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G.W. Bush: Affirmative Action Baby

by Manning Marable

Several days before last month's national holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, the Bush administration came out forcefully against affirmative action policies initiated at the University of Michigan, which soon, will be under Supreme Court review. To his credit, Secretary of State Colin Powell informed the media that he continued to express "support for the policies used by the University of Michigan."

Condoleeza Rice, Bush's National Security Adviser, unfortunately lacks Powell's integrity. She at first claimed that she agreed with her boss's ridiculous charge that Michigan's policy of giving preferences to black and Latino applicants who came from racially oppressed communities is a "quota system." Then in a series of contradictory explanations Rice admitted that her career had indeed "benefited from affirmative action." She also acknowledged that race could be "a factor in university admissions," but not to the extent used in the University of Michigan's admissions policies.

Compounding Bush's decision to oppose affirmative action was his renomination of Charles W. Pickering, Sr., of Mississippi, to the federal appellate court. Pickering's conservative history on racial issues, such as his efforts as a judge to reduce the sentence of a man convicted of burning a cross outside the home of an interracial couple, guarantee strong opposition to his ratification in the Senate. Given the Republican Party's embarrassment in the wake of Senator Trent Lott's resignation late last year, why would Bush seem to go out of his way to alienate the African-American electorate? New York Senator Charles Schumer spoke for many when he informed the press, "I'm still scratching my head in amazement that they actually (re)nominated him."

The controversies over both affirmative action and Pickering's renomination led many columnists to question the administration's commitment to civil rights. One of the most thoughtful commentaries to appear was by author Roland S. Martin, which appeared in USA Today on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Posing the question, how would King have viewed Bush's rejection of affirmative action, Martin observed: "President Bush opposes the University of Michigan's admissions program because he views it as a quota system." "Yet he is proud to call himself a Yale graduate, even though he benefited from a quota system because of his family's history at the Ivy League school. That's right. Our own president is an affirmative action baby."

Growing up, little G.W. was at best a mediocre student. According to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, Bush was denied admission to St. John's, an elite private academy in Houston. He managed to get into Andover Academy, an elite prep school in the Northeast only because "it wanted Texans to diversify its student body, which was heavily from the Northeast. In addition, using just the kind of point system that Mr. Bush now derides as quotas, Andover gave George three extra points on a 20-point scale."

I think two points are crucial here. First, Bush's "legacy" preference he received is "a higher percentage than a Michigan applicant gets for being black." Second, Bush's admission knocked out of Andover another (probably white male) student who had better grades, and was better qualified than he was.

The same pattern of mediocrity followed Bush into college. He never made the honor roll at Andover during his years in high school. His SAT cumulative scores in verbal and math were about 150 points below the median scores of students admitted in his class at Yale. Martin asks the logical question, "Maybe Bush should ask himself whether someone with better grades was denied a chance to get into Yale" because he was selected. "If so, would he consider switching places with him or her today?"

If Martin Luther King, Jr. was with us today, he would probably describe the Bush administration's racial strategy as "symbols without substance." King would certainly applaud Bush's appointments of blacks in high level administrative positions, such as Powell and Rice. He would have commended the President's criticism of Lott's outrageously offensive statements, celebrating Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign on the Dixiecrat segregationist ticket. But King would deplore and condemn the administration's ugly pandering to racist, conservative extremists in our country by falsely describing "preferences" as "quotas."

King would perhaps cite a recent study published in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, that shows that minority students actually have less access to college today relative to white students than they did a quarter of a century ago. Affirmative action programs have expanded access to college for black and Latino students, the study confirms, but these gains have been "offset by policies that give an advantage to white applicants." These policies "include special consideration for the children of alumni and donors, prepaid-tuition plans, which benefit only those parents who can afford to save money for college, and the current movement among many public colleges to tighten admissions standards and end remedial programs."

As a result, there is a growing system of racial apartheid in American higher education, where African-American and Latino students in increasing numbers are concentrated in third-tier schools. The report notes that of the 30 non-historically black institutions that enrolled the largest number of black students, 23 grant only associate (two-year) degrees and only 3 are research universities. "By contrast," of the 30 colleges with the largest numbers of white students, 26 are research universities, and only two offer only two-year degrees. In effect, the educational gap between the races is widening. Southern universities today are more racially segregated and have lower percentages of black students than twenty years ago.

