The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Attack on Affirmative Action

Dec 31, 1995

This year several right-wing politicians, including California Governor Pete Wilson, Senator Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich have raised the issue of dismantling affirmative action. Some, like Wilson and Dole, had not only previously supported affirmative action programs, they had helped shape and implement them. But now, they say, things are different; racial and gender barriers have long ago been broken down; affirmative action leads to "reverse discrimination," "reverse racism" etc., etc.

Of course, these arguments are complete drivel. If there were the "equality of opportunity" that these politicians talk about, then black people would not be suffering two or three times as high a rate of unemployment as white people, their income levels would not be on the average one-third lower, their poverty rate would not be twice as high, the percentage of black men in prisons and death row would not be astronomical compared to white men.

As for their charges about "reverse discrimination" running wild with all these affirmative action programs, the reality is overwhelmingly the opposite. Reverse discrimination suits submitted to the EEOC make up only one or two per cent of all the suits filed every year. The other 98 per cent of suits are of the "usual" kind: discrimination against black people, women and other minorities. And over the last 3 years, the number of these "usual" suits have grown by 25 per cent. Last year, they reached over 91,000. And that is just to the federal EEOC. There are other agencies, not only at the federal level, but also at state and local levels, that handle discrimination cases.

No, discrimination against black people, women and other minorities has not disappeared.

The Birth of Affirmative Action

Less than 30 years ago, U.S.-style apartheid was very much alive in the major corporations and most governmental entities. Black people were excluded from everything but the most menial work. Half of black women were still employed as "maids." Almost the entire political structure, almost all police departments were still virtually all-white. Only a trickle of black students was making it into the more exclusive universities, and the black middle class was minuscule, since the ministry and undertaking were two of the few college educated professions open to black people.

Generally, affirmative action is presented as a program which was created in the 1960s by the government, the courts and the corporations to address these gross inequalities.

But in fact, if it had been up to the government and the corporations, this U.S.-style apartheid would have gone on forever. What changed this was a black movement that had developed to the point of widespread rebellion in the streets. It was to this movement the bourgeoisie had to respond. The kinds of programs which have since been labeled affirmative action were among the means that they found to do so.

Up until the mid-1960s, Democrats and Republicans had both stalled in enacting major legislation that formally recognized black peoples’ rights, political or economic. But by the 1960s, a black movement, which dated back to the 1940s had become extremely powerful. It had spread from the more rural south to the bigger cities, the economic and political heartland. In 1963, practically a year-long campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama culminated in a riot by black people after Martin Luther King’s headquarters was firebombed. This was followed in 1964 by a smaller uprising in Harlem. These two rebellions were the precursors to the major uprisings of the following years.

In 1964 the Congressional bottleneck was finally broken; Congress passed a Civil Rights Act that included provisions barring discrimination in employment. Title VII of the act was the first federal law to prohibit discrimination in all employment practices based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. This act created a federal enforcement mechanism, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), whose stated purpose was to hear complaints and seek compliance with the law on matters of employment discrimination.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 requiring federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed... without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin." This laid the groundwork for requiring any company with federal contracts to adhere to affirmative action policies. Companies doing business with the federal government were formally required to submit a plan to hire minorities.

But all these new laws, agencies and plans did not translate into many new jobs. The movement could not wait. Where it was strongest, the movement began to take for itself what the government and corporations had been slow to implement. Rebellions in many of the major cities forced government and business to begin to hire black people. Sometimes companies and government agencies built a few factories, offices and hospitals in neighborhoods which, before, they would never have gone near. They opened up hiring halls in the inner cities, and even rushed to hire people as they left prison. In a matter of only a few years, black employment rose sharply, especially in such basic industries as auto and steel, as well as in government services.

These changes took place before any national affirmative action programs had been put in place. But the changes were still on a local level, with many businesses and government agencies still holding out. Nonetheless, the federal government was being pushed to intervene by the spread of the black movement. No one knew how far this movement would go. Moreover, the government was trying to conduct an increasingly unpopular war in Viet Nam. This meant that the government was fighting two wars at once, one abroad and the other at home. And there were more movements springing up at home, on the campuses, among women, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Native Americans, etc. All of this raised real problems for the bourgeoisie.

Faced with this movement, Johnson decided not to restrict spending at home. That is, he decided that the government would have to pay for both "guns and butter," when ordinarily the government reduced social spending during war time. And companies were hiring, making it easier for the government to convince or pressure companies to use a significant number of their openings to hire black people, often for the first time.

