The Code Language Against Affirmative Action

Hugh B. Price


National Urban League

As the Supreme Court's decision to consider the University of Michigan's affirmative action program has brought that issue to the top of the public agenda again, I've been reminded, through the words of several recent news articles and opinion columns that "even some black people" oppose affirmative action.

I expect that we'll all be reminded of that more and more in the coming months.

Yes, it is true that "some" African Americans oppose affirmative action—especially when the concept and practice are defined in ways that imply "unqualified" blacks are getting something for nothing.

But the most revealing thing about the use of this phrase is that those who put the fact forward—that "even some blacks" oppose affirmative action—never say what it actually means.

They can't. This is coded language that implies an entire dictionary of old, negative assumptions and assertions about African Americans. As with all of the code words and phrases of bigotry, this phrase's power lies in the fact that its true meanings aren't made explicit.

Indeed, the meanings can't be explicitly stated, or else the writer's position (and the writer himself) would lose any semblance of respectability.

This was the "public relations" mistake Senator Trent Lott made. He thought he was expressing his feelings in acceptably coded language.
After all, just a few decades ago, a nationally prominent white Southerner could say such things and get away with it. But, as black Americans have secured more of their rights as full citizens of the United States, the standards of public acceptability about racially-coded anti-black language, as Lott discovered, have narrowed significantly.

Nonetheless, numerous anti-black code words and phrases still infect the American discourse about race. This phrase—"even some blacks"—is one of them.

One need only ask a series of questions to uncover the pernicious attitudes behind it.

For example, why does one never see this phrase's equivalent—"even some" Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Asian Americans, etc, —used to define the boundaries of any other American ethnic group's views about anything or bolster or attack one side of the dispute?

Why is it used that way with African-Americans—and particularly by people who will then go on to declare their preference for "color-blindness" when it comes to redressing racial wrongs of the past and the present?

Another question: Why should it be particularly noteworthy, much less a surprise, that "some" blacks oppose affirmative action?

After all, "even some blacks" supported the Plessy decision of 1896, which gave the green light to the pervasive mix of government and private-sector racism that ruled America until 1965.

And "even some blacks" opposed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They argued that the Movement was fostering an attitude in blacks of seeing themselves as victims and stoking resentment among whites.

Yes, these currently fashionable assertions have also been around a long time.

Further, why do those who employ the phrase never cite any statistics defining African Americans' views on the issue?

Part of the answer lies in the overwhelming support African Americans as a group continually express for affirmative action.

For example, a Gallup Poll taken conducted in May 2001 found that 57 percent of blacks thought affirmative action programs should be increased, and another 28 percent felt their current scope was just about right. In my book, that adds up to an 85-percent level of support for affirmative action.

The Gallup survey found that 8 percent of African Americans thought affirmative action programs should be decreased.

These percentages are consistent with virtually all other surveys, which ask about the validity of "affirmative action."

They track with what two surveys done separately in 2000 and 2001 by the New York Urban League and the national headquarters of the National Urban League found.

The New York Urban League's polling of a cross-section of black New Yorkers found that 83 percent supported the use of affirmative action in education and in the workplace. The survey of blacks across the country done a year later by the national headquarters found that 88 percent said it was necessary.

Contrary to another unsupported myth about affirmative action, both polls found black support for affirmative action remained powerful—in the high 80s or low 90s—at the highest levels of the income ladder.
The great historian Barbara W. Tuchman wrote in an essay for her 1991 book, Practicing History: Selected Essays, words about the craft of history that are relevant here. "Leaving things out because they do not fit," she declared, "is writing fiction, not history."

Certainly, those who use the code that "even some blacks" oppose affirmative action depend upon covering up a great many facts that surround the issue.

Perhaps the most revealing thing they never acknowledge is the fact that mirrors it on the other side of the Color Line. That is, that "even some whites," who have chosen not to deny the past and the present, or hide from the future, support affirmative action.

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