The Class Role of Affirmative Action

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

Accelerating class polarization, a portent of impending class conflict, characterizes the United States of America during the initial years of the 1980s. In these conflicts, and in those of the remainder of this century and probably of the next century as well, struggles for affirmative action will have a crucial role in unifying the U.S. multiracial, multinational, male- female working class for undertaking its task of establishing factual social equality.

Polarization of the classes is presently evident in the centralization of wealth and the escalating incomes of the rich and the super-rich on the one hand, and simultaneously on the other hand a rapid growth of pauperiza­tion among working people and the dispossession of millions of U.S. fami­lies of their worldly goods, among them families accorded “middle class” status based on occupation and income.

The depth and extent of hunger, homelessness and destitution are re­flected in the growing demands of people’s organizations for national emergency measures by government on all levels. Mass unemployment, extortionate taxation of individuals and families least able to survive, in­flated rents and costs of utility services, sky-high prices for staples and essentials, the erosion of security for the elderly, of education for the younger generation, and of health care for children and for the handi­capped and disabled, and other crisis conditions of everyday living have become the prime targets of mass struggles.

Since affirmative action entered the vocabulary several decades ago, much has been said and written about it from differing standpoints.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights first defined affirmative action in 1977. It asserted that the term “in a broad sense encompasses any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.” (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Statement on Affirmative Action, 1977, page 2.)

Experience during the brief two-decade-long actual existence of affirm­ative action tends to confirm that the broad sense of the term as first defined in 1977 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights most fully corre­sponds with the purpose of the present stage of struggle for realizing equal­ity of opportunity. This broader sense, amended and strengthened by pro­visions of later definitions and elaborations, identifies affirmative action as a form of systematic, sustained, comprehensive efforts to achieve full and unconditional equality for all members of society, irrespective of race, color, national origin, sex or religion.

On Census Day, 1980, by count of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, there were 46 million American citizens who, because of race, color or national origin, were subject to discriminatory treatment or outright denial of equal opportunity in employment, housing, education, government and other spheres of activity.

Owing to the Census Bureau’s notorious undercounting of the popula­tion of the minorities, a rounded total of 50 million is favored by some cir­cles for designating their number. However, some minority spokespeople consider even this figure an underestimate of the total.

Of course, the 50 million does not include all U.S. citizens subjected to discriminatory treatment or outright denial of equal opportunity. Various infringements of civil and human rights deny equality also to the 116.5 mil­lion female Americans. The disadvantages of women are attributable to social inequalities imposed by male superracist institutions and practices. They are shared by female members of groups disadvantaged by discrim­ination because of race, color or national origin, who are thus doubly disadvantaged.

Neither does the 50 million figure take into account the youth, stu­dents, the elderly and the handicapped, who also suffer from discrimina­tory treatment.

The special significance attached to the 50 million Americans subjected to discriminatory treatment or denial of equal opportunity because of race, color or national origin is grounded in their relationship to the antagonism and conflict of the classes. The many racial, nationality and ethnic groups comprising these 50 million have different historical and socio-economic backgrounds, different cultural customs and traditions, and different native languages. But all have one characteristic in common. They are peo­ple of color. They are non-whites in a society wherein color-conscious dis­crimination and treatment is the historically entrenched form of racism, with its class function of shifting the antagonism between the classes to the sphere of relations between whites and non-whites, particularly white workers and non-white workers, thereby facilitating the subordination and exploitation of both.

The shift of class antagonisms to relations between peoples of different origins has been and still is a paramount function of the U.S. exploiters’ racist strategy.

Central in the development and unfolding of this strategy is the Afro- American component of these 50 million people of color. The enslavement and debasement of African servants inaugurated the discriminatory pro­cess based on race, color and national origin which enveloped all other persons of color and grew deep roots in the country’s socio-political soil. Those inhuman relationships were the seedbed of the production and social relations that generated institutions and habitual ways of life and thought, including the exploiting-class ideology of “white supremacy” which law and government sanctioned as state policy for the subordination and exploitation of all persons of color.

From: Political Affairs, 1983