Ask the White Guy: Racism and Affirmative Action—Why White Victims Are the Key to the Solution

DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti thinks affirmative action is going to be killed by the Supreme Court—and explains why white people as victims are central to finding a solution.

DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti thinks affirmative action is going to be killed by the Supreme Court—and explains why white people as victims are central to finding a solution.

Affirmative Action: Why White Victims Are the Key to the Solution


I would love to see your response to this article, A New Kind of Affirmative Action Can Ensure Diversity. You always have powerful, well researched insights. My thoughts are these:

• I appreciate the author’s efforts to address the reality of economic disadvantage.

• Just because racial discrimination, racial disadvantage and affirmative efforts to address those issues make the author uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean ignoring racial disadvantage and eliminating all race-aware selection processes make for good public policy.

• Today’s greatest racial disadvantages come not from the type of overt racism that is subject to legal actions and protections, but from micro-inequities, the insult of low expectations and other subtle forms of discrimination. These subtle but very damaging forces cannot be curtailed by enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, as the author suggests.

This is an outstanding question, one I’ve been giving a lot of thought to.

I think we need to face the reality that affirmative action as we know it is going away, almost certainly with the pending Supreme Court decision. I’m writing this as a proponent of affirmative action, so bear with me.

There are legal arguments for and against affirmative action, but the emotional argument always has an influence. Since 2004, I’ve perceived a decrease in public support of affirmative action, and polls back up my perception. The Supreme Court in 2004 was arguably more liberal—but most people don’t know that the justice widely perceived as having saved affirmative action, Sandra Day O’Connor, had a horrible (from my perspective) record on decisions based on race. So as good as we thought we had it then (and it wasn’t so good), I think it’s worse now. Further, the Millennial generation is firmly against affirmative action, including well over 40 percent of Black and Latino students.

With that reality, I think those of us who see affirmative action as our chief viable solution to social injustice must adjust. We’re a business publication, so I’m going to make the case why this is a pressing business concern later in this column. But first, let’s address the problem. I have a combined total of 21 years of board experience among Bennett College (historically Black), New Jersey City University (Hispanic serving) and Rutgers University, where I chair the fundraising committee for Rutgers Future Scholars. I focus all of my board work on enabling poor students to attain the education their potential shows they can attain. I’ve endowed scholarships at all three schools and have donated roughly $750,000 since 2006. Here’s what I see:

In my opinion, today’s greatest racial discrimination is economically based. Pew Research Center analysis shows that Black and Latino households were dramatically and disproportionately clobbered in this subprime crisis and subsequent recession. Unemployment rates show the same bias. The prison-industrial complex feeds on poor people and is part of the depressive economic cycle for Blacks and Latinos. Our country imprisons people at by far the highest per-capita rate in the world; 58 percent of prisoners are Black and Latino. Our four-decade-old “war on drugs” is supported by the people who make money off it—nobody wages a war for 40 years unless they’re winning it. In my opinion, our president made a huge mistake in ending No Child Left Behind.

I’ve heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak several times and he frankly makes no sense to me; it’s as if he digs up every non-fact and cliché and strings them together. (Here’s a transcript of his latest speech.) His position is passive—what we should do—as if he just arrived on the scene. The fact is that our public schools do a criminally poor job. I find it amazing to be asked to speak at dozens of economic-development events where people from cities with shrinking or stagnant economies wring their hands—yet are able to segregate their school systems into successful/white and criminally negligent/Black and Latino districts. Then they ask me for advice on how to lure companies to their employee-desert brown fields. Please.

In short, there are economic forces that benefit by crushing Black and Latino households. This is no micro-inequity, unless you would describe being sucker-punched by Sonny Liston in his prime as “subtle.”

But this is impacting more than just Black and Latino households. In today’s New York Times, there is an article about the national declining standard of living. According to the Times, “By last year, family income was 8 percent lower than it had been 11 years earlier, at its peak in 2000, according to inflation-adjusted numbers from the Census Bureau. On average in 11-year periods in the decades just after World War II, inflation-adjusted median income rose by almost 30 percent.” That’s a lot of white people being ground up by the same forces. To quote Frederick Douglass: “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

On to the compelling interest for corporate decision makers: The combination of forces behind economic discrimination is destroying this “recovery.” There are millions of jobs open—and many more millions of unemployed people who are incapable of filling these jobs because they are not prepared. The negative cycle of decreasing household wealth, incompetent schools and predation by the prison-industrial complex is attacking our country’s consumer base AND talent pool.

We must wage a war on poverty and we can’t wait for the government to lead the way. Corporations can be convinced to do what’s good for them and take the problem firmly in hand by forcing school systems to stop gerrymandering proper education standards. My experience is that progressive companies are increasingly interested in building their own pipelines, so they can convince the schools they recruit from to start using the Rutgers Future Scholars model (or something like it). The reason is simple: People are created equally, therefore talent is distributed equally, and if you subvert the potential of groups of people, companies cannot possibly recruit the best and brightest—much less expect to sell to them. The fact that racially based economic discrimination has now ensnared a growing group of white people enables us to build some force behind this effort. It’s distasteful but true—by including white people, you can disarm the bigots who have been whipping up a portion of our electorate for the past six years by appealing to overt bigotry. You also appeal to people of every group, especially the Millennial generation that is far more progressive than older generations but ironically is at the tipping point of ending affirmative action; these people grew up watching injustice on YouTube and are far better connected than my generation could ever hope to be.

