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Critical Race Theory and Interest Convergence in the Backlash Against Affirmative Action: Washington State and Initiative 200

by Edward Taylor - 2000

The backlash against affirmative action is gaining political momentum as liberalismís defenses are overwhelmed. This article utilizes critical race theory (CRT) to present a counter-argument to both conservative calls for colorblindness and the incrementalism of traditional liberalism. Using Washington Stateís Initiative 200 as a case study, it argues that CRT not only can inform the debate over affirmative action, but has the potential to reinvigorate multiculturalismís social activist roots.

The backlash against affirmative action is gaining political momentum as liberalisms defenses are overwhelmed. This article utilizes critical race theory (CRT) to present a counter-argument to both conservative calls for color blindness and the incrementalism of traditional liberalism. Using Washington States Initiative 200 as a case study, it argues that CRT not only can inform the debate over affirmative action, but has the potential to reinvigorate multiculturalisms social activist roots.

Washington state became yet another lost battleground in the national debate on affirmative action with its passage of Initiative 200 (November 1998), which promises to end discrimination by eliminating most forms of affirmative action. Washington thus follows in the footsteps of California and Texas, where the passage of Initiative 209 and the Hopwood decision, respectively, have resulted in much lower numbers of African American and Hispanic students in undergraduate and graduate programs and have reversed decades of affirmative action policy in state hiring.

How did Washington come to share national billing with such populous and ethnically diverse states as California and Texas as the next test case for the elimination of affirmative action? How is it that the spotlight should now be focused on this fairly small, relatively homogeneous state? Asking of this question leads to an even more central one: How is it that affirmative action, once the bulwark of liberalism and racial progress, is looking so frail?

This article is the result of my quest to understand not only the story of Initiative 200 (I-200), but to look at it as a useful metaphor for the failure of liberalisms promises. Critical examination of I-200 challenges both traditional liberalism and conservative calls for color blindness. It is also an opportunity to look at the backlash against affirmative action through the lens of a newer form of oppositional scholarship, called critical race theory. Critical race theory (CRT) uses a paradigm of racial realism to critique the incrementalism of liberalism and traditional civil rights programs. My purpose is to introduce some of the tenets of CRT into the national debate about affirmative action, in search of a cogent explanation for current trends and a road map toward resistance and hope, away from the impending reality of fatalism and despair.


As a political philosophy, liberalism has been the dominant force in civil rights legislation and multiculturalism (Sleeter, 1996). With its commitment to equality, concern for the less well-off, and belief in government and the law as tools against oppression, its values are more aligned with antidiscrimination movements than say, conservative philosophies. Because of its reliance on political and legal strategies, progress is stepwise, sometimes requiring healthy doses of patience. But its promise is optimistic: that, as time goes on, truth is revealed and things change for the better. Liberalism, however, has been weakened by critiques from both the Left and the Right. It has also seen its creed of certain, gradual improvement sorely tested as its gains are reversed by the pressure of successful legal challengespressure that is likely to be persistent.

In a parallel way, multiculturalism, although grounded in an era of change and a vision of equality, has seen its goals diluted. Its original activist agenda has been diminished as the political climate shifts toward color blindness and attempts at an inclusive curriculum are reduced to cultural tourism. Some adherents believe that for multiculturalism to reassert its relevancy, it must openly identify oppression and struggle against it more explicitly. How? By keeping race at the center of its agenda (Ladson-Billings, 1994; Sleeter, 1996).


Like multiculturalism, critical race theory grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (Gay, 1983). Both originated as intellectual, academic forms of resistance to oppressive social relationships. Although they share a common ancestor, they have evolved in different arenasmulticultural education is focused on the reform of educational institutions (Banks, 1984), while CRT challenges legal doctrine and methodology.

Critical race theory is an eclectic and dynamic type of legal scholarship that matured during the 1980s over the perceived failure of traditional civil rights litigation to produce meaningful racial reform (Taylor, 1998a). What started as informal exchanges between law professors and students gradually grew into a movement. Watching the gains of the civil rights era being slowly eroded sparked interest in new strategies to achieve racial justice, strategies informed by critical theory, feminism, postmodernism, and other intellectual traditions. This scholarship gradually grew into a group identity that not only has made a significant impact in the legal field, but is now being extended into areas such as education (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995), womens studies (Crenshaw, 1995; Wing, 1996), and economics (Rubin, 1996).

As an oppositional intellectual movement, CRT is not an abstract set of ideas or rules. However, critical race scholars have identified some defining elements (Lawrence, et al., 1993). The first is that racism is a normal, not aberrant or rare, fact of daily life in society, and the assumptions of white superiority are so ingrained in our political and legal structures as to be almost unrecognizable (Delgado, 1995). Racial separation has complex, historic, and socially constructed purposes that insure the location of political and legal power in groups considered superior to people of color (Calmore, 1995a). All too often the tendency is to disregard the historic context in which racial conflict was spawned. Bond contends that this widespread historical illiteracy reveals an astounding ignorance of our racist past (1991, p. 222). Racism is also likely permanent, and periods of seeming progress are often followed by periods of resistance and backlash as societal forces reassert white dominance (Bell, 1992). In reaction, CRT challenges the experience of whites as the normative standard (Calmore, 1995b) and grounds its conceptual framework in the distinctive experiences of people of color (Williams, 1991). This call to context insists that the social/experiential context of racial oppression is crucial for understanding racial dynamics and is thus based on what Bell calls racial realism (Bell, 1990).

