Reframing the Talk About Affirmative Action President Lyndon Johnson first framed the talk about Affirmative

Action when he signed the enabling Executive Order 11246: “You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still believe you have been completely fair. This [Affirmative Action] is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.” And sure enough this “Affirmative Action” became and remained one of the most profound debates of civil rights for the past 45years. During this time the talk about Affirmative Action has centered on what education and training blacks needed to “come up to snuff,” “stand on their own two feet” and “cut the mustard” in the competition with whites This is how the issue of Affirmative Action has been framed. Objecting to this framing is not say it was not true to some extent or other. Blacks did have shortcomings and needs for improvement to better compete in the “mainstream,” but that was not the whole problem that was loosely referred to as “affirmative action.” What is needed is to talk about Affirmative Action not so much in terms of reframing but rather as whole-framing---seeing the whole picture and discussing it in those terms. The current framing of Affirmative Action treats it as if it is a system within itself, when actually it is but a part of the larger issue of how the scarce resources of this society get distributed---the old “Who Gets What” bugaboo. By zeroing in on the small “affirmative action” share of society’s goodies those who currently frame the discussion succeed in marginalizing the claims of blacks as something unrelated to the rest of the pie. This permits them to raise all kinds of objections to the small “affirmative action” slice without scrutinizing the huge slice reserved for themselves. One might reasonably ask: “Why do whites engage in this partial, onesided dialogue over the resources reserved for themselves?” And another will surely answer: “Because they can! Because they have the power that begets privilege—White Privilege to do whatever they want”. A dictionary definition of White Privilege would say that it is the advantage enjoyed by a white person beyond that which is commonly experienced by non-white people in the same social, political and economic situation, based solely on their whiteness..

Vigorous public communication is the first step toward dismantling White Privilege, but this is almost impossible because of the extreme reluctance of whites to participate—a reluctance to the point of refusing to even admit that White Privilege exists at all. Whites deny that White Privilege exist because to admit its existence in the way this society operates is to raise questions about the legitimacy of their own status. Admitting that whites received advantages merely because they were white exposes all whites to the issue of whether their possessions and positions were earned and awarded on merit. They are then put into the same position that they routinely put blacks in when there is an admission of Affirmative Action: “Did you get where you are because of your personal efforts or did you get a “push” from White Privilege?” Under such circumstances what has always been a “minority problem” suddenly becomes a “white problem” as well. We should all begin a new dialogue—whole-framing the discussion of Affirmative Action by refusing to discuss it in a vacuum. Simply refuse to discuss it unless the issue of White Privilege is also addressed.. Let us all say: “I refuse to be a part of a one-sided discussion—to talk about Affirmative Action without also talking about White Privilege. Talking about Affirmative Action without talking about White Privilege would just be a half-assed circular dialogue leading back to where we started. I’ll talk about the whole problem—but I will not talk about just part of it.” 30 –

The author is the former Library of Congress Coordinator of Affirmative Action (1972-1986) and author of The Biography of Philip Reid, and Recasting the Statue of Freedom and manager of