Cornel West. It book "The Conscious Reader" By Caroline
Affirmative Action has been a highly controversial topic in the United States ever since it initially emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's. This issue is explored in depth in Cornell West's essay, "On Affirmative Action," which was initially published in George Currey's The Affirmative Action Debate in 1996. The principle reason why affirmative action has been so widely debated within the U.S. is that there are many within this country who believe that ultimately, this piece of legislation helped to remove qualified candidates for critical jobs and enrollment positions in institutions of higher learning in favor of under qualified minorities. West's article analyzes the various pros and cons of this issue from both sides -- those who are in favor of it and those who have traditionally opposed it. A thorough analysis of this piece of literature reveals that there are inherent merits to affirmative action, as well as a historical validity for its presence which is sorely needed in the present generation.
The historical aspect of affirmative action is well documented within West's essay; in uncovering affirmative action's legacy one inherently sees the benefits of this initiative that was prevalent in political, educational, and business spheres of life. Quite simply, affirmative action was created as a means of allowing greater opportunities for minorities -- most eminently African-Americans and women -- to attain positions that were readily reserved for Caucasian males. The reason affirmative action was designed and implemented, however, was to account for "The vicious legacy of white supremacy -- institutionalized in housing, education, health care, employment and social life" (West 495). Such supremacy nearly always favored white males and landed them in positions in which they could continue their socio-political and cultural dominance in the U.S. Quite simply, affirmative action was designed as a remedy for this legacy of favoritism and was created to allow equal access and opportunity to higher wages and better quality of life to everyone (particularly African-Americans and women). In this respect, then, Affirmative action is undoubtedly beneficial, since it merely serves as a means of 'leveling the playing field', so to speak, between those of positions of inequitable power and authority (white males) and those who were subjected to systematic developments in realms of education, society and business to not access such power and authority.
It may be true that the perceived benefits of affirmative action are somewhat ideal -- that measures which actively seek to promote minorities and women in education and business cannot undo lengthy centuries of oppression and unequal resources. This viewpoint is widely adopted by those who are opposed to affirmative action, and who conceive of it as "a civil rights initiative in the 1960s…viewed by many as a civil rights violation in the 1990's" (495) as West puts it. Such naysayers are primarily against affirmative action because they believe it readily displaces qualified candidates for education and employment opportunities. There has been more than one lawsuit filed in regards to affirmative action and other measures that attempt to allow traditional minorities access to such positions on the grounds of 'reverse racism' (Greenburg). Thus, many take this position believe that affirmative action is actually a violation of the civil rights of those in historic positions of hegemony -- namely white males. West addresses this issue with the following quotation. "The idea that affirmative action violates the rights of fellow citizens confuses a right with an expectation. We all have a right to be seriously considered and fairly considered for a job or position" (West 497). Dissidents of affirmative action claim that the rights of white males to be considered for jobs are violated by this initiative. They also claim that by violating the rights of such candidates, unqualified people are inevitably put in positions in which they should not be. In considering this purported negative aspect of affirmative action, it is important to realize that the point-of-view of the one analyzing the issue is exceedingly important. What is a perceived benefit for minorities who are given an opportunity to prove their worth, is framed as "an unqualified beneficiary of affirmative action" (Bowen 756) by those who do not benefit from the action.
After considering both of the aforementioned pros and cons of this initiative, it becomes quite clear that there is a great degree of ambiguity regarding the value and effectiveness of affirmative action's ability to level opportunities between the historic majority and historic minority. What is most interesting about this inability is that even so-called champions of affirmative action -- such as West -- readily admit this ineffective aspect of this measure. In fact, West states in his essay that
Affirmative action was a weak response…It constituted an imperfect policy conceded by a powerful political, business and educational establishment in light of the pressures of organized citizens and the disturbances of angry unorganized ones (West 495).
Therefore, despite the acknowledged benefits of this particular initiative, it is crucial to note that not even those who are supposed to benefit from it acknowledge it as an applicable situation. Yet the most interesting aspect about this acknowledgement from West is the historical context in which he frames affirmative action, which is where the true merit in his article lies and which substantially helps to elucidate the reason why it was incurred. His article is valuable for detailing the specifics of the white male power structure that has always run this country at the expense of oppressing those who are dissimilar to them. For instance, West notes that "Just as Catholics and Jews had earlier challenged the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant monopoly of jobs and positions, in the 1960's blacks and women did also" (West 495). This quotation explains that there are other groups in the history of the U.S. who have had to protest their access to the 'American Dream'. This passage alludes to the discrimination the Irish had to bear upon their initial immigration to the U.S. In the 19th century (Jensen). Thus, by analyzing West's text from a historical perspective, it becomes apparent that many of those who may be against affirmative action now -- since white superiority has now become classified as Anglo-Saxon Protestant -- may have once suffered similar conditions of oppression that affirmative action was targeted towards African-Americans and women. West's quotation in this passage also implies that there was some restructuring of institutions within America to accommodate those white males who were not Anglo Saxon or Protestant.
When one approaches affirmative action from a historical perspective by denoting the fact that the groups who affirmative action was supposed to help were just the latest in a long line of peoples who were denied access to the best jobs, educations, and living conditions in the U.S., the relevance for providing a solution to help such people becomes even more clearer. In fact, considering this issue from this perspective tends to shift the focus away from whether or not affirmative action was the correct solution to the problem of how best to provide equal access to the American Dream, and towards the fact that, despite whatever flaws affirmative action may have had, it still was an attempt to rectify this problematic situation. After the U.S. placed Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II (though it did not do the same for German- or Italian-American citizens), it passed litigation that compensated them and issued restitution payments. America was instrumental in assisting another group of oppressed people, Jews, following their persecution during World War II. Although the U.S. did not itself persecute and murder Jews during this war (in fact it fought against the Germans), it played an instrumental role in the United Nations' creation of a Jewish state of Israel…