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Myth: Affirmative Action Disregards Low-Income Persons

Laura M. Padilla
excerpted from: Laura M. Padilla, Intersectionality And Positionality: Situating Women of Color in The Affirmative Action Dialogue, 66 Fordham Law Review 843, 853-885 (December, 1997)(432 footnotes omitted)
The fifth and final myth which I explore is that affirmative action benefits only middle-income beneficiaries to the exclusion of lower-income persons. Critics who make this claim argue that affirmative action is therefore defective and should be abolished. One fallacy underlying this myth is that even if many current affirmative action beneficiaries are from middle- class families, that was not the case at the dawn of affirmative action.
The world in which affirmative action policies were initiated was a world in which a great many prestigious institutions had been exclusive enclaves of upper-class white men. It was also a world where the trades or the skilled blue-collar professions were predominantly the preserve of white working- class men. Even a moderate opening up of these domains to people excluded from throughout history, a process in which affirmative action policies have played a crucial causal role, is arguably an important change in the structural status quo.
In all likelihood, many of today's middle-class women of color are middle- class precisely because of affirmative action. Furthermore, while a larger percentage of middle-income than lower-income persons benefits from affirmative action, that does not mean affirmative action is ineffective. "Affirmative action was never intended to serve as a direct anti-poverty program. To rely on affirmative action alone--or even primarily--to solve the black community's problems would be as unrealistic as relying on black neighborhood self-help programs alone."
Generally fewer lower-income persons than middle- and upper-income persons pursue higher education or become white collar professionals for many reasons other than affirmative action. It is for complex and inter-related social, economic, political, and educational reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. But briefly, the economic class breakdown of affirmative action beneficiaries is attributable primarily to systematic factors that favor the success of middle-income persons over lower-income persons generally. For example, middle- and upper-income persons are more likely to be part of two-parent families than are lower-income persons. Two-parent families, in turn, are more likely to provide a greater support system for their children, ranging from more time with them, to greater resources if both parents work. Those resources could include tutors, computers, and extracurricular activities that enhance educational opportunities. Also, children from lower-income families have lower graduation rates than children from middle-income families. That is not surprising, considering that "[t]he children and grandchildren of dropouts tend to have less intellectual stimulation at home and no role models upon which to base their attitude toward education."
Even acknowledging the distribution of affirmative action beneficiaries by economic status, one should not jump to the conclusion that lower-income persons do not benefit from affirmative action. They directly benefit from affirmative action vis-a-vis college and graduate school admissions, as well as through employment or receipt of contracts. They indirectly benefit from affirmative action in other ways. For example, many direct affirmative action beneficiaries serve low-income persons of color. "Black and Hispanic physicians serve proportionally more minority and poor patients than white doctors do . . . ." In addition, as women of color move up the economic ladder, they are more likely to become advocates for women of color lower down the ladder. Dean Paul Brest and Miranda Oshige describe this multiplier effect as follows:
[A group member's] rise may benefit members of her group and may reduce outsiders' prejudice against group members. Her material success may enable her to support group-related institutions. Her access to power may enable her to promote or protect the interests of other group members. She may serve as an example or inspiration for young members and thus encourage their pursuit of higher education and professional career paths. . . [thus,] a rise in [her] status may have a multiplier effect, creating external benefits for other, less advantaged members of her group.
Another problem with the criticism that affirmative action should do less for middle-income persons and more for low-income persons is that it simplistically ignores the confluence of class, race, and gender. The criticism presupposes that if a woman of color is middle- or upper-income, then she does not experience discrimination and thus should not benefit from affirmative action. But the reality is that one's ethnicity and gender do not go away, regardless of economic class. Ethnicity and gender are integral to identity and often times are apparent when class is not. Thus, it is possible for Patricia Williams, an African-American law professor, to be refused entrance at a clothing shop. In a similar vein, Patti Chavarria, a Latina lawyer at a prominent San Diego law firm, went to sign in at court and was told by a male bailiff that only attorneys can sign in. Even Oprah Winfrey, one of the wealthiest Americans (no, not women, not African- Americans, but Americans), has been refused entrance to a Manhattan boutique. Granted, that was when she was only making $8 million a year. Finally, virtually every female of color is at a disadvantage when purchasing a car, regardless of her economic status.
In all of these cases of discrimination, class was irrelevant but race and gender were not. Rather than looking at the economic class of women of color, it is more logical to look at whether women of color, who have traditionally been subordinated and marginalized, are still disproportionately underrepresented in higher education, the legal academy, and government contracting. If the answer is yes, then it is desirable to alter the mechanics which cause that underrepresentation. It is not essential that representation come only, or even primarily, from lower-income members of those groups. It is more important to utilize affirmative action to get women of color in the door. Once there, they can work with others to ensure representation of women of color more generally. With more women of color in positions of power, then discriminatory incidents against women of color like those described in this section will decline. Thus, affirmative action is still needed to get women of color into those positions.

In summary. this part has explored five common myths which surround affirmative action: the double-dipping myth, the merit myth, the perpetrator- victim myth, the stigma myth, and the myth that affirmative action ignores low- income persons. This exploration has exposed these myths to be just that--myths which detrimentally impact women of color by creating hostility, both toward affirmative action and toward women of color as its potential beneficiaries. This exploration has additionally established that affirmative action has been effective in limiting the impact of discrimination, racism, and sexism on women of color and in increasing opportunities for them. Consequently, affirmative action should continue as a strategy to increase opportunities for women of color so long as discrimination, racism and sexism persist.