|Sometimes an argument gets made with such
regularity that no matter how silly, it nonetheless requires an
answer. Indeed the more often it gets made, the more often it calls
for rebuttal, since its repetition indicates someone just isn’t
Such is the case with the oft-repeated claim, usually by whites,
that affirmative action stigmatizes blacks and other persons of
color who benefit from its presumed generosity. As such, they
note--and owing to their deep concern for the psychological
well-being of their dark-skinned brothers and sisters--the
elimination of such programs would be in the best interest of those
persons they were meant to help.
By casting their opposition to affirmative action in such seemingly
altruistic terms, critics seek to avoid the impression that they are
motivated by racial resentment at the opening up of opportunities to
See, they seem to be saying, we don’t mind black folks. Heck we love
black folks, and just want what’s best for them. And what’s best for
them, presumably, is no more “preferential treatment” in college
admissions, jobs or contracting.
Putting aside the simple reality that all of this so-called
preferential treatment has hardly put a dent in the edifice of white
domination--white men still get 93% of all government contract
dollars, hold over 90% of top jobs and 85% of tenured
professorships--the notion that affirmative action stigmatizes
beneficiaries and therefore should be scrapped for the sake of black
and brown mental health isdisingenuous and even racist on several
First, since affirmative action has opened up opportunities that
would otherwise have remained off-limits to people of color (and few
deny this despite the above data indicating that white men are still
large and in charge), such arguments seem to imply that people of
color would have been better off not to have gotten the jobs,
college slots or contracts they received.
We are asked to believe that they would have been better off with,
say, one percent, instead of three percent of federal contract
dollars; or perhaps half-a-percent, instead of four percent of
tenured faculty positions.
In other words, we are to believe that less opportunity to
demonstrate their abilities would have been better for black and
brown self-esteem, while more opportunity thanks to affirmative
action was harmful. That few people of color would trade the added
opportunities they have received for the sake of their self-image
attests to how utterly asinine such an argument really is.
Secondly, this feigned white concern (occasionally parroted by black
conservatives whose paychecks are almost always signed by whites)
seems especially hypocritical when one considers that the same folks
making this argument said nothing when The Bell Curve was published
and greeted merrily by the conservative right.
After all, here was a book that said blacks were genetically
less intelligent than whites, predisposed to crime, out-of-wedlock
childbirth, and all forms of social pathology. If the right believes
that affirmative action creates self-doubt, or implies that people
of color are less capable and need special help to succeed, then how
much more harmful must a book like The Bell Curve be, which doesn’t
imply that such persons are less capable but rather screams it quite
Yet, not only did whites not condemn this volume upon its
publication--and no prominent conservative said a critical word,
while several like William Bennett praised it openly--but indeed
white consumers made it a best-seller within weeks and its primary
author, Charles Murray, became a media star. Such is white concern
for black people’s self-esteem.
Thirdly, that blacks themselves overwhelmingly support affirmative
action leaves proponents of the stigma argument with only one of two
possible beliefs from which to choose: either that blacks are too
stupid to intuit their own interests and too dim-witted to see how
badly they are being damaged by affirmative action, or alternately
that blacks are so gullible (and thus also stupid) as to be deceived
into supporting affirmative action by scheming civil rights
Either way, this argument requires a belief in the ignorance of
black people, and their utter inability to think rationally. Such a
position is of course flatly racist not to mention utterly vapid.
Additionally, whatever stigma could even theoretically attach to
benefiting from affirmative action surely dissipates once one has to
prove themselves on the job or in school.
Indeed, persons of color know well that they will likely have to
work twice as hard to get half as far or be considered half as good
as whites; and they have known that since long before affirmative
action came around. But at least with affirmative action they get
the chance to work twice as hard and demonstrate their capabilities.
What’s more, once given that chance, persons of color rise to the
occasion. A comprehensive analysis of over 200 studies on the work
performance of affirmative action beneficiaries, published a few
years ago in the Journal of Economic Literature, found that said
beneficiaries performed just as well and often better than their
white male counterparts. So much for stigma.
If these workers were given to doubting their own abilities due to
having received a bump from affirmative action, surely this
self-doubt would have translated to weakened job performance.
Furthermore, to the extent such beneficiaries perform equal to or
better than white men on the job, any lingering biases on the part
of whites, such as beliefs that blacks are less capable and
qualified, can hardly be blamed on affirmative action, but are
rather the fault of white ignorance and racism itself.
As for college performance the same is true. Yes, students of color
fail to graduate from colleges at the same rate as their white
counterparts, but this hardly indicates that they were less
qualified and thus came to doubt their abilities once admitted to
schools that were “above their level” thanks to affirmative action.
After all, at several top colleges, including all of the Ivy League
schools, black and white graduation rates hardly differ.
Furthermore, even when the rates of matriculation differ widely
there is no reason to suspect stigma or that these students of color
were over their heads academically.
For example, even black students with SAT scores of 1400 or better
(out of 1600)--academically “qualified” to attend any school--fail
to graduate from their chosen colleges at rates that are up to nine
times higher than their white counterparts.
Since they were clearly capable students, other factors must be to
blame, among them, hostile racial climates or feelings of isolation
on mostly white campuses (both of which have been documented by
years of studies), and financial concerns that are more common for
people of color.
Indeed, as Dalton Conley documents in his groundbreaking book, Being
Black, Living in the Red, once family economic status, including
wealth and asset background, is controlled for (and thus, only truly
similar black and white students compared), there is no racial
difference between blacks and whites in terms of college graduation
So whatever graduation gaps do exist can be explained by economics,
not stigma associated with affirmative action.
And finally, one has to wonder why no similar concern arises over
After all, the history of white America has been a history of
affirmative action; one in which we received non-stop preferential
treatment and continue to do so. Yet do those who shed crocodile
tears over the stigmatizing effects of affirmative action for people
of color likewise argue that whites who benefit from preferences, or
have done so in the past, have been stigmatized?
Is George W. Bush stigmatized because his daddy got him into Yale?
Are the white baby-boomers who are currently inheriting nearly $10
trillion of property and wealth from their parents--wealth that was
accumulated under conditions of formal apartheid with its attendant
preference for whites--stigmatized by receipt of said wealth?
If so, when are they going to relinquish the wealth in the name of
their mental health, and if not, why not, if “preference” is
inherently stigmatizing? Will conservatives now seek to raise the
inheritance tax, perhaps to 100%, so as to save trust fund kids
years of expensive therapy for their damaged self-concepts?
Bottom line: if black and brown folks are being stigmatized by
affirmative action, we whites must be the most self-hating bunch
around. Years of racial privilege must surely have brought us to the
point of near paralysis, such that it quite literally boggles the
mind to contemplate how we manage to persist in our daily routines
But luckily there is a solution, a way for whites to safeguard our
self-images, made evident by a recent study, which found that job
applicants with white-sounding names are fifty percent more likely
to be called in for an interview than those with black-sounding
names, even when the applicants are of identical qualifications.
Given the unfair preference for those who appear to be white, and
the stigma that must therefore assault every Biff, Skyler or Chloe,
forced to wonder if they got their jobs due to their lily-white
names, perhaps the critics of racial preferences should start a
campaign for whites to change our names to Tamika, Shamika, Andre
and Tyrone, just to even things out a bit and avoid the damage that
would otherwise come from an unfair head start.
Lamont Bush. Yeah, that ought to do it.
Tim Wise is an antiracist educator, essayist, activist and father.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org