J. Pharoah Doss: Disturbing Black generational divide on the demise of Affirmative Action?

 The 1996 presidential election was expected to be a landslide victory for incumbent President Clinton due to the strength of the economy. Affirmative Action became a contentious national campaign issue after California’s ballot proposition 209 threatened to eliminate Affirmative Action in the state’s public sector.

Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole publicly endorsed proposition 209, while President Clinton acknowledged that Affirmative Action had flaws but should be “mended, not ended.”

Within Black America, the Affirmative Action debate evolved into a referendum on racism.

After the Civil Rights Movement’s victories of the 1960s, it was understood that racism in America would not go away overnight and that Affirmative Action would be required to transition Black Americans from segregation to integration; however, as race relations improved over time, Affirmative Action would become unnecessary.

In 1991, Orlando Patterson, a Black professor at Harvard, stated, “The sociological truths are that America, while still flawed in its race relations … is now the least racist White-majority society in the world; has a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, White or Black; offers more opportunities to a greater number of Black persons than any other society, including all those in Africa.”

At the midpoint of the 1990s, Americans who accepted Patterson’s conclusion began to question whether Affirmative Action was still needed, resulting in Proposition 209.

The majority of Black Americans rejected Patterson’s “sociological truth.” They claimed that improved race relations had nothing to do with the persistence of systemic racism in America, concluding that Affirmative Action would always be required.

Shelby Steele, a Black intellectual and Affirmative Action opponent, believed that many Black proponents of Affirmative Action exaggerated systemic racism in order to preserve the benefits of racial preferences. Steele feared that instilling this false perception of American racism in the next generation of Black Americans would lead them to prioritize victimization in their cultural and political identities, a mindset that is more difficult to overcome than racism itself.

On election day in 1996, 55 percent of California voters supported Ballot Proposition 209. This marked the end of Affirmative Action in California’s public sector.

Two days before Election Day, the San Francisco Examiner released the findings of a poll of “Whites and minorities” who lived in mostly minority communities in California. The majority of both groups agreed that Affirmative Action was still required, but they preferred that career promotion and college admission be based on merit rather than race or gender preferences. Even though Proposition 209 banned Affirmative Action in California, the poll reflected the national attitude, particularly among Black Americans, that Affirmative Action was still necessary to overcome systemic racism.

Steele warned: “If my benefits come to me primarily as a Black and not as an American, then the effect over time is to undermine common society—the common culture and democracy of America. I, as a Black person, don’t identify with America—America is my enemy. This kind of thinking causes me not to move into the American mainstream. Which correspondingly causes me to fall farther and farther behind … That is the tragedy of victimization.”

Steele feared the inevitable, but did he underestimate the next generation?

In 1997, a Time/CNN poll asked Black and White teenagers whether racism was a major problem in America; both said yes. However, when asked if racism was a significant issue in their daily lives, 89 percent of Black teenagers responded that it was either a minor issue or not a problem at all.

In the same poll, nearly twice as many Black teenagers as White teenagers believed that “failure to take advantage of available opportunities” was a more serious issue than racism.

Apparently, these Black teenagers did not embrace victimization.

Let’s skip ahead to the present.

In 2023, the United States Supreme Court overturned Affirmative Action programs in college admissions. The Court concluded that these programs violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause, which prevents government entities from discriminating based on race.

Charlene Cromwell, Senior Fellow at the Center for Responsible Lending, recently wrote, “While many might presume widespread unity in Black America over the Supreme Court ruling, a survey analysis by Gallup’s Center on Black Voices published earlier this year shows a distinct and disturbing generational divide on Affirmative Action … Numerically, 56 percent of Black adults aged 40 and older mostly view the decision negatively. But among younger Black adults, aged 18 to 39, the Affirmative Action reversal is viewed positively by 62 percent. Moreover, many younger Blacks anticipated the decision would have no impact at all on their education and futures.”

This is not a disturbing generational difference, as Cromwell claims; rather, it is a generational embrace of Black agency over Black victimization.

Shelby Steele would be pleased that the “tragedy of victimization” did not unfold as he predicted. 





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