One of the goals of the black movement was to open up hiring on building construction sites, which were almost always all-white. Workers in the construction unions were among the most privileged: and usually the only way to get in was through family connections. These unions fought the inclusion of black workers tooth and nail, and there were regular clashes at worksites between black demonstrators and white construction workers. Sometimes the demonstrations in the biggest cities, like New York and Chicago spilled out into other parts of the cities, blocking bridges and traffic.

The government stepped in and tried to force some of these unions to comply with Title VII. The major test case came in 1970 on construction sites of 5 government buildings, and it became known as the Philadelphia plan. This plan was carried out under the Nixon administration, and administered under the Department of Labor’s George Shultz and his assistant, Arthur Fletcher. According to the plan approved by a federal court, the union had to seek out and invite minorities to use the services of its hiring hall, and for a time it had to make job referrals on an equal basis one-for-one, minority and white. Said Fletcher when the Philadelphia plan was announced, it was time to "quit looking at the civil rights movement without looking at the unemployment rate. This is an economic problem and we can use the economic genius of this country to solve it." In the next years, the Labor Department approved or considered similar plans in 126 other cities. This began the process of forcing the unions to accept black workers and other minorities.

At about the same time, the federal government moved to force the corporations to desegregate. It chose AT&T, the telephone monopoly, at the time the largest employer in the country, as its major test case. On January 8, 1973, the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia approved a consent decree that ended two years of hearings about discriminatory practices in 23 subsidiaries of the company. In response to charges filed by civil rights groups with government agencies, the EEOC had documented an employment pattern showing that the Bell System discriminated against racial minorities and women. The company agreed to revise its promotion and job transfer practices, to make changes in its testing procedures and to pay 38 million dollars in back-pay and other wage adjustments, a figure that was later increased to 80 million dollars.

Through the AT&T case, the government sent a message to the rest of the corporations: if they didn’t want to go through expensive court suits, they had better voluntarily work out their own affirmative action plans in consultation with the U.S. government. Thus employment—and advancement—in the major corporations was opened up for the first time to black people, women and other minorities.


Within a few years, the black movement had forced the society to go through huge changes.

First, a black middle class—that is, doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, architects, as well as managers and entrepreneurs—was created, although the size of this social layer remained small, in relation to its numbers in the white population.

A black political apparatus in cities and towns where black people formed a large minority or the majority was also formed. Nationally, the number of black elected officials jumped from 300 in 1965 to 4700 in 1980. The number of black mayors of towns and cities leaped from none in 1965 to 120 in 1980, including Atlanta, Dayton, Gary, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Newark, Richmond, and Washington, D.C.

At the federal level, blacks held 18 seats in Congress in the late 1970s. They had held none between 1901 and 1928, only one in the following 16 years, and just two between the end of World War II and the 1954 Supreme Court decision calling for desegregating the schools. In 1970, the Congressional Black Caucus was established. Scores of blacks occupied sub-Cabinet-level positions or were given highly publicized Presidential appointments. By the end of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter had appointed two black Cabinet officers, two black ambassadors to the UN, a half dozen black ambassadors to foreign countries, a black Solicitor General, a black Secretary of the Army, a host of black U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals, and numerous black justices to the federal district courts and the U.S. courts of appeals. These were big changes at the political level, although of course, the number of positions these officials occupied was not at all proportionate to those occupied by white people.

But the most important changes came at the level of the working class. Black workers who had been barred from everything but the peripheries of the working class, now made up an important concentration in its centers, especially the industrial proletariat. Skilled trades jobs, which had been lily white, were opened up for the first time, and more experienced black workers didn’t always have to go through the usual journeyman’s classes, but got credit for their on-the-job experience.

This was the biggest factor that led to the relative increase in black peoples’ standard of living. In 1954, black families earned approximately 53 per cent of what white families did. By 1969, this gap had been reduced to 60 per cent in 1969. It continued to rise to 62 per cent in 1975, when it began to fall because of the recession.

According to a recent Labor Department study, between 5 and 6 million new jobs were opened up to black people. This study does not differentiate which of these jobs came directly from affirmative action programs. However that is not the main problem anyway. For the opening up of jobs, affirmative action or not, was due to the black movement.

But the Underlying System Remains...

The black movement broke down barriers. But it did not challenge the underlying workings of the capitalist system, with its ravages of crises, unemployment and poverty. And, thus, the movement, as massive as it was, could not protect black workers from the ordinary functioning of capitalism, nor could it even overcome the institutional racism of this society. That was especially true of affirmative action, which was simply a hiring program, and not a job guarantee program. Black workers were still the last hired and the first fired. When the 1970s ushered in the period of economic crisis with its plant closings and job cuts, black workers still paid the heaviest price. Most of the jobs that they lost did not come back during the economic "recoveries" of the 1980s and ’90s.

As the workforce continues to be cut, employment rates have fallen faster among black workers. A 1993 study by the Wall Street Journal showed that in the 1990-91 recession, black males were the only group that suffered a net employment loss. They held 59,479 fewer jobs at the end of the recession than they had held at the beginning. This has meant that increasing numbers of black workers have been pushed back out of work into the lumpen proletariat. And this of course has impacted on the pay of those still at work. From 1975 to 1979 average earnings of black workers fell from 62 to 57 per cent of white workers’ earnings; they fell another 2 per cent from 1980 to 1990.

Of course, the crisis and unemployment have not impacted all sections of the black population to the same degree. Sections of the black middle class were spared and even benefitted during the crisis, like their white counterparts. It was this very small minority of the black population, less hit by the crisis, able to keep its job, that was in more of a position to continue to benefit from affirmative action. Many affirmative action programs, such as the set-asides of a small percentage of government contracts going to minority-owned businesses, were aimed primarily to boost their ranks.

And it was this portion of the black population that gained a material stake in the system. "You don’t have to demonstrate when you can pick up a phone and call someone," claimed Andrew Young, the former assistant to Martin Luther King, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the U.N., mayor of Atlanta, deal maker extraordinaire. People like Young held out the promise that the doors were finally open for black people to make it. But in fact, they staffed the ranks of those who imposed the worsening conditions on the rest of the black population. There has been a growing polarization within the black population.

Of course, as the impact of the black movement recedes, so affirmative action has been cut back somewhat. First, several decisions of the Supreme Court have whittled away at affirmative action. With the Bakke decision in 1978, the Supreme Court declared so-called quotas "unconstitutional." Other decisions, most especially the 1992 Shaw vs. Reno ruling reduced the number of black political representatives, by declaring Congressional reapportionment schemes "unconstitutional."

Affirmative action was also cut back by administrative fiat. The EEOC fell victim to "benign" neglect, even as the number of anti-discrimination suits increased. Reagan set the tone by bringing in Clarence Thomas to preside over the EEOC’s decline. Continuing budget cuts have done a lot of the rest. With less pressure from the black masses, there is less policing by the EEOC, and so there is also less pressure to come up with corrective affirmative action.

The Politicians Play the "Race Card"

The absence of pressure from an active movement has also left the politicians hands freer to "play the race card". Politicians have periodically railed against affirmative action, as a cheap form of political theater. Ten years ago, Reagan proposed scrapping Johnson’s old Executive Order on federal contract compliance. In 1990, the Bush administration mulled over allowing the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights law to lapse. And then of course there are the most recent proposals by Wilson, Dole and Gingrich.

So far, none of these attacks has really gone very far. After making some noise, Reagan and Bush left affirmative action more or less intact. The same thing is happening to most of the attacks against affirmative action this year. Wilson succeeded in ramming through an end to affirmative action at the University of California. But that was when he was still running for president. Since then, he has withdrawn, and it now seems that the California anti-affirmative action initiative that he so energetically supported before, may not make it on the ballot next year because of lack of Republican financial support. Gingrich and Dole also have changed their mind and said that they decided not to introduce legislation to dismantle affirmative action, this year at least.

But whether or not the politicians move to dismantle affirmative action programs completely, they find verbal diatribes against affirmative action useful: on the level of votes, of course—but in a more basic way also. In an increasingly desperate time period, the politicians serve the bourgeoisie’s interests by deflecting anger away from the corporations responsible for the real attacks. The attacks on affirmative action appeal to prejudices in the white population. In so doing, the politicians make them that much more "respectable," and therefore more blatant and dangerous. In this way, they are also preparing a future of more dangerous attacks.

Of course, black people and especially black workers must be prepared to defend their gains. But white workers should not be left to the racist politicians and media, either. Unfortunately, the key organizations inside the working class today that could give another perspective, the unions, themselves are conservative, and reflect the same corporatist view as the corporations, that is of each group of workers defending its own little piece of turf.

But why should white and black workers be fighting each other for the few remaining jobs? The problem is for all the workers to organize together, not only to defend their existing jobs, but to fight for jobs for everyone. But in order to do that, a different kind of policy than that of the unions would be necessary, one that represents the interests of the whole working class.