(The Root) — Four decades after legalized discrimination was still codified in law, racial disparities persist at nearly every level of American society. From criminal justice to education, employment to housing, minorities in general and African Americans in particular continue to face an uphill battle toward social and economic equity.
Affirmative action policies — originally designed to redress problems created by centuries of slavery and Jim Crow — are being derided by some as racial discrimination against white people. The fundamental ideology is being challenged this week in a U.S. Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas, in which a white woman claims she was disadvantaged in college admissions. A similar argument failed in 2003, but today's more conservative court may be more apt to side with the plaintiff, since the white-victim mentality has recently gained mainstream momentum — both in education and politics.
George Will, the renowned conservative Washington Post columnist, echoed these sentiments when he claimed that President Obama's recent success in polls against his Republican challenger is solely due to his being black. Will argued that voters are reluctant to fire Obama — suggesting that African Americans not only are living in a postracial era that requires no affirmative government policy but are also actually enjoying some kind of benefit by virtue of their blackness. Herein lies the cognitive dissonance of white privilege and the fundamental conundrum of trying to explain the need for affirmative policy to a white majority that sees nothing wrong with the status quo.
Welcome to the land of make-believe.
Abigail Noel Fisher, the white woman who claimed that the University of Texas policy discriminated against her on the basis of race, has since graduated from Louisiana State University. The facts of her original case reveal that she failed to meet the threshold of being in the top 10 percent of her graduating high school class — which would have automatically guaranteed admission to UT. Instead Fisher competed in a general-applicant pool that, along with merit-based variables, considers race, athletics, community service and other factors.
According to UT, this method ensures a diverse class and enriches the educational experience. Fisher, however, concluded that being white somehow disadvantaged her and, as such, any policy that considered race was a violation of her constitutional equal-protection rights.
But Fisher needs a brief civics lessons.
Joan Walsh, in her new book, What's the Matter With White People?, posits that too many whites incorrectly believe that minorities have benefited from affirmative action at their expense. Walsh takes a historic view, showing that most white Americans enjoyed the benefits of the Great Society social welfare programs, in particular the postwar GI Bill, expansion of public universities, FHA mortgage-lending guarantees and union jobs.
Together, these benefits created upward mobility for a strong middle class. They were social welfare programs — amounting to affirmative action government policies for poor and low-income whites — and often, almost explicitly, excluded African Americans and other people of color.
After the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, access to these programs expanded slowly for minorities. And in 1972, Title IX was passed to guarantee women equal access to higher education, but even that mostly assisted white women, since the gains of the civil rights era were embryonic, at best, and still being negotiated.
The results speak for themselves, since many women — mostly white — now enjoy positions of privilege and power from the classroom to the boardroom. Fisher's claims aside, the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report, released last week, reveals that for most white Americans, discrimination is the least of barriers.
The unemployment rate for white women and white men over the age of 20 stood at 6.3 percent and 6.2 percent respectively, well below the national average of 7.8 percent and just shy of what is considered full employment — this even in tough economic times. In contrast, although the overall African-American unemployment rate has improved significantly from its peak of 16.7 percent, it remained well above the national average at 13.4 percent.
Fisher's own story ignores the most crucial fact — namely, the original need for affirmative action. For descendants of African-American slaves, the combination of brown skin and state-sanctioned discrimination left no alternative option or recourse.
At the heart of Fisher's argument is the misguided view that African Americans and Hispanics are given preferential treatment on race alone and, as such, are undeserving. Yet historical data show that white American women have been the biggest benefactors of affirmative action policies — undermining Fisher's own argument.
George Will, in his misguided op-ed, reveals the cognitive dissonance at the heart of so many attacks on any success achieved by blacks — dismissing them as affirmative action babies. Yet he willfully ignores (pun intended) any privilege he himself experienced as a Princeton- and Oxford-educated white male, born into an America that legally deprived blacks of any opportunity to compete with him.
Though Will claims to be postracial, it is only the success of African Americans that he overtly racializes. As such, Will — whose career of covering American presidents extends over 30 years — has never once suggested that the re-elections of Reagan, Bush or Clinton hinged, in part or entirely, on their whiteness.
So why, in Will's opinion, is race the sole factor of Obama's potential return to the White House? Likewise, could it be that Fisher simply didn't impress the UT admissions officers as much as another white candidate? Why must it have been a black or brown person who received the spot she is convinced belonged to her?
America's original sin created a de facto affirmative action for white people that still plagues the broader sociopolitical consciousness. This malignant disease leads some white Americans to believe that they deserve something that, in an increasingly minority-majority nation, is being taken by someone who looks different from them.
The result? Hispanics and Asians are stealing their jobs. Blacks are taking their seats at university. Their Oval Office is occupied by a foreign-born, illegitimate president.
The line between white privilege and the status quo has become so blurred it's invisible. It is time to redraw the line in black and white.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.