Chapter 7, How can I talk about affirmative action? 

When Oluo was a first-grader, her single mother had recently moved to a more affordable housing situation, Oluo’s new school was a step down from the one she previously attended, and her mother was much more involved in her education than were other parents at the school. So Oluo was enrolled in a program for gifted children that offered her special reading and writing sessions in the hallway outside her regular classroom, whereas her equally talented brother was labeled slow and aggressive. Her brother’s teacher established a reward system that resulted in his public humiliation, teaching him to dread school and eventually drop out.  

Oluo married early and had a child before leaving her abusive husband. She remained dedicated to the hope education offers, earned a degree, and got a job. At her new job, Oluo was quick to earn a promotion that was quickly rescinded, she discovered later, because of a white woman who had seniority and complained. She left for a company that was more diverse but where she continued to experience social rejection and aggression due to her race. She found an outlet in her writing and discovered career opportunities outside the corporate world that she was eventually able to leverage and use for a full-time living. Her story looks like a success, but she remains angry because she thinks about others like her brother who were left behind. 

Affirmative action is a social practice that is often viewed derisively. Oluo recites the practice’s history, rooted in the 1960s and 1970s civil rights movements and the goal to make the power centers of education and government more representative of the population. By the 1980s, the program was being criticized, and it has since largely been dismantled. Oluo argues that affirmative action is better supported empirically than are many other social improvement policies and should be expanded. She then dismantles five arguments that have been made against affirmative action. She acknowledges that the policy is a curative rather than a preventative action, meaning that by itself, affirmative action cannot solve the problem of systemic racism. But because it has been proven to work, it should be implemented along with other policies to diminish racism’s impact.  


In comparison with other chapters, this one’s narrative section is more detailed, highlighting the relevance of Oluo’s personal experience regarding affirmative action. This focus initially seems skewed because Oluo does not benefit from any social programs designed to adjust for past discrimination. In fact, she faces many challenges directly or indirectly resulting from her status as a Black woman, such as being the child of a single mother, living in poverty, and maneuvering a subpar educational system. Furthermore, her professional accomplishments highlight her talents and hard work as well as the real and perceived discrimination she faced as a woman of color. Central to this story are other people who believe she is benefitting from special treatment, despite there being no evidence that this is the case. This discrimination affected Oluo so profoundly that she chose to leave her chosen profession to freelance, a financially risky proposition and one that requires further sacrifices.  

Throughout this narrative, Oluo makes multiple points about affirmative action without directly referencing it. By describing the racism running throughout society, and how it poses obstacles for people of color, she indirectly exposes the need for a systemic way of addressing prejudice. Some minorities are gifted with sufficient talent and perseverance to overcome these obstacles, which often also requires parents and authority figures to step up and provide support. Those who succeed are lauded for their efforts. However, when they do so, society demands that others be equally talented and make similar sacrifices. In marveling at the achievements of the people who are lucky enough to be exceptional, the majority exploits their success. Instead of removing the obstacles and enabling others to attain greater equity, the majority points to the few who succeed as proof that the status quo works just fine if people apply themselves. 

In her defense of affirmative action, Oluo must first argue that American society remains racist at levels that require broad remedial policies. This assertion reiterates much of what she said earlier in the introduction and Chapter 1, but the belief is so absent from discussion in majority white America that it requires further proof. People demonstrate a tremendous ability to understand that others experience the world differently than they do. Through the platforms of movies, television, novels, and social media people continuously seek out such experiences to broaden their horizons. Yet white Americans remain stubbornly unconvinced that a person of color’s experience of the United States is different from their own. Oluo repeatedly combats that problem with empirical, statistical, longitudinal data. In doing so, she encourages people to move beyond their own personal experiences while providing them with a safe, comfortable space from which to recognize painful truths and the language to share those truths with others. 

Affirmative action is a form of remediation. It cannot prevent racial discrimination, and it may in fact reinforce it. In other chapters of this book, Oluo makes suggestions both individuals and society can use to lessen social injustice in the United States of America. However, because affirmative action has a demonstrated record of success, she promotes it despite its limitations and problems. She reasons that the problem of racial discrimination is so large and multi-faceted that we need many tools to redress it. These tools will need to work at both the individual level and for society at large. The tools need to be preventative, curative, remedial, and progressive. Most of all, they must be systemic, intentional, and broadly based. Affirmative action meets these last three criteria, so it can serve as a stop-gap measure until our society moves closer to the dream of social equity.