A Fair Assessment
Reviewed by Shirley Jackson
Vol. 20, No. 1, 1998 pp. 27-28
Bryan K. Fair, Notes of a Racial Caste Baby: Color Blindness and the End of Affirmative Action, New York and London: New York University Press,1997.
A coherent discussion of the politics surrounding affirmative action can be located in Bryan K. Fair’s, Notes of a Racial Caste Baby: Color Blindness and the End of Affirmative Action. Fair, one of eight children born to a single mother in Columbus, Ohio, is currently an associate professor of law and assistant academic vice president at the University of Alabama. Fair acknowledges that remedial affirmative action has benefited him. A graduate of Duke University and the UCLA law school, Fair was able to take advantage of the remedial affirmative action programs in place at both institutions. Speaking from personal experience and as a law professor and administrator, Fair presents a well thought-out analysis of the key issues surrounding affirmative action and color blindness in the United States.
Fair’s text is a combination of two different types of essays. In the first part of the book, he draws upon personal experiences and family background to set the stage for his later in-depth analysis of key civil rights legislation and court decisions. We are thus provided Fair’s experiences and those of his mother and siblings, as an example of life on welfare, single motherhood, ghetto life, and inadequate educational institutions in which African-American youth, and males in particular, are shortchanged.
In the second half of his book, Fair captures the essence of many debates, including both the purpose of affirmative action and on whether to continue its implementation. He believes we need to be made aware that American society is not fair, and never has been. As such, there remains a great need for remedial affirmative action.
Fair’s title references Steven Carter’s Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, reviewed by Julian bond in Southern Changes, February 1992, outlining black male conservative objections against affirmative action.
Fair enumerates both clearly and concisely the concerns evident in this era of heated political and social debate surrounding affirmative action. For Fair, we are in desperate need of sources which clearly outline the basis of affirmative action policies and programs in employment and education, as well as the difficulties involved in meting out remedial affirmative action. Fair acknowledges what seems to be lacking in much of the discourse on affirmative action. He convincingly argues for a context in which to frame the debate, an understanding of what is meant by remedial affirmative action for minorities in contrast to what has historically been affirmative action for white males, and the competing goals of having a society which is color blind versus one that is explicitly race conscious.
Fair posits race consciousness should not be viewed negatively. However we choose to view society, as being either color blind or race conscious, we need to engage in a discussion on alternatives to current affirmative action policies and programs. He attacks the notion that society is color blind and distinguishes it from the perception that society should be color blind. Additionally, Fair notes that it is not surprising that the color blind position is taken by those who feel color blindness is necessary condition for equality.
Color blindness is problematic for those who see race consciousness as a necessary component in the move towards the equality guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. This is in sharp contrast to opponents of affirmative action who believe the Constitution has already equalized American society on the basis of race. Opponents of affirmative action seem to imply, if not directly state, discrimination will simply go away once there is no longer the “barrier” of affirmative action. The problem with color blindness is the belief that society will treat individuals equally if there is no such thing as affirmative action. This position, according to Fair, belies the fact that racial groups have been treated differently even when there were no affirmative action policies and programs. Color blindness ignores those differences which exist, and therefore, lies at the root of the problem.
At the same time affirmative action opponents are arguing society should be color blind, they imply America once was. Fair cites Reconstruction legislation as historical proof the lack of color blindness. It quickly became apparent that equal treatment under the law was not going to occur in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, we note a backlash against affirmative action while America proclaims equality of opportunity. It appears, says Fair, affirmative action foes believe affirmative action policies and programs have done their job, and should be abolished.
Fair examines how the idea of a color blind society is a strong selling point for anti-affirmative action proponents and has found supporters, but nonetheless is an illusion. Fair notes, even those individuals who have not benefited from affirmative action policies and programs are discriminated against. By simply ridding ourselves of these programs will not result in a simple fading away of racial discrimination.
Although affirmative action is condemned by critics as “reverse discrimination,” there seems to have been little concern by affirmative action opponents as to how it historically worked to affirm whites’ privileged positions in society. Fair notes that historically there has been affirmative action for whites. This acknowledgment by Fair makes us aware of the irony that even with remedial affirmative action, there still exists affirmative action for whites. This is disguised as everyday life. When a white person is hired over another white, there is no cry of discrimination (unless perhaps it is a woman chosen over a man). Fair states while affirmative action has historically existed and has benefitted whites males in particular, their abilities were rarely questioned. He claims under remedial affirmative action for racial and ethnic minorities, their abilities are under constant scrutiny. Fair is only partially correct here. There were challenges made regarding the abilities of certain white ethnic groups, such as the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Polish. In this respect, there were some challenges to the abilities white ethnic groups, but subsequently challenges to their abilities have alleviated while those of racial groups have not abated to the same degree.
In exposing the myths of affirmative action, Fair discusses “racial realism” and the racial disparities and economic inequality in the U.S. Statistics show that African Americans lag behind whites on all indicators of social equality. Fair is of the opinion we must do what we can to rid ourselves of the reality of racial caste. In the quest for an elimination of caste through implementation of remedial affirmative action, Fair includes a discussion of the need for race- and gender-based affirmative action plans, as opposed to class-based affirmative action. Race- and gender-based affirmative action are necessary if we are to provide a workable plan to deal with America’s history of white racial and male oriented privilege. As a society we should not be duped into believing America’s past has held no consequences for the future. This distorts our ability to look at the past as informing the present. It also prevents us from seeing that change is both possible and necessary.
Fair concludes that affirmative action is a necessity in American society. He further asserts, we cannot assume that with the dismantling of affirmative action, America will suddenly become color blind. As long as a faction of American society believes society is color blind, it will not support affirmative action. The reality demands that America engage in a deeper investigation of the realities of race. In particular, America needs to rethink its position on the history of race relations and the solutions it has promoted for solving the “race problem.” One way to accomplish this is by moving beyond simply talking about quotas and whether or not affirmative action is “reverse discrimination” and look at the realities of difference in American society.
It is clear that a main problem of the twentieth century continues to be that of the color line. Fair notes the disparities between Blacks and whites in income levels, high school and college completion rates, single motherhood, and health and mortality rates. It is clear racial caste is not simply a myth, just as it is clear American society is not color blind. Until we recognize this, we will continue to refuse to make real efforts aimed at changing the racial caste system in America.