OTI Online
Summer 1996

Affirmative Action
by Deborah Cooksey & Marilyn Easter


Q. What Do You Call Hiring a Nephew?

A. White Affirmative Action


We hate to admit it, but some of the stereotypes about African Americans are true. In fact, the authors of this article fit the disturbing profile of girls in the 'hood. We are young, black, raised in the inner city in large families and broken homes. Many of our homies are locked up, cracked up, or smacked up. We've had close encounters with the welfare system and one of us has been doing battle with the court system for most of her adult life. The other has been in school for what seems like an eternity and just can't seem to get out. One has enough kids to fill a classroom and the other sometimes doesn't even know where her ol' man is. We think of ourselves as assertive; others call us domineering and combative. On the job we're labeled as "quota hires" or "affirmative action babies" -- everything except qualified.

Now that we've got the attention of those who think you know us based on the above profile, here's the truth behind the stereotypes. The protracted stint in academia has netted one author a doctorate in education. She is a college professor whose "kids" fill her classrooms to capacity; her courses have a one-year waiting list. She is married to a dentist with his own practice. The other author is a practicing attorney specializing in labor and construction litigation. She earned her law degree from an Ivy League school back east and also is married to a successful professional, a corporate attorney who travels extensively.

In short, we are the beneficiaries of affirmative action. And we are fed up with the pre-election hype that says undeserving minorities are "getting over" at the expense of whites. The implication is that minorities no longer need affirmative action because (1) it has served its intended purpose of leveling the playing field in education and employment and/or (2) attempting to right past wrongs is unfair to the white majority.

We recently interviewed over 700 people of all races in a research study to find out just how level today's playing field is. What we discovered is that affirmative action has opened doors for women and minorities but has not been able to overcome the unfairness of white male affirmative action, otherwise known as racism, elitism, and nepotism.

Racial Perceptions

Many African Americans in corporate settings and higher education find themselves resented and referred to as "quota hires" in the workplace. It is as though their hard-earned credentials are no more than consolation prizes in the affirmative action sweepstakes. In general, while white professionals are likely to be held in high esteem even if they graduated at the bottom of their class from a nonaccredited university, African American professionals are prejudged as possessing "tainted" degrees even though they graduated from Ivy League schools.

No amount of power positioning seems to overcome racist perceptions. In the courtroom, for example, one author is usually mistaken for a legal assistant or court reporter, despite the fact that she sits at counsel's table beside her client. The other author starts each new university course by entering the classroom and writing her name and title on the board. Students nevertheless assume she is a teaching assistant rather than a professor.

Grandfathering the Privileged

Despite the politically correct lip service paid to equal employment and a color-blind society, entrenched elitism continues to be a barrier. When one author earned her doctorate in education at 35, after more than 10 years of practical experience, she was informed that she would need at least 20 years of work experience to qualify for an entry-level university teaching position. She challenged the obvious unfairness of the situation; many currently working white teachers and some high-level university administrators had neither a doctorate degree nor 20 years' work experience. The explanation given is that many academics were "grandfathered" into teaching and administrative positions. In many sectors of society, grandfathering allows less qualified administrators to set arbitrary standards they themselves are not required to (and in some cases, could not) meet. Grandfathering can make it impossible for women and minorities to gain equal access to employment.

Phony Affirmations

There are those who argue (with a straight face!) that affirmative action should be abolished because it is unfair to whites, particularly white males. They ignore the fact that white males have always had their own peculiar form of affirmative action. Consider the 1960s, when white college students, sons of prominent politicians and leaders of industry, were routinely awarded draft deferments. Other examples of white affirmative action include tax breaks for corporations, the bailouts of savings and loans, red-lining to keep white suburbs homogeneous, prep-school connections, and membership in exclusive clubs...just to name a few.

The creation of phony companies is one way powerful whites have used affirmative action laws to their own advantage. Businesses throughout the country have established separate entities headed by a minority or a woman (often the wife or a female relative of the CEO of the parent company). The new company boasts a racially diverse work force, which qualifies it to bid on those portions of government contracts earmarked for women- and minority-owned businesses. However, the new company is not actually competing with its sire and has no real autonomy; the parent company continues to control the new company's board of directors and finances.

Chips off the Old Block

Nepotism is perhaps the oldest and most subtle form of white affirmative action. Our research subjects told of countless situations in which business owners and corporate executives hire, retain, and promote family members and friends, regardless of their qualifications, training, or abilities. Qualified minority applicants, who because of historical discrimination have no relatives in high places, are often out of luck.

White affirmative action is a part of the fabric of American life. It is hypocritical and wrong to call for the eradication of affirmative action for minorities while accepting affirmative action for bankers, high-level managers, and other white men in power as normal entitlements.

After 30 years of affirmative action, the playing field is far from level. For all the angry white males who want to abolish affirmative action for women and minorities, we say, "No problem." But while you're at it, don't forget to eliminate racism, elitism, nepotism, and the other forms of white affirmative action. They too must go!


Deborah Cooksey, Esq., practices law in Oakland, CA. Marilyn Easter, Ed.D., teaches at several universities in the Bay Area. They dedicate this article to their mothers, Mary Cooksey and the late Delois Pettigrew, whose hard work and sacrifice made their accomplishments possible.


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