Here’s your hope for the future: Undergraduates at Rutgers can apply for a for-credit course to be a mentor in the Rutgers Future Scholars program. There are 10 times the number of students (representationally white, by the way) wanting to be mentors than there are spots available—and we have 1,000 middle- and high-school students in the program to mentor.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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  • Mary Balboni

    I am second generation legal immigrant from Italy – my family came to this country dirt poor, and we have experienced no affirmative actions. Hard work, education, speaking the language, not asking for handouts, not demanding anything in return because this great country gave opportunities if you work for them. That is how our family survived and have made reasonable livings. Now in this generation we have some members having children with Black partners, whose children are on welfare. First time in our family history in America, and my Father, if he were alive, would be so ashamed. However, we now have members in our family that spend their time finding out what more they can get for free because they think they deserve it. I am ashamed. We came to America to work and thrive. We did not teach this to our family. It will benefit everyone if we all went back to virtues of working hard and getting education and speaking this country’s language. And not taking and expecting privileges.

    • Luke Visconti

      On this, you and I completely agree, although I would say you’re a little nostalgic for something that really hasn’t changed much. Today is no different than 100 years ago: Successful immigrants learn English quickly—second generation is English dominant, third generation is almost nothing but English. However, not all can learn other languages easily. (I sure can’t—I’d have a hard time if I had to move to Mexico and try to start from scratch to make a living.) I’ve seen research that shows that teaching English first in school is far more important than teaching academics in the native language. What we needed in this presidential campaign was for one of the two candidates to channel John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Instead, we got one guy telling us what he was going to do for rich people and another guy telling us why the first guy was wrong. No vision, no clarity, no LEADERSHIP. Just great. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Mary, it is one thing you do not understand. Even if your former generations came here dirt poor, they are still white Europeans. In this country, the only immigrants that most are talking about are not from Italy or any European country. They come from countries where the people are a little browner.
      I think I know more Black people than you, since I am Black. None of them are on welfare!! Eating is not a privilege!!

    • I just want to point out that in America, non-Black immigrants have the benefit of skin color on their side. I’m not making any excuses for the actions of some of my ignorant brothers and sisters out there; for I believe that no matter what your circumstance is, you should know better once you reach a certain age.

      However, I can say from experience that even when you do the right things, you tend to have to work harder just to prove you are worthy. Now that may be a misconception on my part. But it seems to me that I’m always fighting for equal pay and treatment among my colleagues, even when I have more education, experience, and expertise than my white male and female counterparts.

      I can’t blame that all on the companies. However, I think Black candidates tend to shy away from negotiating higher salaries for fear of loosing the opportunity. It’s something we learn from our parents. We sell ourselves short because we were taught from an early age that America is not fair and we can expect to be paid less.

      Back to this affirmative action deal. I think it was necessary when created, but does little to help today. Companies will find a way around it. My last company filled their quota by hiring Blacks into a lot of lower paying positions (ie. call center, admin). At one point, I was the only Black developer on a project that had about 500 people on it. At the higher levels (ie. IT, Finance, etc), they filled their quotas with Indian employees.

      So if companies and schools can develop a way to make things better, I’m all for it. But keep in mind that people will be people. Everyone has their biases that they carry with them everywhere, even to work. However, I think that with each generation comes new clarity and sensitivity. And the internet has given us the ability to hold companies with unfair practices accountable. Just ask the leaders of any company that’s had a boycott that originated online. They will tell that fairness matters and the public will be the judges of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

  • Luke, there is one area of affirmative action that I really would like to see ended and that is legacy admissions to colleges. It is not fair and it is discriminatory for the child of a graduate to get into that same college ahead of better qualified applicants. Since blacks were not allowed to enter most colleges in the U.S. for centuries, legacy admissions are affirmative action for whites as they perpetuate historical bias. My question, why aren’t the foes of affirmative action, who file suits about college admissions using race as a factor, why aren’t they filing suit against legacy admissions?

    • Luke Visconti

      Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Golden wrote a great book about this, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, which I’ve read and recommend. You will never beat an Ivy League school in a lawsuit; the main reason is that they have too much money to spend on lawyers and too many high-profile graduates. They protect their own. Think about it: The Ivys have trillions tied up in endowments and pay no taxes on their investment income. The fact is that all private colleges and universities (and all not-for-profits, for that matter) are supported by the taxpayer because we have to make up the difference in taxes to support the services they consume. It is beyond my understanding why everyone doesn’t pay taxes on income. I also think it should be illegal for any school to consider standardized tests, which have been proven to be biased against poor people. There are studies that have measured SAT scores as correlating to one thing only—family household income. It is preparation that determines SAT scores, not intelligence. (And before I get the same cranky people commenting that their parents forced them to study by candlelight, PLEASE don’t tell me about your exception that proves the rule.) Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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