Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What's wrong with affirmative action -- and why we need it

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
October 13, 2012 -- Updated 1530 GMT (2330 HKT)
A supporter of affirmative action in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.
A supporter of affirmative action in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson: A lot of black professionals -- like me -- don't like affirmative action
  • Why? Because some whites think we got our jobs solely because of our race, he says
  • "Some think the word diversity is a euphemism for 'anything but white,' but I don't," he says
  • Granderson: The reasons for affirmative action's creation are still with us, so we still need it

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- If I had a nickel each time a white guy e-mails or tweets that I have my job because I'm black, I wouldn't need the job, because I'd be rich.

This is at the heart of a little talked about secret regarding affirmative action: A lot of black professionals don't like it either. Not because they think the playing field is necessarily leveled, but rather their skills and talents are constantly being slighted by whites who think their jobs were given to them solely because of their race.

It's insulting, it's demeaning and there's not a damn thing we can do about it, because as long as race is part of the qualification metric, the perception that the bar was lowered so that we could jump over it will persist.

There are voters who think President Obama's success came easy because of affirmative action, overlooking the fact he's brilliant and oh, by the way, he and the first lady were still paying off their student loans 10 years ago. I can tell you from experience, there is nothing "easy" about paying back student loans.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

Yes, there is an inherent hypocrisy of having such a policy in a post civil-rights world. But it is cynical to think we're a post-racial society just because we have a black president.

Should affirmative action still exist?

That's not to characterize all that befalls blacks and other minorities as "the man" holding us down, but rather recognizing a freight train doesn't stop the instant the brakes are applied. Racial inequality had been moving full steam ahead for centuries in this country, starting with the attempted genocide of Native Americans. So while our present-day attitudes about race are changed, the byproducts stemming from our past attitudes -- like access to a quality education and the impact of generational poverty -- are still very much at play.

Opinion: Keep affirmative action but reform it

SCOTUS to hear affirmative action case
Is affirmative action constitutional?
SCOTUS to hear affirmative action case

Talking about this and other topics related to race doesn't make one a racist. But denying its relevance in everyday life has the potential to hurt everyone. For example, the Florida State Board of Education has recently come under fire because the academic achievement goals it set for minority students appear to be lower than the ones set for white students. By the 2017-18 school year, the board wants to have 88% of white students at or above the grade level benchmark for reading but only 81% of Latinos and 74% of blacks.

The reason: the disparity in the current reading level. While 69% of whites reach that mark now, only 53% of Latinos and just 38% of blacks do. That's a problem, not only in terms of students' ability to get into college, but just having a workforce in the state that is literate. So though the percentages of the 2017-18 goals seem biased in favor of whites, the percentage increase seeks to aggressively address a major reading problem plaguing minorities.

This isn't racist. This is recognizing that if this racial disparity goes unchecked, it could have debilitating long-term effects on Florida's economy.

Some think the word diversity is a euphemism for "anything but white," but I don't. I believe in the diversity of thought, which sometimes can play out racially, but not always. Having people from different geographic locations can introduce different insight and talent to a college campus or workforce, and variations of socioeconomic status bring in diversity as well.

But don't be mistaken, race is important.

One of the elements of the infamous "47%" video that didn't get talked about a lot was Mitt Romney's joke that if he had Mexican heritage, he'd have "a better shot" at winning the election. That joke was followed by a comment from someone in the crowd who suggested Romney could claim to have some Native American heritage like Elizabeth Warren, to get a leg up. In what socioeconomic metric is there a quantifiable advantage to being Mexican or Native American in this country?

The outcry about the push for diversity in the workplace and in college admissions would lead you to believe we're overcompensating for the sins of the past. But look around: Does it really look as if the populations with the highest poverty rate -- blacks, Latinos and Native Americans -- are just cleaning up in the game of life?

5 things to know about affirmative action

True, there are certainly examples of unqualified or incompetent employees being placed in positions they shouldn't be because of flawed decision making from white superiors trying to be compliant with their HR department. However, that's not what affirmative action was designed to do.

Take my profession, for example.

According to an American Society of News Editors study, minorities make up 12.3% of newspaper staffs and 16.4% of online-only news staffs despite being a third of the general population. Similarly the National Association of Black Journalists released a study last month that found minorities filled 12% of the newsroom managerial positions at 295 stations owned by 19 media conglomerates.

So I ask you, if the so-called liberal media struggles to employ diversity that's representative of the people -- and it has affirmative action policies in place -- what makes us think completely removing such initiatives is going to improve the situation?

I do not like affirmative action in its current incarnation, and I think a lot of us can agree the flaws need to be addressed. But in this conversation, let's not pretend the reasons why it was created in the first place are no longer around.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT