Affirmative Action and reform

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Mon Apr 10 05:50:29 MDT 1995

On Sun, 9 Apr 1995, Scott Marshall wrote:

> Those who can't see the relationship of reform to revolution are often
> doomed to sitting on the sidelines throwing rhetorical stones. A pursuit
> particularly suited to the vagueness and abstraction of cyberspace.
> In any case I would heartily disagree with the notion that affirmative
> action is devisive. It is an important tool in the fight against racism and
> chauvanism in the US. While it is true that affirmative action can be used
> in a devisive way by companies and the ruling class - when affirmative
> action has been the result of struggle it has often had a very uniting
> effect on the working class in particular.

Scott's account of the effect of the consent decree in steel following is
heartening if accurate. I'm in no position to judge this particular case.
But my research does not support Scott's claiom that in general Aa is
unifying rather than divisive. Neither does my personal experience
teaching working class students at Ohio State University, which I did
until last year. Those students, if white and male, were nearly unanimous
in rejecting AA. (Upper middle class students at Kalamazoo College, where
I taught previously, and the Univ. of Michigan, where I went to grad
school, were far more favorable, which supports my idea that people who
think they'll be financially secure are less likely to be bothered by AA.)

Of course anecdote is not evidence. But survey research and opinion poll
data are generally quite strong on the conclusion that working class white
men are violent opponents of AA. For some journalistic surveys of this,
see Edsall and Edsall, _Chain Reaction_. I don't know of any regression
analysis on the correlation between AA programs or attitudes to AA and
racial prejudice, but E&E offer an explantion of the "Reagan Democrat"
phenomenon, which suggests a link. My guess is that economic hard times
(intra-working class competition) and AA together contribute to racism.
The major party pollsters and strategists have made a lot of hay with this
ever since Kevin Phillip's _The Emerging Republican Majority_ (1972?);
white working class racism has been the basis of the GOP "Southern
Strategy" since Wallace and Nixon. So I maintain that AA tends to be

That's not a reason notg to support it. It's a reason for advocates of AA
to think about how to address the problem. Scott's story, if true, may be
helpful, because it suggests that correctly designed AA programs may
indeed have a unifying effect. The point is that AA is not to be supported
in a blanket way but rather only when the programs are good. Christopher
Jenks, a sort of center-right social democrat who is very smart and
careful, does good empirically based work, has a helpful analysis in a
book called _Rethinking Social Policy._ If folks like I will summarize his
analysis for the list.

--Justin Schwartz
> My background is in steel. Like many affirmative action struggles the
> struggle for the concent decree in steel was directed in the first place
> against the steel companies and fought for in ways that made the capitalist
> pay for it's implementation. In fact all steelworkers soon found themselves
> benefiting from the gains of the concent decree. In the first place in order
> to end discriminatory lines of progression (open seniority and break down
> narrow promotion channels to allow wider bidding on better jobs) the concent
> decree opened new opportunities for all steelworkers Black, Brown and white.
> In order to comply with the goals of the concent decree the companies were
> forced to implement new and bigger apprenticeship programs and end somewhat
> their practice of hiring "off the street". This meant that all workers in a
> particular shop had opportunities to advance into the skilled trades and
> that the company could no longer pick and choose at will.
> The struggle against the "reverse discrimination" suit of Brian Weber
> (Kaiser Steel) in the late 1970's helped turn the tide in many unions back
> towards an appreciation for the need to fight for unity and against
> discrimination - much like the struggle against the Bakke discission did for
> the student movement.
> The militant fight for reforms is fundemental to exposing the limitations
> and the inequality of the capitalist system. It is basic to building up the
> coalitions and the class forces that can defeat the system. It's only
> reformism if you don't ruthlessly expose the system in the reform struggle.
> While we militantly fight to defend affirmative action we have to show that
> it will never solve the problem of inequality because it is based on getting
> us to accept notions that we have to fight over the limited jobs that are
> available. The most reformist thing I've heard said in this discussion is
> that there can not be enough wealth in the world to provide everyone with a
> job etc. This is acceptance of the capitalist system.
>  Many of us on the left opposed the concent decree in steel in the beginning
> in a way that strengthened it when it was finally negotiated. Today most
> steelworkers can see that affirmative action was only useful until the
> crisis of capitalist restructuring hit. While the program still helps
> African American workers to advance to better jobs to this day - it is very
> apparent to everyone that affrimative action did little to save the jobs of
> minority workers or to prevent the "last hired, first fired" discrimination
> of the steel companies. Now steelworkers are engaged in trying to figure out
> how to fight for equality and against racism in the current crisis. This
> will build on the lessons of the concent decree struggle - struggles that
> helped to define unity among steelworkers.
> Lastly every tool in the fight against racism in the US is critical to the
> final defeat of the system. In the US the relationship of class and race are
> of particular and special importance because of the overwhelmingly working
> class compostion of the nationaly and racially oppressed. The trade unions
> in the US are the largest and **most** integrated mass organizations of
> working people that exist. Winning them to ever greater struggles against
> racism and discimination is critical to uniting the class and winning.
> Scott
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> Scott Marshall                             *
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