Color Still Holds People Back

Marge is 38 and has four children, the oldest is in the Air Force. Over the years, she's had a variety of jobs, everything from baby sitting to janitorial work. The job she liked best was that of a housekeeper at an upscale hotel in her hometown. Permanently laid off after Sept. 11, 2001, she misses that job. "I liked the work. It's easy; I was comfortable with it. I have four kids; I'm used to housekeeping!"

Interviewed in the food pantry waiting room, Marge explained how hard she worked to get that job. She filled out seven applications but was never contacted. Finally, a friend employed by the hotel called her, saying, "Someone didn't show up for work today -- I told them you were a hard worker! Get in here fast!" Marge caught a bus to the hotel, filled out her eighth application, and began work that very day.

She thinks it's typical of the area she lives in -- if you are a person of color you have to know someone to get a job.

Shirley believes the same thing. She and her husband are an interracial couple and her husband has been having trouble finding work. When they lived in a shoreline resort community, the situation was different, she said. The community had an international feel with great diversity of people and her African-American husband was busily employed remodeling homes.

They moved to the northeast because of her mother's declining health and he hasn't been able to find steady employment since then. During good weather, he's been able to get some landscaping work but, during the winter, she brags, "He's a good househusband!"

It's the stereotypes that are holding them back, Shirley thinks. What kind of a place is it where a hard working person can't get a job because the employer makes decisions based on racial stereotypes?

Fifty-four percent of Americans, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, agree that America shouldn't be that kind of place. They support affirmative action programs in employment and educational settings -- up 13% from just five years ago. Only 37% percent of Americans oppose affirmative action -- and that number is down 10% from 1998.

Unfortunately, in that 37% reside some very influential people -- the president of the United States, for example. George W. Bush, on Jan. 16, announced that his administration would support the Supreme Court challenge to the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions policy. The university uses a point system for admissions and being African American earns applicants a specific number of points. Three Euro-American applicants have filed the case against the university, saying they were denied admissions because the system gives preferences based on race. The president agrees, claiming that the university's system is unconstitutional.

The heart of affirmative action lies in the 1965 actions of another president, Lyndon B. Johnson. He introduced the program as a way of addressing discrimination that lingered long after civil rights laws were passed. Of a four-century history in the United States, African Americans spent almost 250 years in slavery and another hundred years in legalized discrimination. Affirmative action was Johnson's way of trying to redress the wrongs of the past and prepare the nation for a future of equality where the American Dream would be available to everyone.

In the four decades since Johnson's time, affirmative action has increased opportunities for many people to realize that dream through education and employment. While legalized discrimination died decades ago, racism still lives on. We can see it in the growth of Klan groups, Neo-Nazi groups and hate crimes. (See The affirmative action programs have stood as a continuing attempt to defeat discrimination among those who have not yet understood that racism is not a part of The American Dream.

In that time, affirmative action has also raised criticism that opportunities given to African Americans were being taken away from Euro Americans. Emotive terms like "reverse discrimination," "quotas," and "preferences" were aimed at affirmative action and the program was accused of giving preferential treatment to people with lower qualifications simply because of their race. Attempts have been made to dismantle the program and the University of Michigan case will most likely be an arena for heightened reactionary rhetoric.

However, the 54% majority of Americans won't be silent, either. "Angry White Guys for Affirmative Action" marched on Washington on April 1 -- the date the Supreme Court heard the case -- to support the University of Michigan's admissions policy. They claim the first affirmative action program was actually the college draft deferment that many Euro-American men received during the Vietnam conflict -- and that federal programs supporting home ownership are also affirmative action programs that primarily benefit Euro Americans. (See

Whatever decision the Supreme Court makes, disagreements about affirmative action will probably continue. Those who believe in Johnson's hope of equality in education and employment will continue to support the program. Those who fear that they will lose something of their own with the expansion of opportunities for others will continue to denounce it and work for its dismantling. The president's participation in the Supreme Court case will make sure that affirmative action is a political topic of discussion for some time to come.

Meanwhile, as the words fly, people like Marge and her four children, Shirley and her husband, will try to get jobs. Once a month, they will pick up three days' worth of food at the food pantry. And they will continue to believe that if it wasn't for the color of their skin, they would have a job, earn a living, and be building the American Dream.

This is the third in a series of articles on how domestic programs affect the American Dream of finding meaningful work and earning a living wage. Perry, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, is a United Methodist minister in Central Pennsylvania. Email her at

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