CRT is grounded in the realities of the lived experience of racism, which has singled out, with wide consensus among whites, African Americans and others they deem worthy of suppression (Crenshaw, 1988). CRT thus embraces this subjectivity of perspective and openly acknowledges that perceptions of truth, fairness, and justice reflect the mind-set (the shared stereotypes, beliefs, and understandings), status, and experience of the knower. In contrast, traditional legal definitions claim neutrality and color blindness as the basis for the ideology of equal opportunity and meritocracy (Brown, 1992; Litowitz, 1997). CRT challenges those claims, noting the way objective facts are used to promote the interests of the majority. Delgado points out an important distinction between the viewpoints of blacks and whites, however. Whites dont see it as their perspective, but the truth (Delgado, 1989).

One powerful way to challenge the dominant mind-set of society is the telling of stories. Stories challenge the status quo as well as help build consensus and create a shared, communal understanding. They can, at once, describe what is and what ought to be. As a result, CRT scholars often use storytelling/narrative/autobiography/personal history as a way to engage and contest negative stereotyping. This strategy makes use of the experience of people negatively affected by racism as a primary means to confront the beliefs held about them by whites. This is what Crenshaw calls a condition for the development of a distinct political strategy informed by the actual conditions of black people (1988, p. 1387).

CRT is deeply dissatisfied with traditional civil rights litigation and liberal reforms. Having watched the backlash against the gains of the 1960s by an increasingly conservative judiciary, CRT scholars have lost faith in traditional legal remedies. They have seen restrictive definitions of merit, fault, and causation render much of current antidiscrimination law impotent. Progress in employment and contracting laws designed to end discrimination have been stalled as courts promote popular preferences at the expense of minority interests. Two commonly held ideologies have contributed to the backlash against civil rights litigationthe myths of meritocracy and color blindness. By relying on merit criteria, or standards, the dominant group can justify its exclusion of ethnic groups to positions of power, believing in its own neutrality (Harris, 1993). CRT asserts that such standards are chosen, not inevitable, and should be openly debated and reformed in ways that no longer benefit privileged whites alone. The neoconservative color-blind view calls for the repeal of affirmative action and other race-based remedial programs, arguing that whites are the true victims. CRT notes that color blindness makes no sense in a society in which people, on the basis of group membership alone, have historically been, and continue to be, treated differently. The danger of color blindness is that it allows us to ignore the racial construction of whiteness and reinforces its privileged and oppressive position. Thus whiteness remains the normative standard and blackness remains different, other, and marginal. Even worse, by insisting on a rhetoric that disallows reference to race, blacks can no longer name their reality or point out racism (Taylor, 1998b).

A central tenet of CRTs criticism of liberalism is Bells theory of interest convergencethat is, that whites will promote advances for blacks only when they also promote white interests (Bell, 1980). The concept of interest convergence has its roots in the Marxist theory that the bourgeoisie will tolerate advances for the proletariat only if these advances benefit the bourgeoisie even more. Class conflict is therefore intractable and progress is possible only through revolution.

To illustrate the dynamics of interest convergence, Bells parable The Space Traders (1990) is instructive. In this futuristic parable, he describes an invasion of space aliens that offer to solve our planets fiscal, environmental, and fuel needs in exchange for all persons of African descent. Although some whites initially find it distasteful, the majority, like their colonial forebears, are ultimately willing to exchange the lives, liberty, and happiness of Africans for their own economic, educational, and social needs. Bells point is that historically, white Americans have been willing to sacrifice the well-being of people of color (African, indigenous, etc.) for their economic self-interests and that the subordination of blacks continues to be sustained by those economic and legal structures that promote white privilege.

Response to The Space Traders follows predictable, largely racial, lines (Olivas, 1990). People of color, including American Indians, Japanese immigrants, and others whose interests have been sacrificed to promote white concerns, are compelled by its explanatory power. Whites are less enthusiastic: Such parables pass for legal scholarship these days, objects Kozinski (1998). Olivas reproach is not that Bells theory is too farfetched, but that it has happened so often, and to so many. His analysis of the treatment of Cherokees, Hispanic immigrants, and Chinese laborers reveals a historic pattern of the preeminence of service to white interests. Looking at the backlash of affirmative action through the lens of CRT requires some background. To understand just how far weve come in the state of Washington, you need to know some history.


