March 30, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Why they accuse Black people of being a privileged class
If your goal is to bury the lede on affirmative action, you'll never come to terms with the ugly truth about racism, writes Allison Wiltz.
If creating bad-faith talking points about the civil rights movement was an Olympic sport, conservatives would have taken home the gold by now. From attempts to hide historical facts, like the reason why Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, to a crusade against critical race theory and “woke” ideology (concepts they struggle to define), they’ve manufactured excuses to oppose equal rights of Black Americans. “We don’t have a problem with Black history,” they insist, all the while removing Black history books from the shelves. “We’re not racist,” they urge, all the while denying the harmful role of systemic racism.
The latest bad-faith to hit the scene suggests Black people are a privileged class because of diversity initiatives, like affirmative action and scholarships minorities are eligible to receive. But that would be like calling Hurricane Katrina survivors privileged for receiving aid after the storm destroyed their homes. Diversity programs, like affirmative action, were designed to mitigate discrimination, but if your goal is to bury the lede, you’ll never come to terms with the ugly truth that racism is a pervasive societal problem.
One report showed Black Americans are routinely excluded from opportunities “for upward mobility,” and the unemployment gap between white and Black Americans has persisted “for nearly 50 years.” But the conservative critique suggests diversity, equity and inclusion are unfair to white people, and addressing the racism in our systems puts them at a disadvantage. Some go so far as to suggest that white people are under attack and that diversity in schools, businesses and our communities is harmful and dangerous. As Franklin Leonard said, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” And those who cannot accept their white privilege will never believe diversity is necessary.
Hierarchy-flattening programs like affirmative action wouldn’t be necessary if Black Americans received equal opportunities. They don’t. Affirmative action, a policy President John F. Kennedy implemented through an executive order in 1961, was written to ensure equal employment opportunities among contractors working for the federal government. “Discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin is contrary to the Constitutional principles and policies of the United States,” so Kennedy ordered that contractors “take affirmative action” rather than retroactively mitigating discrimination.
The Supreme Court is considering cases that may prohibit race-based affirmative action. So conservatives may see their wish come true — that colleges and employers will be barred from considering race as a factor. But legal or not, it’s pretty absurd to call Black people privileged, given that (a) affirmative action policies were designed to mitigate racism and (b) the majority of students admitted to the college, and of Black people offered employment opportunities, are not the result of affirmative action policies.
Furthermore, affirmative action programs have never been universally supported or implemented in higher education. When they are implemented, they don’t ignore the academic qualifications of students. Race is considered, one of many factors. Ironically, the same conservatives who say we shouldn’t consider race at all – that we should only consider a student’s merit – don’t protest the use of legacy and athletic admissions, which also use factors outside of merit to decide who gets accepted.
The assumption that Black students are unqualified to enter college also ignores the fact that admission doesn’t guarantee someone graduates. Students have to attend and complete courses for years to earn degrees, so if Black students were truly unqualified, they wouldn’t be able to complete degree programs successfully. Yet Black women are earning college degrees at higher rates than other groups, so the idea that Black people can’t keep up academically is rooted in racism, not data.
Lastly, white women have benefited the most from affirmative action, more than any other class, a fact conservatives love to kick under the table. If anything, Americans should be pushing for a more equitable implementation of affirmative action programs, but instead, conservatives want to see this diversity initiative dead in the water.
Research shows that the Black-white economic divide in the modern era is just as wide as in 1968. And “the persistent Black-white wealth gap is not an accident but rather the result of centuries of federal and state policies that have systematically facilitated the deprivation of Black Americans,“ according to a 2021 study by the Center for American Progress.
Calling Black Americans privileged is not randomly dishonest banter. This type of talking point aims to portray diversity initiatives as unnecessary and unjust. To justify their opposition to Black Americans’ pursuit of equal rights and opportunities, conservatives deny discrimination exists, and to do so, they have to ignore the mountains of evidence that proves otherwise.
Allison Wiltz is a womanist scholar and the editor of Cultured. Find her @queenie4rmnola.