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Still Getting It Wrong On Affirmative Action

Saw this short news item earlier. And even though I read it all the way through, it was the story's first sentence that I kept returning to:

A federal appeals court is about to consider a lawsuit challenging Michigan's ban against racial preferences in public university admissions and government hiring.

Yes, I think affirmative action is a palatable, if mild, remedy to the ongoing discrimination that women and people of color face in Michigan and around the country. But this take isn't about cheering the court's decision to hear the challenge to race preferences or even affirmative action itself, for that matter. Rather, it's about the implications of the persistent, narrow belief that affirmative action is just a set of "racial preferences" -- when the truth is that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women.

No, I'm not saying that  blacks, Latinos, Arab-Americans and Asian-Americans haven't also benefited. (The University of Michigan, for instance, has 11 percent fewer minorities than in 2006, in part because affirmative action was outlawed.) But it's the idea that these minorities, not white women, are disproportionately helped by affirmative action that inflames much of the opposition that we saw here three years ago.

Many who voted against affirmative action had it in their heads that black people and other minorities were somehow getting something they didn't "deserve" or were receiving "something for nothing." Sure, some will howl that I'm wrong -- that affirmative action opponents were driven solely by noble desires for "fairness" and "equality" -- but I'm not. I've lived in Detroit much of my life. And I know well that even though many of us here consider it uncomfortable or impolite to discuss race when talking about why metro Detroit is what it is -- and that includes its standing as one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S. --  intense racial hatred remains alive and well. (Don't believe me? Check out the message boards and comment sections over at just about any of the local papers, particularly when there's a story about a crime that involves someone of African, Hispanic or Middle Eastern descent.)

Understand, I'm not particularly angered by these racial realities. And I generally don't care to try to "wash racists." Still, I do think that there are plenty of other, good people of all stripes -- yes, I know even some blacks and other minorities who oppose affirmative action because they consider it an unfair race "quota"  -- and that is why I always hope for a broader, more inclusive defining of the term.

Of course, knowing that sexism is also alive and well, I don't mean to suggest that Michigan voters would've kept affirmative action had everyone understood that it helped white women more than, say, black men. And I don't have a problem with white women who've benefited, as they certainly have endured their own fair share of hell at work sites, academic institutions and other places. Further, I'm also not saying that everyone who opposed affirmative action harbored racist sentiments. I don't think that's true at all.

But I do firmly believe that affirmative action is problematic for many in this area mainly because they can't abide even the slightest notion that some black person somewhere may be "getting away" with something. And as telling as that misguided belief may be about metro Detroit, it is no truer than misperceptions about what affirmative action really is or whom it aids the most.

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