Washington, unlike California or Texas, is neither particularly populous nor diverse. Of its 5.5 million residents, 82.2% are white (Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board [HECB], 1997). Although there have been changes in demographic trends, none amount to seismic shifts. For the last decade, the American Indian population has been steady at 2% and the African American population at just over 3%. Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic groups have grown, from 4% or so to just over 6% each. In a parallel way, Washingtons colleges and universities are fairly homogenous. At four-year institutions, whites make up 82% of students. The more rural state universities (such as Washington State University and Western Washington University) are 87% white (HECB, 1996). Undergraduate enrollments at community colleges are 19.3% ethnic minority, 80.7% white.

Washington has a racial history that, while far from ideal, is less virulent than many other states. The first African Americans came to Seattle around the time of the Civil War (Taylor, 1994). Because they were excluded from the main industries of logging and shipbuilding by the labor unions, most job opportunities open to African Americans were menial in nature. But, ironically, there was far more racial antipathy directed toward Asian immigrants and American Indians than toward African Americans, in part because of the latters low numbers. African Americans thus escaped the savage, organized violence prevalent in other parts of the United States and built a small but vigorous community. However, the progression of the twentieth century saw increasing residential and educational segregation and continued, severe economic hardships due to exclusionary employment practices. Washington, nonetheless, was relatively more racially tolerant than other places; for example, it was one of a handful of states that did not have antimiscegenation laws (Taylor, 1994).

The civil rights movement mobilized Washingtons African American population, especially in Seattle, to seek equitable economic and educational opportunities by the use of marches, sit-ins, and boycotts. Outcomes of this activism included the reduction of racial barriers in labor unions, fairer employment practices, and a busing program that took African American students from the Central District to white, suburban schools (Taylor, 1994). Although busing programs have ended, in part because of contemporary objections by African American parents, a variety of affirmative action programs continue to operate.

Affirmative action programs in Washington include outreach programs in middle and high schools to encourage girls and ethnic minorities to participate in math and science, college mentorship programs targeting high schools with majority African American, Hispanic, and Asian enrollment, and training programs for those traditionally excluded from skilled trades. Affirmative action programs also help shape state hiring goals and provide opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses to receive city, county, and state contracts. For example, of the states near 16,00/hirings over the past five years, 7% have been under affirmative action (Brune, 1998). Notably, nearly half of those were whites. In 1997, the states Plus Three program, which adds three persons who qualify for affirmative action to the traditional list of seven applicants for state job openings, hired more white men than any minority group. Vietnam-era veterans, veterans with disabilities, and disabled persons all qualify for affirmative action programs, and in Washington, most of these people are white men. Thus under the Plus Three program, 48 white men, 45 white women, 40 African Americans, and 36 Asian Americans were hired (Brune, 1998).

Responsibility for issues regarding diversity in higher education rests with the Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB). Beginning in 1987, the Board included in its master plan for higher education the goal of establishing and implementing policies and practices that ensure the full participation of minorities in higher education programs as students, faculty, staff, and administrators (1987, p. 36). As part of this plan, alternative standards for admissions were put into place. These standards allow access for students whose combined indices of grades and standardized test scores do not meet regular admissions criteria, and take into account issues of race, income, educational attainment of family members, and college preparation.

According to the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs (1995), white students are by far the greatest beneficiaries. In 1994, for example, 978 first-time freshmen (or 1.4% of a total of 70,883 undergraduates) were admitted under the alternative standards. Eighty percent were white.

Nor have policies aimed at increasing the diversity of college staff and faculty marked much change. People of color comprise 14.7% of staff at community colleges (1996) and 9.8% at four-year institutions, numbers that have not changed significantly since 1990. Whites comprise 90.8% at four-year institutions and 88.9% of faculty at community colleges, also consistent over this decade. Against this backdrop of modest policies and practices comes the Washington State Civil Rights Initiative.


Initiative 200 originated from the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative Washington, D.C.based think tank. Modeled closely after Californias Proposition 209, I-200 uses the language of civil rights. In full, the text reads:

The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.1

With the financial support of Steve Forbes, former Republican presidential candidate, and buoyed by appearances by William Bennett, drug czar under President Bush, I-200 began collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot in 1997. The state Republican party contributed statewide mailings. Mr. Forbes gave $35,000 to the campaign, much of it in the three weeks before the January 2, 1998, deadline for signatures, and over $10,000 for radio ads primarily heard on KVI-AM. I-200 came to public consciousness by the efforts of John Carlson, a conservative talk show host at KVI-AM and chair of the I-200 campaign. Affirmative action became the daily subject for his radio call-in show. Management concerns about this one-beat programming (as well as low ratings) led to his ouster at KVI in February 1998 (Serrano, 1998).

I-200 came to national awareness with a New York Times story in December 1997 that chronicled the unusual experience of signature gatherers recruited by a firm hired by the I-200 campaign. African Americans from California and the Midwest had been offered bus fare, meals, motel expenses, and $600 a week to work on a civil rights drive. Pro Mayes, from Rancho Tehama, California, said the recruiter came to his house and brought my family a turkey for Thanksgiving (Egan, 1997, p. A12). For many, it seemed like a good opportunity to earn Christmas money. Five African Americans, including one disabled woman and a homeless man, were bused to Seattle.

Problems arose as soon as they began work. I was getting cursed at by people and having a lot of trouble getting signatures, said Arthur Tillis, of Chicago. Then I finally read the thing real carefully and I said: Wait a minute. This is against affirmative action. Its not a civil rights thing like it says. Beverly Mosely of Milwaukee had a similar experience. I got all the way to Seattle and they still wouldnt tell me what the initiative was all about. Im out there with a clipboard and a couple of people came up to me and said, Do you know what youre doing? I said yes. Getting signatures to keep affirmative action from being abolished. After reading it real carefully, then, let me tell you: I decided I would never sign something like this myself (p. A12).

All left the state, broke and discouraged. They wanted some black faces, said Tyrone Wells of Toledo, Ohio. We were used. Mayes summed up his feelings: You want to know what this whole thing really cost me? My pride. I was duped. And now I got nothing to bring home to my two kids.

According to the Sherry Bockwinkel, owner of the recruiting firm: The only way they could be misled is if they cant read. Petitioners are motivated by money. They tend to be lazy. If they say they were misled, they are lying (Egan, p. A12). Dee Jones, who hired the workers, said they were fired for failing to meet their quotas: They wanted to do was sleep and treat this like a vacation (Brune & Serrano, 1998, p. A1).

John Carlson, campaign manager and talk-show host, defended the use of African Americans. He said, You want people who are known as horses, people who can get the signatures, and get them fast. You dont want people with little or no experience of any race. He denied race was a factor in the petition drive and said that, although the ballot measure deliberately borrows language from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it is not misleading. From his view, This initiative will restore the moral principle of protecting all Americans from discrimination (Egan, p. A12).

This borrowed language has been controversial. When Proposition 209 passed in California, exit polling showed that 28% of those who had voted in favor did not realize that 209 banned affirmative action (Foster, 1997). The American Civil Liberties Union went to the Thurston County Superior Court in Washington to have the words affirmative action added to the language of Initiative 200. The judge ruled against changing the language. The state attorney generals office, who wrote the title and text of the initiative, had decided to basically reflect the language that was in the ballot itself, trusting that voters would make an informed choice if and when the time comes and deliberately avoiding loaded terms, said James Pharris, senior assistant state attorney general (King, 1997, on-line).

A similar measure banning affirmative action in the city of Houston failed after Mayor Bob Lanier insisted that Proposition A be described as ending affirmative action. This choice of wording was believed to be a key factor in voters rejection of Proposition A.

I-200, after obtaining the required 180,000 signatures, went to the Washington State Legislature. Without enough support (35 of 98 House members and 17 of 49 senators) to pass the initiative, it was referred to the November ballot as a referendum election (Initiative Process, 1997) and approved by 58% of the voters. Buoyed by this success, national opponents of affirmative action plan to pursue similar ballot measures in Florida, Nebraska, and Michigan (Holmes, 1998).


Like voters in California and Houston, Washington residents opinion appeared to be language dependent. Early polls (conducted by The Seattle Times) found 64% of respondents in favor of I-200. Knowing that I-200 would eliminate affirmative action in state employment, contracting, and education, support dropped to 49% (Postman & Brune, 1998). Although 93% believed that racial discrimination still exists and 80% felt that bias against women was still a problem, 48% thought that affirmative action programs, while good in principle, needed to be reformed. There was a significant racial gap55% of whites and 37% of minoritiesinitially in favor of the initiative.

When specific affirmative action programs were polled, the response ranged widely. Eighty-five percent supported programs encouraging girls and minorities in math and science, 62% favored the alternative admissions standards in higher education admissions, and 56% wanted to continue apprenticeship programs for those previously excluded from skilled trades. Only 44% defended set-asides for women and minorities in government contracting and 36% endorsed specific hiring goals for women and minorities (Postman & Brune, 1998). In sum, outreach (especially for white women) met with general approval; numeric goals were disliked.

How did the loss of affirmative action affect minority enrollment in colleges? At the University of Washington, for example, the number of minorities is already quite low, at 7.5% of entering freshmen. Passage of I-200 has resulted in about 40% fewer African Americans, 30% fewer Hispanics, and 20% fewer American Indians (Verhovek, 1999).


To examine whether or not the case of I-200 provides supportive evidence for the central tenets of CRT, several issues must be addressed.


Charging racism is a volatile exercise, but much depends on how it is defined. The insistence Im not a racist has become the defense de jour of even the most blatant of hate criminals. When racism is defined as specific, individual acts against persons of color, most whites can rightly deny this charge. They see themselves as good and fair people, not as members of a group that enjoys special, undeserved privileges. Such a perspective is distressing, and many whites react with defensiveness and withdrawal if confronted.

If, on the other hand, racism is defined as a political and social force that has benefited a certain group, through no single action on the part of individuals, the terms change. If those benefits include nonsegregated housing, employment opportunities reserved for persons of European ancestry, access to better schools, absence of organized racial violence, and protection from negative racial stereotyping, the net casts wide. Almost no white can reasonably claim to have avoided some of the privileges that are part and parcel of whiteness. Then the equation inverts. As Sleeter (1996) asserts, I am a racist . . . because I benefit from racism (p. 30).

Here, what is more important than attempting to prove widespread acts of racial discrimination against ethnic minorities in Washington state is examining the centrality, and invisibility, of white privilege. The problem in Washington is the multitude of benefits extended to the majority population by virtue of group membershipbenefits enjoyed at the expense, and exclusion, of others. Yet few look at it that way.

Affirmative action programs attempt to widen some of this privilege base with women and people of color. But many perceive it as victimizing legitimate and honest people who are not personally guilty of racist acts. Ultimately, and as I-200 sees it, the protection of innocent whites from displacement is more important than the protection of ethnic minorities from long-standing, normal, race-based exclusion. Although nearly all agree that racial and gender discrimination still exists, the imperative of protecting even a few blameless whites outweighs the importance of achieving access to groups previously (and presently) denied. Their innocence, both individual and collective, does not appear to factor in the decision making process for most whites.

As Crenshaw describes this dilemma (1988):

. . . even when injustice is found, efforts to redress it must be balanced against, and limited by, competing interests of white workerseven when those interests were actually created by the subordination of Blacks. The innocence of whites weighs more heavily than do the past wrongs committed upon Blacks and the benefits that whites derived from these wrongs. (p. 1342)


Perhaps because of its relatively benign history, at least as compared to the South, Washington voters may be relying on a things havent been that bad here theory. Thus the groundwork is laid for assumptions about equality in opportunities for jobs, contracts, and college preparation. The systemic ways in which the majority has favored its own in housing, employment, schooling, and contracting, to name a few, are not seen as aberrant or unjust.

The reasoning goes something like this: Although there is a history of racial and gender discrimination in Washington (that still exists), it is now time to end programs designed to reverse its effects. Affirmative action has been a useful tool to give women and minorities equal opportunity but is no longer needed. Such policies force employers to hire unqualified women and minorities over qualified white men (Postman & Brune, 1998).

I-200 guides the state into what Tushnet (1996) calls the Weve done enough phase. He says that a common pattern in antidiscrimination law is that, after whites have one of their periodic outbursts of support for minorities, particularly African Americans, they eventually and inevitably decide to reverse themselves.

The Weve done enough principle, although recently advanced by Initiative 200, is deeply rooted in our federal judiciary. During the Reconstruction period, in which African Americans lived in a fear-haunted limbo between slavery and freedom, Supreme Court Justice Bradley made the argument to end what he saw as the new favoritism enjoyed by African Americans:

When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of benefent legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of this elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen, and ceases to be the favorite of the law. (1883, p. 25)


The role narrative plays in Initiative 200 is dual. Notable is the absence of the voices of minorities or women and their experiences seeking college admissions, public employment, promotions, or public contracting. Second is the curious story of the African Americans recruited to gather signatures.

Stories wield influenceperhaps more than they should. Think scientifically, as the saying goes, act anecdotally. In the case against affirmative action, there is a story told of almost mythic proportions, of the son or daughter of a neighbor who did not get accepted into his or her college of choice because of minority set-asides. There is the report of the friend not hired by the school district because of diversity needs, or the long-deserved promotion lost to someone less qualified. I-200 taps into such stories. Data-based evidence that affirmative action has largely benefited whites seems to hold little sway.

What I-200 avoids are the stories of those who have lived lives continuously shaped, and limited, by racism and sexism in schooling and employment. It is unclear if there exists a collective consciousness of these stories among whitesthe grandmothers who spent lives scrubbing floors, the fathers denied all but the most menial of jobs, the school counselors who insisted on shop classes or home ec rather than algebra. These experiences have forged a collective consciousness for African Americans and feminists that have informed a political agenda. I-200 ignores, by necessity, this collective identity. The terms of the debate are defined by a rhetoric that does not permit the telling of these stories, much less access a reservoir of public support.

The unusual story of the I-200 signature gatherers is illustrative of this point. The decision of I-200 to recruit African Americans was disingenuous at best, cynical at worst. Some whites, who felt they were misled, asked to have their names removed from the ballot. As one sociology professor said, I guess I thought that African Americans, being a minority, would not engage in any activity that would make their life chances less. The paradox of using race-neutral language to advance a race-based cause is difficult to explain. John Carlsons confusing explanation underscored this quandary: Race was not a factor in the petition drive, he insisted, yet, You dont want people with little or no experience of any race (Egan, 1997, p. A12).

The explanation offered by Sherry Bockwinkel was more direct, charging that the African Americans couldnt read, were lazy, and lying. These accusations resonate deeply with commonly held stereotypes about African Americans. Claims of race-neutrality, however, make defense difficult.


Assessing the degree of interest convergence in affirmative action programs requires some tally of advantages. Measurement of such interests is difficult. In a state with a relatively small minority population, race specific policies and goals have a correspondingly small impact. And, when over 70% of the state workforce qualifies for consideration under affirmative action (women plus minorities), it is difficult to distinguish interest divergence or convergence. Although the case can be made that whites, especially white women, have benefited considerably, it does not change public perception that affirmative action is about favoritism for unqualified blacks (Sniderman & Carmines, 1997).

Does the popularity of I-200 then contradict the principle of interest convergence? Would not programs that benefit whites enjoy the support of other whites? That turns out to be true for those programs that are targeted toward whites, such as those promoting math and science to girls or assisting displaced homemakers. Those that specify race, for hiring goals or contract set-asides, are distinctly unpopular. What appears to be objectionable about affirmative action in Washington state is not its whiteness, but its blackness.

Sniderman and Carmines (1997) have conducted extensive national public opinion polls about affirmative action using computer assisted interviewing. They found white opposition to affirmative action is intense, unvarying, and pervasive (p. 30) and that its primary beneficiaries are believed to be black. In fact, the mere mention of affirmative action causes whites to significantly increase their expressed dislike for blacks and makes them more likely to describe blacks as lazy, irresponsible, and arrogant (p. 39). This is true for men and women of all classes, and true for self-described liberals (57%), Democrats (65%), and Republicans (64%). Whites also overwhelmingly believe that most blacks are poor and violent.

Although national studies of public opinion have shown an overall reduction in overt racial prejudice, Sniderman and Carmines found no shortage of whites who are willing to admit their racist stereotypes: 52% describe blacks as violent; 45% as boastful; 42% as complaining; and 34% as lazy. The authors comment:

Given that it is virtually cost-free to say something nice about black Americans in the course of a public opinion interview, what is striking is how few white Americans actually do. Apart from a general willingness of 3 out of 4 whites to describe blacks as friendlysurely as innocuous a positive quality as one can imagineonly a modest majority of whites are willing to attribute specific positive characteristics to most blacks. (p. 61)

Because of these widespread antiblack sentiments, Sniderman and Carmines recommend that future attempts to garner support for affirmative action policies refrain from any mention of race. They also note that arguments based on underrepresentation or a history of discrimination are fairly ineffective. Even if a company has a proven policy of racist hiring policies, support for affirmative action within that same company goes only from 21% to 42%. Rather, Sniderman and Carmines suggest changing the terms of the argument to the grounds of moral principles centered on broader views of social justice. This color blind strategy, they believe, can increase the support of both prejudiced and self-interested whites.

Affirmative action policies aimed at helping the poor or disabled, if they specifically avoid any mention of race, can garner up to two-thirds of white support (p. 25). Such a strategy, they maintain, is not based on interest convergence, but on common, shared principles of fairness and justice.

This is a distinction without much difference. Others have argued that replacing race- and gender-based affirmative action with a need-based approach is not an adequate substitute but will, because of absolute numbers, redirect resources back to white males (Feinberg, 1996). Nonetheless, theirs is a point not lost on the No-200 campaign. Their ineffective strategy was to avoid mention of race and to direct appeals to white men who may worry that their daughters or wives could be denied equal pay or benefits or lose funding to participate in sports. Appeals to economic prosperity (again, avoiding any mention of race) were the thrust of a series of full-page ads in the Seattle Times endorsed by Microsoft, Boeing, and others that urge votes against I-200 because its bad for business (1998, September 6).


The case of I-200 not only illustrates and confirms some of the tenets of CRT, but suggests CRT as a model with explanatory power. The counterargument, however, is this: from the point of view of the I-200 supporters, they are endorsing fundamental principles of fairness. It is unfair to discriminate by race or gender in public hiring, contracting, or college admissions. Affirmative action discriminates against people who, by no fault of their own, lose out to women and minorities. And despite their commitment to ideals of justice, they are being criticized as racist.

What has gone wrong? CRT believes that the problem lies in the methods and process of our legal system, where insistence on race neutral language has negated social/historical context. Worse still, the benefits of racial exclusion and white privilege go unrecognized and unchallenged.

Brown (1993) in her analysis of the legal principles of race-neutrality, points out the fallacious assumption that blacks and whites occupy equal positions in society. By disengaging cases from their historical context, in a process known as disaggregation, the legal process removes the voices of people negatively affected by racism and refuses to acknowledge the deeply held beliefs of black inferiority and white superiority.

In the case of I-200, although white women, veterans, and persons with disabilities have also had their choices widened to include opportunities provided by affirmative action, the greater concern is the protection of those whites displaced by such policies. In short, the protection of whites trumps that of blacks.


Although the example of I-200 suggests that CRT may be useful for understanding the backlash against affirmative action, its usefulness in resolution remains underdeveloped. In addition, important questions remain.


Farber and Sherry (1993, 1998) have disputed the value and applicability of narrative as a methodological format on several grounds. One is the issue of verifiabilitywhether or not the stories be proven to be true. The other is whether narrative methods meet the standards of traditional legal scholarship, which explicates through methods of fact, logic, and linear reasoning. They also question the concept of a unique voice of color and are concerned that CRT has not clearly conceptualized its existence. Kennedy (1995) agrees, asserting that legal scholarship is indifferent to the race of the scholar. Litowitz (1997) asserts that the duty of law is to look beyond stories to issues of doctrine, policy, and argument. He suggests that minority law professors use more traditional methods than presenting themselves as storytellers without analytic skills (p. 523).

These critics of CRT are concerned that narrative and storytelling could replace legal doctrine in a domain that values formal reasoning over social/historic context (Kennedy, 1995). Litowitz (1997) also finds it implausible that, in a neutral and objective arena such as a courtroom, the opinions of the judiciary could be shaped by their race. Kozinski says that traditional liberals in the nations law schools are shaking their heads, wondering what hit them, as age-old foundations of scholarship are questioned (1998, p. 46).

This debate has more to do with what constitutes valid scholarship than with CRT itself. Johnson (1994) argues that, since there are no universal standards for scholarship in general, neither traditional nor nontraditional methods can be said to meet those standards. Although different, neither may be better but both necessary; one through empirical and a personal means, the other through experience. It may well be that both can contribute, but the stakes are high and no resolution is in sight.


Convincing most whites of the existence, much less personal collusion or benefit, of racism in U.S. society is an uphill struggle. A number of studies confirm the presence of profound resistance to the idea that racism exists (Lawrence & Tatum, 1997; Sleeter, 1996). Because of their majority status and exemption from residential and employment segregation, many whites have relatively little exposure to the lives of people of color and, hence, little knowledge of the myriad ways that racism continues to negatively affect the lives of people of color. Nor is it easy to see the converse realitythe ways in which the inheritance of property, voting rights, homesteading laws, and job opportunities have positively shaped the experience of whites and their ancestors compared to minorities. When something does happen that reveals racism to them, there are basically two ways to deal with this discomfort. One is to critically examine white racism in society; the other is to retreat into monoracial isolation and denial (Helms, 1990). Because it is less upsetting, many retreat and deny, usually not maliciously (Tatum, 1994). The dynamics of white resistance may prove to be so intransigent a barrier as to limit the potential of CRT.

Another criticism of CRTs emphasis on racism is the charge of balkanization. Litowitz is concerned that CRTs focus on ethnic concerns has a splintering effect (p. 519) that undermines common goals. CRT scholars would point out that our society has a long and ugly history of balkanizing people based on gender and racial group membership; revealing oppression does not create it.


CRTs broad use of the terms white and black suggests that these groups think and act in monolithic, predictable, and homogeneous ways. Kennedy (1989) has objected to the stereotyping of scholars by race and rejects claims that academicians write or think in uniform ways that are not racially determined. According to Litowitz (1997): It will simply not do to say that all whites are equally complicitous in this countrys legacy of racism and that all blacks are innocent victims (p. 527).

CRT does not argue the agency of individuals. It does speak to race as a social construction and critiques systems that promote and sustain majoritarian interests. More specifically, CRT would assert that although individual whites are innocent, they do, by no personal intent, benefit from dominant group membership in numerous ways.

In the case of affirmative action in higher education, as these institutions become more diverse, with African Americans and other nonwhites increasingly represented as faculty members, administrators, and admissions officers, historically white goals may be altered. A number of university presidents and faculty have defended the use of affirmative action to achieve a multiracial student body on its own merits (On the Importance of Diversity, 1997; Bowen & Bok, 1998).


Although provocative, interest convergence has yet to be fully problematized. It raises a host of questions. Is its main effect one of fatalism? Can it inform strategies for achieving racial justice? Is it possible for disparate groups to find common interests and, in so doing, forge an antiracist agenda (Araujo, 1997).

Interest convergence engenders considerable debate, with liberals naturally reluctant to surrender their sense of pride when pointing to civil rights progress and conservatives unwilling to admit naked self-interest. At least in the abstract, many from both camps embrace the broad goals of racial equity. There is, however, convincing evidence that problems arise for many whites when black progress engenders a personal cost to positions of power and privilege (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). As Bell states, Whites simply cannot envision the personal responsibility and the potential sacrifice inherent in [the] conclusion that true equality for blacks will require the surrender of racism-granted privileges for whites (1995, p. 22). As appealing as the democratic ideals of justice and equality are, and as much as we would like to get our racist and patriarchal past behind us, few understand how much it might cost. Even well-meaning people, when passed on a promotion or faced with their daughters rejection from medical school, may look for a scapegoat. Most likely, the target will not be the other beneficiaries of affirmative action such as white women, or the legacy admits of alumni and university benefactors, but the handful of African Americans assumed to be unqualified.

Definitions of white interests contain additional problems around assumptions of homogeneity. Antiracist activism among whites is not a new phenomenon; its roots extend deep into American abolitionist history (Loewen, 1995). Although its impact has been often overshadowed by a variety of forces, its relevance has continued to assert itself. There are currently a number of whites, including educators, who are deconstructing whiteness and critiquing educational institutions from a white perspective (Schofield, 1986; Sleeter, 1993). In addition, the psychological, social, and economic impact of whiteness has been advanced by racial identity development theory (Helms, 1990; Tatum, 1994) and holds considerable promise for promoting cross-racial dialogue. CRT would benefit from white narratives that examine and critique white privilege in its varied forms. White opposition to racial oppression could serve as a valuable strategy to challenge other whites to actively oppose racism.

