Here's a wonderfully worded article by Troy Duster at UC-Berkeley.
Troy makes great use of a cheater-in-a-poker-game analogy. I would add
that this is a very generous view of opponents of affirmative action. At
least the cheater wants to play fair after being caught. Affirmative
action opponents make practically no call for fair play. They only call
for eliminating affirmative action for women and minorities. Virtually
nothing is said about reducing affirmative action for white males (aka
"ol' boys club).
The Advantages of White Males
Critics of affirmative action invoke "fairness" as their primary
grounds for attack. It is "not fair," they say, to use race or sex
as an important feature to select someone for a home loan, a job or
for admission to an educational institution. The second most
frequently heard complaint is that it is not fair to hold
individual contemporary whites or males responsible for historical
injustices done to whole categories of people to compensate for
practices, customs and laws that systematically discriminated
against women and people of color.
All debates that appeal to fairness have a timeframe and cannot be
addressed by taking a snapshot at a particular moment, stripped of
its social and historical context. To make my point, imagine a
card game, say poker, in which someone has been cheating for the
first three hours. Then, after raking in a huge pile of chips, the
culprit is caught red-handed, admits cheating - and then takes the
position, "From now on, let's play fair!" To add insult to injury,
he declares, "If you start to take away my chips, I'll call it
'reverse-cheating.'" That's a snap shot version of fairness.
There is of course, a problem with any parable or metaphor.
Cheating at poker, for example, is almost always done in a
clandestine manner. The cheating that produced the gap between net
worth of whites and blacks, and between men and women, was done out
in the open. Indeed, it was federal policy.
In 1939, the Federal Housing Authority's manual that provided the
guidelines for granting housing loans explicitly used race as one
of the most important criteria. The manual stated that loans
should not be given to any family the might "disrupt the racial
integrity" of a neighborhood. Indeed, the direct quote from
section 937 of the FHA manual went so far as to say, "If a
neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that
properties shall be continued to be occupied by the same social and
On this basis, for the next 30 years, whites were able to get
housing loans at 3 to 5 per cent, while blacks were routinely denied
such loans. For example, of 350,000 new homes built in Northern
California between 1946 and 1960 with FHA support, fewer than 100
went to blacks.
Why is this so critical to the current attack on affirmative
action? Financially, the biggest difference between whites and
blacks today is their median net worth, which is overwhelmingly
attributable to the value of equity in housing stock. In 1991, the
median net worth of white households ($43,279) was more than 10
times that of the median net worth of African American households
In contrast, while wage and salary differences between whites and
blacks persist, they are relatively small. But if we look at net
worth instead of salary, the differences inflate to a shocking
ratio of 10 to 1. Where did this come from? How did it happen? It
occurred in the 50-year poker game -- of race-based government
subsidized housing loans.
Perhaps one might ask, is this because whites are much harder
working than blacks, who are disproportionately on welfare? Which
group is more likely to earn the income by working? What new House
Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate majority leader Bob Dole and the
sponsors of the state ballot initiative to end affirmative action
have never told us, and are not about to tell us, in their snapshot
version of fairness is that, while blacks derive 80 percent of
their total income from wages and salaries, whites derive only 75
percent of their total income from this source.
Assigning individual blame has nothing to do with the fact that
whiteness and maleness have been advantaged categories during the
first 200 years of the republic, conferring systematic advantage to
"individuals" within "a certain group." America's affirmative
action programs for white males via home loans is only on part of
the historic swindle -- the tip of a very large iceberg. For
example, the Social Security Act of 1935 was explicitly designed to
exclude African Americans.
To ignore this recent history and to say "from now on, all
Americans are only going to be treated as individuals" is to
conveniently start the "fairness" clock very late in the game.
The framers of the new ballot initiative say they want a color-blind
society. But since the chips (net worth) were distributed using
color and sex and the strategy, the only way to be fair would be to
give the chips back and start all over again -- color blind. That
would take a lot more than affirmative action.
By Troy Duster
Sociology Professor and Director
Institute for the Study of Social Change
University of California at Berkeley
from the January 19, 1995 San Francisco Chronicle newspaper
Neo D. Martinez email ndmartinez at ucdavis.edu
Research Fellow Phone 707-875-2211
Bodega Marine Laboratory 707-865-0777
University of California, Davis FAX 707-875-2089