Sep 1 1995

White Man’s Burden

How the Press Frames Affirmative Action

“Quotas Quashed,” crowed the front page of the June 13 New York Post. “High Court Sinks Most Affirmative Action Programs.” Inside, Post writers described the Adarand v. Pena ruling, in which the Supreme Court tightened criteria for some race-conscious federal programs, as a “bombshell decision” that “dealt a crippling blow to affirmative action.”

All the June 12 ruling really said was that federal programs must meet the same narrower requirements already established for the states. Some specific programs were challenged, but the court explicitly acknowledged the ongoing existence of racism and sexism and the continued need for remedies. The mainstream press has often been less inclined than the court to acknowledge these realities.

Although most reporting has been more subtle than the New York Post‘s, affirmative action coverage has, with a few exceptions, been marked by inaccurate and misleading language, the absorption of all policy issues into presidential politics and the tendency to portray what is, after all, a question of past and continued discrimination against women and people of color as most importantly the concern of white men.

Terms of Debate

“Affirmative action” is the general term applied to a variety of federal, state and private sector programs aimed at achieving racial and gender diversity in the workforce and in education. Affirmative action is surrounded by misconceptions, which its opponents find easy to exploit. But rather than carefully examining–and perhaps defusing–the issue, many in the press have further clouded and inflamed things with misapplied terminology.

The most obvious example is the word “quota.” Quotas are illegal unless imposed by a court, as every relevant Supreme Court ruling since the 1978 Bakke case has made clear. Anyone who has been denied a job through an illegal quota can find a ready remedy in the courts.

But this fact, reiterated in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, hasn’t stopped media outlets from using the hot-button term as shorthand for any and all affirmative action. Not only right-wing papers like the Washington Times, which referred in one news article (1/8/95) to “affirmative action (read: race-based quotas),” but outlets like the New York Times have made this error (7/21/95, 7/22/95).

Some pundits simply disavowed any attempt to correct the record, as when columnist John Leo wrote, “Everyone knows that ‘goals and timetables’ means ‘quotas’ but nobody is supposed to say so out loud.” (U.S. News & World Report, 3/13/95)

No less misleading is the reference to “racial preferences.” This term plays on the idea that affirmative action policies artificially promote some groups over others, without regard to qualifications.

In fact, most affirmative action programs rely on tools like aggressive recruitment and outreach plans to achieve diversity. When set-asides have been used, as with construction contracts, it is because there is proof that qualified applicants have been rejected on the basis of their race. As the law stands now, all federal and state affirmative action programs must establish a record of discrimination–in other words, that it is whites or men that have been receiving “preferences.”

Media’s frequent use of the term “racial preference” also obscures the fact that the policies aim at gender as well as racial equity. The Washington Post (2/23/95), for example, referred matter-of-factly to “the beneficiaries of affirmative action (commonly African Americans),” although most studies, including one by the Labor Department in 1984, indicate that the primary beneficiaries have been white women (Washington Post, 5/31/95).

Crucial Language Choices

Despite the inaccuracy of the term, as Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam pointed out (6/17/95), major media regularly substitute “preferences” for affirmative action. USA Today (7/19/95) refers to “affirmative action, which provides preferences for minorities and women in hiring, contracting and college admissions.” The Sacramento Bee (7/23/95) reported that Clinton “rejected calls…to dismantle affirmative action programs, arguing that racial preferences are fair and do not discriminate against white men.”

But if there’s one thing pollsters have shown, it’s that the language used to talk about diversity programs is crucial. An April survey by Louis Harris and the Feminist Majority Foundation showed that white people make strong distinctions between the terms “affirmative action” and “preferential treatment.” Fifty-five percent of whites think “preferential treatment” means “hiring minorities and women who are not otherwise qualified over qualified white men,” and 47 percent equated it with “reverse discrimination–against white men.”

But only 26 percent of whites accept the claim that “affirmative action” means “giving one race or one group an advantage they don’t deserve”; 71 percent said that it was “making opportunities for everyone, including women and minorities.”

The authors of the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative have based their whole campaign on this linguistic deception. The referendum bans the use of race or sex as criterion for “either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to” anyone doing business with the state.

Eighty-one percent of Californians surveyed in the Harris/Feminist Majority poll said they supported the referendum. But when asked if they would still support the measure if it would “outlaw all affirmative action programs for women and minorities”–which both opponents and proponents think it would–the 81 percent support drops to 29 percent, and opposition rises from 11 percent to 58 percent.

Based on results like these, pollster Harris concluded that “it is not only misleading to use ‘affirmative action’ and ‘preferential treatment’ interchangeably, but it is nothing less than deceitful as well.”

His comments might have been directed at the press, whose misuse of such charged terms not only misrepresents the issue, but also gives a deceptive accounting of public opinion. People may be opposed to “quotas” and “preferential treatment,” while still favoring “affirmative action,” which is reducible to neither.

But leading media seem bent on depicting the nation as hostile to affirmative action. A Time feature (3/20/95) asserted that “the public overwhelmingly wants to get rid of affirmative action.” As “proof,” it cited only an L.A. Times poll (2/21/95) in which 39 percent of respondents said that affirmative action “goes too far.” If 39 percent is an overwhelming majority, then Walter Mondale was our 41st president.

The Real “Wedge Issue”

In their “fallout” coverage after the Adarand v. Pena ruling, the country’s major dailies couldn’t resist the urge to tell the story in terms of what it might mean for Bill Clinton or the Republicans. Comments from presidential contenders Sen. Bob Dole (R.-Kansas) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R.-Texas) got precedence in page one stories, while the responses of, for example, the Congressional Black Caucus or civil rights leaders came further down or on back pages.

The June 13 front-page stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times also managed to omit any exploration of ongoing, present-day racism–which is the real “wedge issue,” and the underlying problem that affirmative action programs, whatever their particular form, attempt to address.

Reporters would not have needed to search very hard for compelling evidence of continued racism. They might have pointed to a 1991 Urban Institute study found that white job-seekers were more than 50 percent more likely to be hired compared to identically qualified blacks. Or surveys that show that a majority of whites still retain cling to negative sterotypes about blacks.

Reporters could have cited many recent examples of corporate racism, like Denny’s excluding black customers as late as 1993, or the major D.C.-area bank that was forced to pay $11 million after being caught “redlining”–denying mortgages to minority neighborhoods.

And on the very day (3/15/95) that Bob Dole claimed that “the American people sense all too clearly that the race-counting game has gone too far,” the Glass Ceiling Commission initiated by his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, released a report that revealed that 97 percent of top managers in the biggest U.S. companies are still white men, and that women and minorities are still disproportionately represented among the working poor. (John Leo dismissed the study as “a wonderful example of desperately rooting around for bad news”–U.S. News & World Report, 6/5/95.)

Such information would have undermined opponents’ claims that affirmative action is no longer necessary and refocused attention on the ongoing problems of discrimination. But confronting the reality of racism and sexism–in other words, considering affirmative action from the point of view of those most directly affected–has not been mass media’s favored approach.

No White Men Need Apply?

In the last congressional election, many mainstream reporters found “angry white men” and their “swing vote” the single most interesting factor, while the non-voting of millions of disgruntled black, Latino and working-class people elicited little interest or concern. Similarly, a number of pundits appear to believe that the most important thing about affirmative action is how white men feel about it.

This skewed focus was epitomized in the Feb. 13 U.S. News & World Report, whose cover asked the absurd question: “Does Affirmative Action Mean…NO WHITE MEN NEED APPLY?”

In the guise of explaining the “sound and fury” around the subject, U.S. News‘ Steven Roberts simply recounted many of the most prejudicial myths about affirmative action. The notion that what’s at issue is “past racism” was flagged in the article’s subhead, which defined the debate as “whether women and minorities still deserve favored treatment.” As evidence that racial minorities are “no longer disadvantaged,” Roberts states that “most of the young people applying for jobs and to colleges today were not even born when legal segregation ended”–the simplistic implication being that any prejudice that might impede minorities’ advancement disappeared with Jim Crow laws.

Then there’s the idea that women and minorities are themselves affirmative action’s staunchest enemies. Polls have repeatedly indicated these groups’ support for the programs (for example, the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, in Public Perspective, 6-7/95). But Roberts cites instead conservatives Thomas Sowell and Linda Chavez (described as “a Hispanic activist,” not as a former Reagan speechwriter) who claims, without evidence, that going to university on an affirmative action program is a “very disheartening experience” for young people.

Roberts also trots out the familiar accusation that the “civil rights lobby” has suppressed any discussion of the topic; an unidentified congressmember claims, “The problem is political correctness–you can’t talk openly.” Later, however, we’re told that critics of affirmative action “control the key committees and the congressional calendar.”

