The word affirmation is grounded in a metaphor of stability, and it denotes a further (and therefore stabilizing) attestation that some previous assertion is true. In the liturgy of most Christian churches, for instance, a recitation of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed is called an “affirmation of faith.” The faithful are saying “Yup, our faith is firm. We still believe this Sunday what we believed last Sunday.”
An affirmative action is an act that attests to the truth of something previously asserted. If I tell my wife that I love her, performance of some loving act (such as cleaning the garage) would be an affirmative action. If I tell her I am sorry, some penitent restitution (such as cleaning the garage) would be an affirmative action. The act in either case adds weight to my words, and thus goes some way towards easing my wife’s natural dubiety.
It is therefore reasonable to ask what prior assertion we affirm by the programs and policies called “affirmative action.” We have seen that an affirmative action attest to the truth of some prior assertion, and so ask what prior assertion is affirmed when we give women and minorities advantages in enrollment, employment and awarding of government contracts.
If I give a fat man a head start in a footrace, it is because I wish to spare him the humiliation of being “beaten by a mile.” I may also wish to make it a real race, and give myself some competition, but my main motive is a charitable regard for the feelings of the fat man. The uncharitable and no doubt unspoken assertion affirmed by my act is, however, “Ted is a lumbering lard bucket who doesn’t stand a chance without a half-mile head start.” This may be why the promise of a long head start so seldom induces Ted to enter a footrace.
If I feign injury midway through a footrace, and allow another man to win, and do this because, say, I feel guilty about stealing that man’s girlfriend, I act out of contrition. I give that man the victory as restitution for the girlfriend, and thereby affirm the assertion (again unspoken) that “I am a dirty scoundrel who doesn’t deserve to win, and who must, in any case, pay for his crime.”
The American credo that we affirm with affirmative action is, obviously, the assertion that “white men are dirty scoundrels who don’t deserve to win, and who must, in any case, pay for their crimes.”
Curiously, only poor white men end up paying the price of these crimes. That is to say, the poorest white male students who would otherwise have been admitted to college, the poorest white male applicants who would otherwise have been given a job, and the poorest white male businessmen who would otherwise have been awarded a contract. The best white men appear to bear no taint of the scoundrel, because they certainly do not paid a dime in restitution.
This suggests the need for a refinement of the assertion that is implicitly affirmed by affirmative action. This is our American credo, and simple honesty requires that we teach it to our children and recite it three times daily, before sitting down to breakfast.
“Poor white men are dirty scoundrels who don’t deserve to win, and who must, in any case, pay for the crimes of powerful white men.”