An Anthropologist's Perspective on Affirmative Action Is Different from a Historian's

Roundup: Historians' Take

Melvin Konner, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Jan. 19, 2004):

Anthropologists take the long view.

For instance, when we hear historians say "ancient," we smile a bit indulgently and say "recent," as in "the recent invention of agriculture" --- by which we mean 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. This event may be twice as old as recorded history, or for that matter twice the age of the Creation according to biblical legend, but it is quite recent to us.

As for historians' use of the word "origins" to refer to something that happened only two or three centuries ago, they might as well be talking about last week.

It is often instructive to look at current events in this perspective. For instance, there is a common notion that affirmative action has been tried and has not succeeded. Or that it has succeeded --- quite implausible, given the ongoing gross inequalities in jobs, education, health and criminal justice. In either case, it is argued, we should now move on.

Affirmative action has been tried? In less than 30 years of clumsy official programs, carried out in a context of ongoing informal bigotry? That isn't "tried." That is barely a dry run, a pilot program, a half-hearted swipe at a try. Considered against the background of even a few centuries of African-American history, to call this a try is an insult to even a historian's patience, and to almost anyone's intelligence.

A single generation has grown up under this plan. We have not even been able to see what they will do. But how long do we need to wait? How will we know when a try has indeed been made? When can we, in all honesty, say, "Fair is fair, but it's done now," or "I guess that wasn't such a good idea"?

Try this.

The first African-American slaves were imported to the Virginia colony in 1618. The slaves remaining in captivity were freed, sort of, by a reluctant President Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was certainly an important recent (very recent) step in the real emancipation of African-Americans. But it was not affirmative action. One could reasonably date affirmative action, in the legal sense, from a Supreme Court case in 1971 or from the Equal Employment Act of 1972.

Now, there is no real symmetry here, since obviously slavery was far more of a burden than affirmative action could ever be a boost. But for the sake of comity and closure, we could ask African-Americans to pretend, with us, that such symmetry exists. On this account we have presently completed 32 or 33 years of a 245-year test.

Considering that we are only a bit over 10 percent into this assessment, affirmative action has not done badly.

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