The Historical, Cultural and Social Context of Affirmative Action in Higher Education

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 21–22, 2014

University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Historical Context

. . . It [white supremacy] gained us the land on which the Native Americans and Mexicans used to live; it produced prosperity for generations who directly and indirectly profited from the free labor of slaves; it resulted in generations of American apartheid; it allowed us to pretend that we were truly a white European nation; it saddles us with what W.E.B. Dubois called “the problem of the color line.” (Higginbotham 1996, 8)

The foundation of American society is based on white supremacy, and consequently the precept of inferiority (Higginbotham) coupled with white privilege (McIntosh). A review of the founding documents substantiates this claim in that people of African descent were a commodity stripped of their humanity and the institution of slavery was covertly supported in the espousal of liberty and democracy. The history of Africans in America has been one of a continuous struggle to realize the rights of citizenship outlined in the founding documents, subsequent amendments and protective legislation.

According to Derrick Bell:

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary peaks of progress, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance [emphasis added]. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission but as an act of ultimate defiance. (1995, 12)

Pessimistic as this statement may sound, it rings true when reviewing the roller coaster of any chronology of African American history: enslavement; the Emancipation Proclamation; the “Freedom Amendments” (13th, 14th and 15th); The Tilden/Hayes Compromise (“The Big Betrayal”) (1877); the Jim Crow era; Plessy v. Ferguson (1896); Red Summer (1919); the Scottsboro Boys (1931-1950); the Tuskegee experiment (1932-72); Brown v. the Board of Education (1954-55); Emmett Till (1954); the Civil Rights Movement and legislation (1954-1968); University of California v. Bakke (1978); “The New Jim Crow’ of a racialized prison-industrial complex (1980’s-present); Rodney King (1991); the Hurricane Katrina crisis (2005); the election of President Barack Obama (2008); “Racism Without Racists” (2009); the voter suppression movement (2009-present); the Trayvon Martin case (2013); and the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases (2014). In summation, historian Roger Wilkins (Borgna 2007) averred that “Blacks have a 375-year history on this continent: 245 involving slavery, 100 involving discrimination, and only 30 involving anything else.” His statement is still relevant in 2015.

White Privilege

McIntosh’s classic statement about white privilege stands as an interactionist perspective on enlightened white identity:

. . . I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. . . . White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks. . .

Thia “weightless knapsack” is eloquently articulated by Tim Wise (2013):

Ask a fish what water is and you’ll get no answer. Even if fish were capable of speech, they would likely have no explanation for the element they swim in every minute of every day of their lives. Water simply is. Fish take it for granted. So too with this thing we hear so much about, “racial preference.” . . . While many whites seem to think the notion originated with affirmative action programs, intended to expand opportunities for historically marginalized people of color, racial preference has actually had a long and very white history [emphasis added].

A Brief History of Affirmative Action in Higher Education

In 1961, the terminology was initially introduced by President Kennedy, in his executive order requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure” a non-discriminatory work place, practices and hiring. However, a subsequent executive order by President Johnson built upon the concept with more specific compliance guidelines, penalties and cabinet-level oversight. In essence, it was President Johnson who structured the requirements in a way that captured the attention of institutions receiving government funding. Implementation was envisioned as a short-term remedy until “a level playing field” or racial parity (as indicated on socioeconomic measures) was achieved (Borgna and Rowan 2007).

The landmark Bakke case (1978) involving the racial quota for admission to the University of California medical school was the first publicized challenge that used the “reverse discrimination” argument in higher education. Bakke successfully argued that the university’s admission violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause. Since that day, affirmative action in higher education has been undermined by numerous legal challenges of whites questioning a variety of plans to diversify the campus student population: Hopkins v. Texas (1996); Proposition 209 (1996 to present); Johnson v. University of Georgia (2001); Gratz v. Bollinger, Grutter v. Bollinger (2003); Fisher v. Texas (2013). Overall, the federal courts have left institutions with ambiguous parameters for implementing affirmative action admissions plans. Thus, it is not unreasonable to expect some colleges and universities to abandon the idea of affirmative action plans all together for fear of expensive, lengthy litigation.

The Cultural Context

While colleges and universities may advertise that they are “affirmative action” institutions, this claim of a commitment to diversity is tested daily during interactions between faculty, staff and students. In essence, African Americans on campus live—as I have elsewhere written—”under a question mark.” Apparent African lineage is a sign of social disgrace, a stigma (Goffman). A critical analysis of pervasive caricatures of the issue of affirmative action illuminates the oppressive climate on campus. Interestingly enough, a review of the images generated by a simple Google search for “affirmative action” renders a glaring message: nearly all of the political cartoons with representations of both blacks and whites negatively portray black males. Many, like this cartoon or this one, presume the existence of disparity in admission processes in favor of African Americans, suggesting that blacks only have to indicate their race to receive a high score on the SAT, or be admitted to college. Another acknowledges the special admissions policies that—in effect—exist for the rich and powerful and for legacy applicants, alluding to George W. Bush’s acceptance into Yale as an example. Others express a backlash against the perceived disenfranchisement of white males as the result of affirmative action, as in this cartoon. Such portrayals of affirmative action send the message that “They are going to be given all of the jobs! Based on my male and white privilege, all positions belong to me.” According to these and many similar cartoons, affirmative action rewards the unqualified at the expense of the qualified (i.e. white males).

