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The Urgency and the Limits of Affirmative Action
by Kate Kinkade, Laura Pulido and Rita Burgos

We'd like to state up front our unwavering commitment to affirmative action. We support it because affirmative action serves as a historical reminder of how the U.S. is built on racism and patriarchy. Accordingly, the struggle for affirmative action is a contest over historical memory. Affirmative action is also crucial because it sets boundaries for racist thought and practice. Without it, the political right would have even greater space. Finally, affirmative action is still very much needed because of ongoing discrimination against all women and people of color.

Despite our commitment, we want to address two specific problems. First, current support for affirmative action is not sufficiently critical of the policy's limitations. The fact is, affirmative action has been inconsequential for certain groups. This is due to affirmative action's inability to address structural inequalities and its emphasis on individual benefits. The second, but related, problem is that the beneficiaries and politics of affirmative action have only limited links to a larger Left movement, thus precluding the radicalization of affirmative action. These problems can best be understood within the context of women of color.

Women of color are marginal to affirmative action both in terms of the discourse and as beneficiaries. For one, the practice of coding the category "minority" as male and "woman" as white excludes women of color from the political discourse. Indeed, some liberals have argued that affirmative action should be portrayed as a "woman's issue," thereby discarding any "racial" baggage that might further derail existing programs. Such debates not only reveal the limited political scope of affirmative action, but they further erase women of color.

Women of color, particularly Latinas and other immigrant women, have scarcely benefited from affirmative action. Because beneficiaries are circumscribed by race/ethnicity and social class, white women have benefited most. For example, between 1960 and 1990, women tripled their share of professional and administrative jobs. We now comprise 40 percent of all such workers. But while black women have also benefited minimally--they went from less than 1 percent of all administrative jobs to 3.1 percent--the fact remains that their biggest gains were in clerical positions. The situation is even worse for Latinas. Latinas are the most overrepresented among low-wage service workers and hold a full 32 percent of all household cleaning jobs. Indeed, affirmative action has been underwhelming for most non-whites. Consider that in 1990 California whites comprised 57 percent of the population but held 75.3 percent of all managerial and professional jobs, despite the existence of affirmative action.

Such uneven patterns raise important political lessons. For one, although a few individuals may benefit, the structural oppression of women of color is such that their collective lot will not be improved by affirmative action. While white women, because of their race and higher levels of education, were poised to take advantage of affirmative action, many women of color are so utterly marginalized that affirmative action is not even a possibility for them. In order to take advantage of affirmative action one must have the necessary requisites to participate in the formal labor market. Obstacles such as immigration status, limited formal education and English fluency, poverty, patriarchy at home and beyond, plus childcare responsibilities, all lead to a "hypermargin-alization" that preclude many women of color from actively supporting affirmative action.

The oppression of women of color derives from capital, the state, and sexism in both dominant and minority cultures. Indeed, the gendered nature of structural processes can be seen in the increasing economic integration of women of color. For instance, the growing presence of Latinas and Asian women in the garment and semi-conductor industries--an example of the feminization of industry--can hardly be characterized as "progress." By providing low wages and deplorable working conditions, capital is exploiting racial and gender inequalities and reproducing them through the division of labor.

Given these realities, we must question the individual nature of affirmative action benefits. Moreover, we must recall that affirmative action was initially a compromise solution supported by a bourgeois civil rights movement: It was never intended to promote structural transformations, yet this is what the plight of women of color requires. For this reason, while we support affirmative action, we see it as a very complicated political issue.

Current affirmative action debates do not adequately address these issues. Nevertheless, as long as affirmative action is divorced from both a class analysis and a Left social movement, women of color will never fully benefit from affirmative action. We must recognize that the gender and racial oppression of women of color is mediated through their class position, something both white women and the black and brown bourgeois hesitate to do. We must expand the horizons of affirmative action to include radical structural demands. Such a reconceptualization could result, for example, in an affirmative action agenda that includes expanded educational opportunities--not just the demand for greater inclusion, but a real expansion with an emphasis on the educational needs of low-income folks. Likewise, raising the minimum wage and unionization should be a central part of the affirmative action agenda. In fact, increased economic security is probably the single most important step towards ensuring that women of color are positioned to take advantage of educational and workplace affirmative action opportunities.

Unfortunately, in the current political landscape such linkages are not being made. Far too many affirmative action supporters are caught up in a narrow gender and racial/ethnic politics, ignoring the class-based nature of affirmative action. Thus privileged white women and minority beneficiaries of affirmative action act solely on the basis of individual self-interest, failing to recognize the larger class and race dynamics which led them to their positions. Clearly, there is a need for a Left movement, one that will drive the demand for such changes, provide an alternative political vision, and bring to bear the pressure of a mass movement on the existing power structure.

is a founding member of the Strategy Center and a member of the editorial board of AhoraNow. Es propietaria de una agencia de seguros y editora de una publicación para comerciantes de seguros.

is author ofEnvironmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest (University of Arizona Press, 1996), available in English from Strategy Center Publications. Es profesora auxiliar de Geografía en USC y miembra del Consejo Editorial de Ahora Now.

is an organizer with the Strategy Center andCoordinator of the School for Organizers.She is co-author of A History of Transportation Racism in Los Angeles , coming soon from Strategy CenterPublications. Participa en el movimiento feminil del Tercer Mundo.