Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White
reviewed by Mark S. Giles - 2006
Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White by Tim J. Wise is a complex work that does not simply examine affirmative action policy in educational circles, but takes a wider view of social and racial preferences in housing, employment, and citizen rights. The book is written from a distinctive perspective, antiracist and anti-white privilege, and targets a highly controversial topic, affirmative action. However, the book provides insightful analysis, critical in-depth exploration of key issues, and offers evidence from scholarly research and reliable sources to support its assertions, arguments, and conclusions. The writing is first rate, too.
Make no mistake, the book is clearly about race, white privilege, systemic racism. It frames the diversity conversation within the history of Americas racial divide. His analyses and conclusions might prove unsettling to those who consider racial issues behind us as a nation and less central to the wider diversity movement. Wise uses race and racial inequities as his primary lenses. Combining a journalists investigative and story telling sensibilities with a scholars attention to detail and data that support conclusions, he skillfully compares black and white benefits from and barriers to full inclusion in the American political, cultural, and educational systems. This work fits nicely in the existing literature from scholars, such as George M. Fredrickson and Joe R. Feagin, who have challenged their readers to consider the pervasiveness and realities of systemic white privilege and racism. Feagin and Vera (1995) write,
Historically, conservative solutions for racial dilemmas deny there is a structural problem and focus on reforming the victims or their cultural values. Liberal solutions tend to tackle symptoms or deal with truncated aspects of the problem of racism with modest reforms or civil rights laws and regulations that are at best weakly enforced. Both the conservative and liberal agendas stress education of the oppressed, thereby taking much of the blame for racial inequalities off of white Americans and white society. (p. xiii)
Wises arguments take a similar stand. He argues that white racial preference, a topic sure to push emotional and ideological buttons, is the real culprit underlying the mixed realities and outcomes of affirmative action policy. In his words, This inquiry attempts to recast the way we conceive affirmative action (p. 4). Wise achieves that goal. His work, unapologetically aggressive against white privilege in American society, will cause readers to rethink how and why the policies were created, their complex societal functions, and who really benefits from them. To Wise, the real beneficiaries of affirmative action are not the usual suspects.
A key aspect of his book is in his cutting and radical perspective. He positions his arguments to disarm the common criticisms against affirmative action, often from the political right. He challenges those of liberal political leanings to reexamine their own perspectives on race, on the invisible prevalence of white privilege, and on how blacks and other people of color are reliable victims of a deeply embedded systemic racism within the American social fabric and psyche. He carefully deflates the social and racial deficit models that often support why special attention should be given to racial minorities without making them out to be inept victims incapable of self-agency.
Wise challenges the mainstream view and operations of diversity initiatives in higher education as watered-down multicultural education efforts. He seems to support the premise that diversity is a good thing, however, he believes that most efforts lack a questioning of the norm; and by not taking a critical look at the normalization of the system (i.e., white dominated), we fail to move past a mere colorization of those institutions. This critique is simultaneously interesting and disturbing because it raises the issue of who really benefits from diversity and why. Are diversity initiatives actually intended to bring significant change to institutions or do they covertly help maintain the racial and gender status quo? Wise writes, Diversity efforts become merely a mechanism for letting a few of them into our game; but make no mistake it is still our game, and we will dictate the terms of just how much change we are willing to countenance (p. 158.).
He tackles issues such as the model minority myth that assumes if Asians and Asian Americans can excel on standardized tests and secure a significant number of slots in highly selective institutions, then what is wrong with blacks and latino/as? A good deal of space is devoted to dispelling the use of standardized testing, specifically the SAT, as the primary measure of intellectual ability to enter and succeed in college. Wise argues that, it is unequal schooling and not inherent lack of ability that explains the test score gaps between blacks and whites (p. 114). Although this is not a new argument, he devotes attention to how that unequal schooling operates in an educational system that favors whites over non-whites.
The four sections of the book are framed around arguments supporting affirmative action and against political conservative ideological positions that seek to dismantle it. Wises writing style is direct, clear, and lively. He does not burden the reader with excessive jargon nor does he assume that the reader has prior knowledge of the topic. This book should be accessible to a wide and varied audience and would be most useful in a college course on contemporary race relations, diversity issues in education, or educational policy. His endnotes and documentation are stock full of scholarly research studies, legal decisions, current events, and secondary historical sources. The broad strokes of the book are both its strengths and limitations. There are many issues and subtopics that deserve more attention and unpacking. In addition, for those readers who require at least the appearance of ideologically unbiased analysis and politically impartial arguments, there is room for disapproval. Wise does not pretend to shy away from what he believes, namely, that the American educational system, from kindergarten through college, and beyond, perpetuates systemic racial preference and privilege, not for underrepresented groups, but, rather, for whites (p. 3). This work challenges some of the unspoken norms of Americas educational systems and stands firmly against institutionalized racism and white privilege and for significant social and cultural shifts that increase social justice for all.
Feagin, J. R., & Vera, H. (1995). White racism. New York: Routledge.
Fredrickson, G. M. (1981). White supremacy: A comparative study in American & South African history. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wise, T. J. (2005). Affirmative action: Racial preference in black and white. New York: Routledge.