There are also alternative explanations for the support for I-200. Critics of ballot initiatives assert that voters fall easy prey to manipulation by special interest groups (Chavez, 1998). Ballot initiatives, rather than a reflection of grass roots voter sentiment, may be a better measure of funding and marketing. The legitimacy of the initiative process is also tainted by the (legal) practice of hiring signature gatherers. Volunteers, motivated by commitment, are replaced by employees, motivated by a paycheck. Washington is then reduced to being a pawn in a national game of public policy chess (Initiative Process, 1997, p. A16). When I-200 first arrived in Olympia with its required signatures, it had far too little support among state lawmakers for passage into law and faced a promised veto by Democratic Governor Gary Locke. Rather than our elected representatives making a decision, they passed this complex social policy issue back to the voters who inevitably faced a barrage of political ads (from both sides) that exaggerated, simplified, or misinformed.


For advocates of affirmative action, the options come down to this: trust in traditional liberalism versus racial realism. The distinction is more than an academic exercise. The choice between the two makes all the difference, not only in how we conceptualize and formulate public policy, but in how we vote. Liberalism, to its discredit, has underestimated the depth of resentment among whites for race-based policies and has avoided facing the dilemma that exists between its stated goal of racial equality and its reluctance to confront white privilege. Liberalism may be too weakened to mount a serious defense of affirmative action.

Not all critical race theorists agree with this dismissal of liberalism. Crenshaw (1988) has argued that liberal ideology, although far from being perfect, has visionary ideals that should be developed. She also notes that, given the limited range of options for blacks to challenge racism, liberalism should not be too quickly discarded.

Racial realism, on the other hand, directly confronts racism and white privilege. This approach offends many, who accuse it of excessive cynicism and nihilism. Yet West (1995) says that CRT compels us to confront critically the most explosive issue in American civilization: the historical centrality and complicity of law in upholding white supremacy (p. xi). For those attempting to make sense of the legal and political trends toward ending affirmative action, CRT poses challenges on several fronts. First is the importance of keeping race and racism at the center of the argument. Second is acknowledging the debate in its historic and social context. Last is the call to pay attention to the real life experiences of African Americans. CRTs usefulness in formulating political and policy strategy remains to be seen but the utility of some of its principles can be recognized in two recent works, the study done by William Bowen and Derek Bok, and President Clintons review of federal affirmative action practices.

In one of the largest studies of African Americans affected by affirmative action, Bowen and Bok (1998) tracked the lives of over 45,000 students admitted to highly selective colleges under racial preferences policies. Their data underscore the success of affirmative action in creating a generation of African American intellectual, professional, and community leadership. By focusing attention on the experiences of these students, and their lives after college, Bowen and Bok help publicize the accomplishments of race-factored admissions policies and reveal us as a nation that has not only rejected, but is actively reversing, its racist past.

President Clintons order for a review of the federal governments affirmative action policy also utilized several methods of CRT. By tracing the long history of U.S. racial and gender discrimination, and presenting numeric data and detailed stories of the experiences of random testers documenting widespread racist disparities in hiring practices, the Administration was able to support its mend it, dont end it policy. In this way, the debate was placed in its historic/social context, systemic racist practices were revealed, and yet, valid concerns about fairness and effectiveness were addressed (White House, 1996).

What can CRT offer multiculturalism? Both are descendants of that proud forebear, the civil rights movement, and are inspired by centuries of African American resistance. Both must respond to the backlash against affirmative action, even if such efforts, as in the case of I-200, seem in vain.

CRT can inform the debate on affirmative action as well as help articulate and reinvigorate multiculturalisms political roots. It may take a dose of racial realism to discover a new vision and the will to struggle toward that vision, whether it be the dream of a workforce and classroom that genuinely reflect our nations diversity or the hope of a multicultural curriculum so authentic and powerful as to eradicate racism and sexism in our society. The likelihood of this happening may seem as remote a hope as freedom must have seemed for our chained forebears. Their heroism and ultimate victory lay not in armed revolt or illustrious gestures, but in the cumulative effect of countless, small acts of resistance. In the same way, we prevail by the act of resistance itself. For it is at the point when we begin to question our own assumptions and privileges, resist stereotyping, classism, and patriarchy, and critically examine the contextualized, racial meanings of our livesit is at that pointthat we are triumphant.


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EDWARD TAYLOR is assistant professor of education, University of Washington. He studies critical issues in higher education, multicultural education, and policies serving disenfranchised groups.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 102 Number 3, 2000, p. 539-560
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10491, Date Accessed: 12/24/2021 11:36:52 AM

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  • Edward Taylor
    University of Washington
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    Edward Taylor is assistant professor of education, University of Washington. He studies critical issues in higher education, multicultural education, and policies serving disenfranchised groups.
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