King might say today that a defense of affirmative action in higher education is not a defense of "quotas"; it is a defense of affirmative opportunity. It is a defense of greater educational fairness. As Roland Martin observed, most African-American students "weren't able to write on their applications that they were a 'legacy' because a different legacy - that of racism and Jim Crow - didn't allow their parents and grandparents to have the same educational opportunities as their white counterparts."

King would ask us, what kind of American society do we really want? A racially divided society, with growing educational, income, and health inequalities between racial groups? Or can we dream of a democratic society that takes affirmative action to reduce educational disparities that takes meaningful steps to create genuine diversity and opportunities for all?

"Two Nations: The Economics of Inequality"

In 1968, the Kerner Commission, a civil rights advisory board created by President Lyndon Johnson, warned that America was rapidly becoming "two nations," "black vs. white," "separate and unequal." The Kerner Commission Report was published only a few years after legal racial segregation had been outlawed. The "white" and "colored" signs indicating segregation in hotels, restaurants, and water fountains had disappeared. Yet despite these meaningful reforms, the deep patterns of structural racism were so profound and the economic chasm between African Americans and whites was so pervasive, that the Kerner Commission feared it might become insurmountable.

This January 2003, there was new evidence that the Kerner Commission's dire warnings have become reality. A study just released by the Federal Reserve System illustrates beyond any doubt that black Americans and many other racialized minorities are rapidly losing ground economically. The median income for all families within the U.S. was $39,900 in 2001; African-American household median income is only about 60 percent of the typical white family's annual income.

The important economic disparities, however, only show up when we examine net wealth - that is, the total amount of a household's checking and savings accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, homes and other real estate, minus all outstanding debts. The median net wealth of all U.S. families in 2001 was $86,100. This figure represented a substantial 41 percent increase since 1992, and a 10 percent jump since 1998. Despite the sharp decline in the stock market and the elimination of hundreds of billions of dollars in equities, the average family's net wealth has continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace.

Unfortunately, black families are clearly an exception to the rule. Because when we separate out statistics of net wealth by race, the structural racism within our unequal economic system becomes strikingly clear. Between 1998 and 2001, the median net wealth for white families increased 17 percent, reaching $120,900. By contrast, the median net wealth for racialized minority families is only $17,000. That figure is 4.5 percent less than the minority family median net wealth back in 1998. It represents only 14.1 percent of today's white median net wealth.

Other statistics indicate that the wealthy are becoming richer, and that the poor regardless of race, are sliding into an economic abyss. The net worth for the top 10 percent of all household income, with a median income of $169,600, had a net wealth of $833,600. For families in the bottom income group, which had a median pre-taxed income of $10,700, their median net wealth was a paltry $7,900. About one-third of all African-American households actually has a negative net wealth - in other words, their total accumulated debt is larger than the sum of their wealth.

Why do white middle and upper class households have so much wealth while nearly all black and Latino families have so little? One major reason is that nearly three-fourths of all white families own at least one home. Less than one-half of all black families are homeowners. Rigid patterns of residential segregation make it difficult for many black families to purchase homes in many neighborhoods where housing values are rising rapidly. Racial discrimination also exists in the home mortgage markets. One 1998 study of New York City's banks and savings and loans illustrated that an African American applying for a mortgage who earns above $60,000 annually, actually has a higher rejection rate than a white applicant earning less than $40,000 annually. Federal tax policy also favors whites over blacks, because interest payments for home mortgages are tax deductible, thus the average white taxpayer, who already earns 40 percent more annual income than his or her black counterpart, can also deduct mortgage interest payments, increasing the substantial economic advantage of white over black.

Perhaps the most disturbing statistical information from the Federal Reserve's report is what is described as the rise of an "equity culture." Millions of American households - the vast majority of whom are white, regularly invest in stocks and bonds, and have pension and retirement accounts exceeding one million dollars. About 21 percent of all U.S. households owned individual stocks in 2001. More than half (52 percent) of all U.S. families own stocks directly or indirectly through pension funds and individual retirement accounts.

This provides further evidence that a different approach toward eliminating the brutal pattern of black "equity-inequity" must be tried. "Affirmative action," in the words of political scientist Ron Walters, was only "paycheck equality." It never was designed to provide full employment, or to reduce the wealth gap between African Americans and whites. Moreover, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in Congress seem inclined to launch a massive new program for economic development and job creation efforts in urban areas.

Economically, black people collectively are in a hole that we will never get out of - and only a massive wealth transfer will solve our economic underdevelopment. Whether it is called "reparations" or something else, the truth is that we need radical surgery to eliminate the unchecked cancer of spiraling economic inequality.