The Social Context

As a psychiatrist, Chester Pierce (1970) created the terminology and intellectual foundation to describe the scenarios depicted above. In his insightful article, Pierce asserts that “most [racially] offensive actions are not gross and crippling,” rather their nature is “subtle and stunning.” In contrast to the more frequent “micro-aggressions,” “macro-aggressions” at the other extreme are “gross, dramatic, obvious” and sometimes violent. Pierce’s concern is not the individual instances of micro-aggression but the mass effect on the psyche of African Americans, which will be described at length later.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, when Pierce’s concepts have been further articulated. Racial microaggressions have emerged in recent scholarship (Sue 2007) as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color:

  • Microinsult – Often unconscious behavioral/verbal remarks or comments that convey rudeness, insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity
  • Microassault – Often conscious explicit racial derogations characterized primarily by a violent verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminatory actions
  • Microinvalidation – Often unconscious verbal comments or behaviors that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thought, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color

A reflection upon a thirty-four year academic career as a professor at a public, four-year college yields categorization of some of the most egregious affronts in the following manner:

  • Microassault – Could you provide us with a copy of your dissertation for your tenure review file?
    Message: We want to check behind your dissertation committee to establish that you really did fulfill the requirements according to our standards.
  • Microinsult – I see here on your resume that you received your BA and your MA in the same month and year. (chuckle) Is this a typo?
    Message: It is impossible for you to achieve this feat, especially at an Ivy.
  • Microinvalidation – You and xxxx (the only other minority in the room) are just paranoid!
    Message: Your reality is not valid.
  • Microinsult – You are just not a good fit for the program.
    Message:You make us terribly uncomfortable about race since you are willing to confront the implications of our behavior, so we would rather not have you around.
  • Microassault – On the first day of class, I assume my position at the lectern only to have several students walk out—never to return—before I even open my mouth.
    Message: I refuse to accept you in this position of authority. You have nothing to say that I care to listen to. You cannot teach me anything.
  • Microinsult – Is she REALLY as smart as her credentials?
    Message: Her intelligence needs to be validated by another white colleague.

Consequences of Racial Microaggressions on African Americans

Alienation, resentment, anger, stress, rage and all of the physiological ailments associated with these mindsets are derivatives of racial microaggressions in the academy. Experiencing alienation means that there is often a disconnect between self and the work environment. Living under a question mark translates into approaching the workplace with trepidation and anxiety. As children, African American baby boomers were repeatedly told that they had to be twice as good as their white counterparts just to be considered for opportunities. Yet upon “arrival,” it inevitably became apparent that in spite of stellar credentials, training, preparation and/or talent we were still “the other.” Existing under the weight of marginalization means living on the defensive, struggling with the inability to respond spontaneously to offensive comments, painstakingly editorializing your thoughts before speaking, and quite honestly, in a millisecond of rage, feeling like you would like to literally slap someone because the comments were so repugnant. Sometimes it feels like salt being rubbed into a wound. At other times, the scar tissue from years of abuse causes immobility. As so appropriately stated by Pierce (1970, 266):

The enormity of the complications that [micro-aggressions] cause can be appreciated only when one considers that these subtle blows are delivered incessantly. Even though any single negotiation of offense can in justice be considered of itself to be relatively innocuous, the cumulative effect to the victim and the victimizer is of unimaginable magnitude.


White supremacy and its corollary the precept of inferiority have been and continue to be a core aspect of American society. Therefore any movement towards equality is contrary to the cultural beliefs about people of African descent. It follows that affirmative action has become associated with incompetency. Whether out of ignorance or with intent to injure, racial microaggressions have the same ramifications for people of African descent because of the cumulative effects. Intent is not essential to create a toxic, stressful environment. In spite of celebratory times like the election of President Obama, African Americans regularly see him treated as an incompetent, affirmative action hire. Finally, we are once again reminded of Bell’s resounding words (1995, 12):

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary peaks of progress, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.


Bell, Derrick. 1995. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. NY: Basic Books.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2013. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Borgna, Brunner and Beth Rowan. 2007. “Affirmative Action History.” Infoplease. Accessed January 9, 2014.

CNN Library. 2013. “Affirmative Action Fast Facts.” Library. Accessed December 29.

Gerber, Scott D. 2014. “Affirmative Action and the Crisis in Higher Education.” Huffington Post, August 15.

Higginbotham, A. Leon. 1996. Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process Race and the American Legal Process. Volume 2. NY: Oxford University Press.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. 2014. “Civil Rights 101: Affirmative Action.” Accessed January 11.

Longstreet, J.D. 2014. “Is Affirmative Action to Blame?” Right Side News, January 23.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” Accessed January 14, 2015.

National Conference of State Legislatures. 2015. “Affirmative Action Decisions.” Accessed January 30.

Pierce, Chester. 1970. “Offensive Mechanism.” In The Black Seventies, edited by Floyd Barbour, 265-282. Boston: Porter Sergeant Publications.

Sue, Derald Wing et al. 2007. “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.” American Psychologist 2(4). Accessed January 15, 2014.

US Department of Labor. Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). 2014. “History of Executive Order 11246.” Accessed January 27.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 2014. “Executive Order 10925.” Accessed January 31.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 2014. “Executive Order 11246.” January 31.

Wise, Tim. 2013. “The Mother of All Racial Preferences: Reflections on Affirmative Action for White Folks.”, May 24. Accessed January 2014.

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Spring 2015: The Global Imperative for Higher Education