who didn’t want to work as hard, they wanted it given to them. As a matter of fact, I had one student who said, “I don’t need to study. You know why? The government’s going to take care of me.” That’s kind of revealing there.

Yes, it’s revealing, just not how she thinks it is. Frankly, I have strong doubts that she really had black students who seriously admitted that they didn’t want to study hard because the state would support them no matter what. It is far more likely that students made statements meaning something entirely different, but which she interpreted the way she wanted to–or she just made the whole thing up, based more on what she wanted to believe rather than on what she actually observed.

Disproportionate numbers of black people are not in prison because affirmative action made them lazy; they’re in prison due to a variety of factors, including racial discrimination over decades and centuries up to and including today, which induced poverty and a sense of hopelessness; sub-standard educational funding for people in poorer areas, which “just happen” to be largely minority; and laws written which disproportionately target and more strongly punish people of color.

To instead claim that it’s primarily or even partly due to laws which promote equal treatment and higher employment rates is farcical at best.

Listening to Kern’s whole remarks, there were several other telling points. One was that she extensively quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; when a conservative does that, you know it’s a cover for killing off civil rights and fair treatment. They love trotting out King’s statements and interpreting them in such a way as to kill the spirit and intended meaning of those statements.

Kern also made distinctions between “equal opportunities” and “equal results” (famous among affirmative action deniers), saying that opportunities were more important than results. This is another tell, as she clearly meant that the results should be determined wholly by a person’s accomplishments, and that affirmative action destroys that–completely ignoring the fact that before affirmative action can play any part, racial and gender discrimination must first destroy fairness, thus leaving affirmative action to restore it.

These people see affirmative action as anathema to equal opportunity, once again completely ignoring the effects of discrimination. In effect, in the absence of affirmative action, they blame minorities and women, and not discrimination, for their inability to attain employment on an equal level with white men.

Kern went on to explain why women don’t earn as much as men:

Women don’t usually want to work as hard as a man because … women tend to think a little bit more about their family, wanting to be at home more time, wanting to have a little more leisure time.“

Ah. I see. Women earn less than men because they spend more time at home. You can observe the logic at work here. The actual issue is that, when at work, with the exact same background and qualifications, doing the exact same job, women are paid a lower wage than men. Obviously Kern doesn’t even understand this; she thinks that the complaint that women earn less than men is about how many women work and how many hours they put in, not about equality in wages.

All of these claims center around a basic theme: blame the victim. It’s not discrimination which is hurting them, it’s their own decisions.

All of this echoes what we heard in the Tennessee legislature when they passed a bill to teach creationism in public school science classes: a vast lack of understanding of the reality of issues accompanied by a desire to implement laws which follow a strongly conservative bias.

These bills being passed are not about reality, they are more about Colbert’s ”truthiness,“ about establishing and codifying conservative beliefs and tenets in law.

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