Lee D. Baker

1995 Race and the American Agenda, part I. The Anthropology of The Affirmative Action Debate. Anthropology Newsletter. September 1995 :16.

Since race and racism continue to mire American social relations and the anthropological discourse on the social construction of race commands some authority, it behooves anthropologists to employ one of its methodological tenets to explore what is said --and not said-- by elites who control the contemporary discourse on race. Along these lines, one can probe the anthropology of the affirmative action debate.

By itself, affirmitive action is a political wedge; however, taken with the challenges of minority-majority congressional districts, it is a political double-edge sword that is eviscerating the Democratic party. Columnist and political pundits have correctly identified that a political wedge is produced by the incendiary rhetoric, the California Civil Rights Initiative, and congressional maneuvers that challenge affirmative action programs, and it is dividing an already fractured Democratic Party along racial lines. Republicans as well as many Democrats counter this characterization by grounding their arguments for dismantling affirmative action programs within the goal of "fighting for a color-blind society." However, if you put Republicans' vociferous challenges of affirmative action programs along side their tacit consent of minority-majority voting districts, the true partisan nature of recent efforts to dismantle affirmative action a become clear.

While opponents have illustrated the perils of affirmative action with regard to school admissions, contracting, and employment, they have been conspicuously silent about the so-called perils of minority-majority congressional districts drawn after the 1990 decennial census. The explicit creation of minority-majority districts helped to nearly double the African American representation in Congress, arguably one of the nation's best affirmative action programs. Ostensibly, the Republican leadership wants to achieve a color-blind society by dismantling affirmative action programs, but they do not want to dismantle the color conscious congressional districts that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connar has declared "bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid."

There are two simple reasons that explain why Republicans have effectively delinked the debates about affirmative action and racial redistricting and have not incorporated the so-called perils of "racial gerrymandering" into their arguments for a color-blind society. First, the same political and legislative thicket that gave rise to the largest African American delegation to congress in 1992, also contributed to the rise of a Republican majority in Congress this year and specifically its stronghold in the South. David Lublin, a political scientist at University of South Carolina, provides a conservative calculation that between six and nine House seats shifted from Democrat to Republican control since 1990 as a direct result of the creation of safe minority districts in the South. Without a doubt, this shift helped propel the massive Republican breakthrough last November when the GOP gained 19 House seats across the 11 states of the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky.

The second reason why members of the GOP have not addressed the "quota s" used for redistricting mirrors the reasons why they attack so-called quotas with regard to affirmative action. The formation of minority-majority congressional districts forms a wedge issue within the Democratic Party. The party is forced to grapple with the harsh reality that minority-majority districts in the South increases minority representation but decreases Southern Democrats' overall representation in Congress. In most of the redistricting cases in the courts, the plaintiffs who have challenged the constitutionality of minority-majority districts are activists within the Democratic party. These plaintiffs are motivated by the fact that racial redistricting reduces the number of Democrats in their states' delegation to Washington; however, they successfully pose legal arguments that drawing congressional districts by "computerized hunting for concentrations of blacks" creates "bazaar and tortured" districts that violates the equal protection clause. Like the affirmative action debate, Blacks are pitted against Whites within an already fractured Democratic party. All Americans want a color-blind society. By exploring the anthropology of the affirmative action debate we can expose how this goal is being at once appropriated and abrogated to further political agendas.


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