Comparatively little consideration is given to the arguments of affirmative action’s proponents. And Roberts can hardly contain his wink to the reader as he says that the job of these proponents is “to debunk the ‘myth’ that unqualified women and minorities are being hired in large numbers.” If Roberts has proof that, in fact, “large numbers” of “unqualified” women and minorities are getting jobs they don’t deserve, he doesn’t provide it.

A vivid demonstration of U.S. News‘ confusion between unsupported rhetoric about “reverse discrimination” and the realities of racism is the graphic that accompanies the story. In the drawing, a ladder descends to earth, shaped like a large hand, the stars and stripes on the sleeve indicating that it depicts a “helping hand” from Uncle Sam. While black men and white and black women climb the proffered ladder, a white man is left grounded, separated from the “ladder of opportunity” by a gaping abyss.

The image of “the white man left behind” is repeated on the following pages, juxtaposed, ironically enough, with statistical charts indicating white men’s continued dominance of the job market, and their utter outstripping of all other groups in terms of wages. Black men make, on average, 74 percent of what white men make; white women 70.8 percent. For black women, the figure is 63.7 percent; for Latino men and women, 64.8 percent and 53.9 percent, respectively. It’s hard to believe that no one at U.S. News noticed the obvious contradiction between the illustration’s message and the reality presented in the facts and figures.

Affirmative action is undoubtedly a politicized issue, with leading politicians vying to see who will come out firmest against it, or, alternately, who can support it most restrainedly. But covering the issue primarily as “a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail,” as Time did in its March 20 feature, often means that deeper questions about the effects of the policies on people’s lives go unexplored.

Newsweek‘s Joe Klein subsumed the issue almost completely to party politics; his June 26 column warned Clinton that “race” itself “could wreck his presidency.” Klein exhorts the president to “tell blacks that government can’t cure racism” or “force integration.” But what affirmative action proponent claims that the policies “cure racism”? And why should anti-discrimination policies’ inability to “force integration” be an argument for their elimination?

Klein’s motives are revealed when he explains why white people ought to care about opportunity for minorities: It’s all those “alienated fatherless children creating havoc in the streets,” he warns: “The chaos they cause could destroy this country.” Naturally, the first thing Klein recommends whites do “for” blacks is to “spend more on policing.”


Columnists like Joe Klein claim that they are vehemently opposed to affirmative action only because of their longheld beliefs in a “merit-based” society. Pundits who’ve never used the word “class” except pejoratively now claim that their problem with affirmative action is that it doesn’t “fix class disparities.” And columnists whose concern for the advancement of black people has been heretofore undetectable are now desperately troubled by the “stigma” affirmative action purportedly attaches to its beneficiaries.

Indeed, the mainstream press is overflowing with earnest calls for “colorblindness” from the likes of U.S. News‘ John Leo (2/13/95) and the Washington Times‘ Wesley Pruden (2/28/95), disingenuously invoking the memory of Martin Luther King. But anyone who reads these columnists knows that while they’re outraged by the tiny incidence of “reverse discrimination” (less than 3 percent of federal job discrimination complaints are made by white men), rampant examples of plain old discrimination scarcely register with them.

In a December 1994 column, for example, James J. Kilpatrick bemoaned “the racism in reverse that has done such fearful damage” to our society (Baltimore Sun, 12/9/94). This is the same James J. Kilpatrick who in the 1950s and ’60s fiercely fought school desegregation and wrote, as recalled in Z (5/95), that “in terms of values that last, and mean something, and excite universal admiration and respect, what has man gained from the history of the Negro race? The answer, alas, is ‘virtually nothing.'” Why on earth should we credit calls for “equality” from people like this?

The anti-affirmative action pundits’ disingenousness is most glaringly obvious from their failure to support any concrete method of actually achieving the equality of opportunity they claim is their ideal. If the goal were really a “level playing field,” would the elimination of anti-discrimination programs really be the first step–more important than substantial investment in public education, or health care, or urban infrastructure?

Yet pundits like New Republic managing editor Andrew Sullivan (New York Times op-ed, 7/23/95) throw in such recommendations–which would be monumental if intended seriously–at the end or in the margins of their diatribes against any form of anti-discrimination policy organized around race or gender.

At this argument’s most perverse, support for affirmative action is actually equated with racism, as when James Pinkerton, in the “Column Right” section of the Los Angeles Times (1/19/95), argued that “those who…have emphasized racial categories at the expense of colorblindness must bear some responsibility for legitimizing the racially categorizing thinking that results. One such result is The Bell Curve.”

In other words, arguing that blacks and other minorities are systematically discriminated against is the same as saying they’re genetically inferior. Big Brother would be proud.