Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Affirmative 'blacktion': A bit of history.

American History X is one of my favorite movies. Due to the overwhelming influence of scintillating college friends (yes, that's you, the lot of you reading this), they insisted that I watch this and were appropriately horrified that I neglected to watch it. Properly chastened, I went out and got myself a copy, and immediately understood why it rated so high on their list. It's such a painful look at racism and the reality of it in the United States (US), the corresponding effects of brutality and brainwashing.

One of the ideas that American History X repeatedly touches upon is affirmative action. What is affirmative action anyway, and how did it begin?

It first began with the civil rights movement, which was put into place for African Americans to become full citizens of the US. The thirteenth amendment to the US constitution outlawed slavery; the fourteenth amendment guaranteed equal protection under law; the fifteenth amendment made racial discrimination in access to voting illegal.

In 1896, the US Supreme Court upheld a "separate but equal" doctrine that effectively undermined all the previous laws allowing blacks their rights. Justice John Harlan, the lone dissenter, wrote in part "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law." (bold mine; same link from above)

The "separate but equal" law ushered in the era of segregation. Blacks could only enjoy black-only establishments and services - buses, trains, places to eat, etc. In education, that meant white students went to white-only schools, and black students went to black-only schools. This wasn't overturned until the 1954 SC decision in Brown v. Board of Education, where the court ruled that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place".

The term "affirmative action" was first used in President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 Executive Order 11246, which required federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

The next post will have more on affirmative action, its detractors, and Stanley Fish.