affirmative action, African Americans, critical race theory, government contracting, higher education, Ibram Xendi, Im-Politic, minorities, race relations, racial justice, set asides, Small Business Administration, systemic racism
There’s a big concept that’s been utterly and conspicuously missing in the floods of verbiage sloshing across the nation about systemic racism, and it’s badly distorting the picture of how bigoted America and all its institutions remain. Think of it as “systemic anti-racism.” So far, it seems as good a term as any for all the official and unofficial efforts launched and maintained over the course of decades to help victims of discrimination overcome its lingering effects. And they have been legion.
Oddly, the unofficial programs seem to be by far the best known. Surely they’ve been the highest profile, and the most prominent have been the affirmative action policies long in effect throughout American higher education. This post discusses a study indicating just how many minority students have been provided with opportunities to attend colleges and universities by revealing how significantly state government bans on these programs since the 1990s have reduced the shares of “underrepresented” youth in the student bodies of their public institutions.
And if these data don’t convince you, here’s the verdict on such programs from no less than Ibram Kendi, one of the nation’s leading propounders of critical race theory – which of course contends that systemic racism still defines much and even most of American life: “Affirmative action programs in education have been demonstrated to increase diversity and increase access specifically for underrepresented groups.” (There’s evidence, though, according to the aforementioned CBS News post, that such underrepresentation has worsened since the 1970s at the most selective colleges.)
Yet the reach of affirmative action and related initiatives has extended far beyond the campus. As this history of the idea puts it (all the while emphasizing how fuzzy and confusing it’s long been):
“The actual programs that come under the general heading of affirmative action are a diverse lot; they include policies affecting college and university admissions, private-sector employment, government contracting, disbursement of scholarships and grants, legislative districting, and jury selection. Numerous affirmative-action programs have been enacted into law at local, state, and federal levels. In addition to programs that have been mandated by law, many private corporations and universities have developed affirmative-action programs voluntarily.”
The federal government’s measures have been especially impressive. Since 1961, because of an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy, Washington has not only required all companies doing business with Washington to end racial discrimination in their own hiring practices (a policy with roots in the immediate pre-World War II period), but to promote equal opportunity in employment actively, and to document such practices and their effects in detail. Penalties for non-compliance were severe.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded these obligations with a directive that all federal contractors and subcontractors act to expand opportunities for minorities.
The Johnson years also saw the first small-scale federal efforts to use the Small Business Administration (SBA) “to award contracts to firms willing to locate in urban areas and hire unemployed individuals, largely African Americans, or sponsor minority-owned businesses by providing capital or management assistance.” These practices were strengthened and expanded during the 1970s until in 1978, Congress expressly authorized the agency to focus such activity on “socially and economically disadvantaged small business concerns” (as the statute states) or “on businesses that are least 51% owned by one or more socially and economically disadvantaged individuals and whose management and daily operations are controlled by such individual(s)” (according to a history prepared by the Library of Congress).
It’s important to note that the SBA has also used this authority to help such businesses win contracts throughout the federal bureaucracy. In addition, every federal agency that authorized to buy any product from the private sector is required to operate an Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization whose mandate includes ensuring that minority-owned small businesses “are treated fairly and that they have an opportunity to compete and be selected for a fair amount of the agency’s contract dollars.”
And don’t forget “set asides” – which means that a certain number of federal contracts are either reserved completely for minority-owned businesses or businesses “in historically underutilized business zones” (including in economically depressed areas with big minority populations), or that such businesses be given preferential pricing in the contracting process. To cite one example, since 2015, Congress has required the Transportation Department’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program (which exists separately from the above SBA operations) to award a specified percent of its contracts to companies defined as having dealt with “ongoing discrimination and the continuing effects of past discrimination in federally-assisted highway, transit, airport, and highway safety financial assistance transportation contracting markets nationwide.”
Nor is the federal government the only level of government in America offering such preferences. As of 2016, the National Council of State Legislatures reported that “At least 38 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have state-level MBE development programs involving certification for participation in state government procurement….” And such policies are in place in many U.S. cities, too.
I don’t want to present an overly rosy view of the American race relations scene. As many of the sources above make clear, the scope for using racial preferences in higher education admissions and in government contracting has been steadily narrowed by the courts. Some of these government programs were underperforming even before these restrictions came into force. None of them seem to have made a satisfactory impact on the nation-wide racial wealth gap yet (especially lately). And prejudice continues to mar policing in many areas of the country. So race relations Nirvana is still a long way off.
Nor is my purpose in this column to make the case either for or against any of them. (For the record, I’m generally supportive.) And no one should come away from this post thinking that it’s examined or listed all of these preferential programs exhaustively.
What I am emphasizing here is that these efforts to overcome historical racial injustice show that the inadequacy of progress hasn’t been for lack of trying -at least to a noteworthy extent. As a result, they call into question the extent to which American racism today is still actually systemic. As a result, any teaching of race relations in the schools, or government or private business efforts to raise employees’ awareness of racial issues, or even any discussions or press coverage of these subjects, would do well to include discussions of these systemic anti-racist policie. Otherwise, it would seem fair to criticize them as systemically biased.