Put King Back into the King Holiday

Throughout the United States last month, thousands of universities, colleges, high schools, community centers and faith institutions honored and celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since the holiday's formal adoption almost two decades ago, it has become a time when the media routinely runs film footage from King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech from the 1963 March on Washington, D.C. This year even President George W. Bush, whose administration is recklessly pushing the world into war and ruthlessly dismantling affirmative action and civil liberties, had the gall to visit and speak at an African-American church on M.L. King Day. It only goes to show the incredible depths of patience black Americans must have, to allow ourselves to be so insulted by someone in our own house of prayer. Perhaps next January 15, African-American leaders should visit Bush's home church and issue a demand for Black Reparations!

At the end of his all too short life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to realize that the full meaning of the black freedom struggle was not just the achievement of a cup of coffee at an integrated restaurant, or riding in the front seat of a city bus. The "dream deferred," in poet Langston Hughes's words, was America's failure to address poverty, from Harlem to Appalachia, from Indian reservations to the barrio of East Los Angeles. Striking black sanitation workers in Memphis, who were fighting for decent wages, represented the dream deferred. The dream deferred was personified by millions of Americans without adequate housing and health care. Like brother Malcolm X before him, Martin moved from a civil rights agenda, to a human rights agenda. His vision for racial justice had also become a vision of social justice, full human equality, and economic fairness for all. This was the dream deferred beyond considerations of race and color; his dream of economic democracy was not simplistically black vs. white, it was fundamentally about "the haves" vs. "the have nots."

What has become of King's dream deferred? As the events that defined the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, our vision of their significance, grown distant in time, can easily become distorted. Historical memory is always selective. But it is truly ironic; nevertheless, that those conservative political forces that opposed what Martin believed in, and gave his life to achieve, are now saying that he was one of them all along.

In January 2001, in "celebration" of the King Holiday, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article by Joel Schwartz, a fellow of the ultra-conservative Hudson Institute. Schwartz claimed that King was actually a proponent of Ronald Reagan's philosophy of "self-help" and the "work ethic," and that "King rejected the liberal view that jobs requiring few or no skills were a 'dead end.'" Schwartz implied that the real M.L. King Jr. would have rejected affirmative action and racial preferences, in favor of the "ideal of hard work, meeting high universal standards, [which] had to be central to the education of young blacks." Schwartz even claimed that throughout most of King's career, he opposed looking "to the government to help poor blacks." Schwartz's intellectual dishonesty is easy to see through. Instead of celebrating the life and thoughts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Schwartz wants black folks to celebrate the birthday of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Conservatives remind us frequently that Martin believed that Americans should be "judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character," and to manipulate this quotation out of context is to justify their opposition to affirmative action and college scholarships for minorities. Martin believed, as I believe today, that the ideology of one race being superior and another race inferior was wrong. He believed that our essential humanity transcended the barriers of color, language, gender and class. But he was also convinced that racism would never be overcome unless society took affirmative and corrective measures to compensate for 400 years of legal enslavement and legal racial segregation. Racism is a social cancer, but for the surgeon to remove a cancerous growth, she or he must first identify it.

Martin believed that this nation's flawed and often hypocritical democratic project could be reconstructed to be truly inclusive, reflecting the rich diversity of humanity that makes up this nation. That hope resides in our history, a shared experience of suffering and struggle, forms the foundation of the American story, our collective past. There would never be racial peace without racial justice, and there could be no justice without a common recognition of the deep, structural inequalities that circumscribed the freedoms and opportunities for millions of American citizens. Could we dare to envision another kind of democracy, Martin asked, based on a new social contract between the people and the state, which is anchored in the principles of human fairness and real equality under the law? Could a democratic society be constructed with a public commitment to abolish poverty and homelessness?

Martin Luther King's holiday is increasingly orientated around color-blind appeals promoting "community service" and volunteer activities with local charities. There's nothing wrong with this, but please let's not fool ourselves to say that we are living up to Dr. King's political legacy.

If Martin were with us today, he'd be a proponent of Black Reparations. He would probably be at the head of the civil disobedience demonstrations to halt the Bush administration's drive to war against Iraq. Martin would be campaigning for universal health care, and championing the elimination of Third World debt to Western countries and banks. It's not too late: next year, make every effort to put King back into his own holiday.


Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of Public Affairs, Political Science and History, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable's column is also available on the Internet at www.manningmarable.net.