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Sleight Success: AEI & Black Men in America

Earlier this week, the Trump administration staked out a position on affirmative action policy that, in effect, seeks to strongly discourage the practice by introducing the spectre of litigation and defunding for schools that may be shown to use race as a criterion in their admissions processes.

For conservatives like Edward Blum—a visiting fellow at the right-wing think tank, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)—the administration’s stance is presumably a welcomed one. In a 2016 op-ed for The Washington Post, Blum argues that the university is “more than the sum of its ethnic parts. It is comprised of individuals — some black, white, Asian and Hispanic — who should be admitted or rejected without their race or ethnic heritage making any difference.” He laments the Supreme Court’s upholding of affirmative action policies as “unfortunate.”

Beyond Blum, the AEI has, in general, been consistently critical of race-conscious admissions policies and their apparent infringement on constitutional principles of equality.1

It should come as no surprise then that throughout all 31 pages of the AEI’s recent reportBlack Men Making It in America, the words ‘affirmative action’ appear exactly zero times. Absence of the term notwithstanding, the report—which aims to identify the primary ways that black men in America might replicate the success of a previous generation of black males—nonetheless manages to provide some fairly textbook examples of how affirmative action initiatives have historically served as the major catalyst into the American middle class for black men.2

The report achieves this unintended demonstration of how foundational affirmative action policy is to black America’s economic footing via its own flawed methodology. As Antonio Moore has rightly pointed out in his eviscerating critique of the study, the researchers looked exclusively at a very narrow—and by no means generationally insignificant—group of black men in order to derive their conclusion; namely, black men who were born between the years 1957-1964.3

More properly periodized in relation to U.S. wealth, those crucial years mark the tail-end of the boomer generation whose access to the American middle class was in many ways wholly unlike any that had preceded or followed it. Black men who were born during this era—and who would then grow up to be representative of the AEI study’s ‘success’ stories—did so in a milieu of unprecedented social mobility for descendants of U.S. slaves. That ability to be upwardly mobile during the latter half of the 20th century was something that was largely aided by a number of civil rights gains; victories which critically resulted in the federal government—whether through codifying into law, or incentivizing employers and school officials via disbursement of federal dollars—creating targeted and race-specific initiatives intended to open up access to education and employment within black America, and thus, to offer improved chances at economic stability for members of that group.

Nowhere in the study are the effects of these initiatives more apparent than in its analysis of positive outcomes occasioned by service in the military. For the group of men under observation, service in the U.S. military was linked to the most dramatically increased odds (about 72%) that black men might gain economic stability by the time they reach midlife. And while the report takes pains to frame those pronounced outcomes as having derived in large part from things like the military’s “marriage-oriented culture” and its emphasis on “virtues such as duty, responsibility, loyalty, and perseverance,” it was doubtless in the military’s ability to “provid[e] stable work, good healthcare, housing, and opportunities for advancement” that disproportionately helped shape those eventual outcomes and serve as avenues to the middle class.4

Importantly, access to these social welfare opportunities was, at root, a result of how—in the latter part of the 1970s—the U.S. military had begun a vigorous application of affirmative action policies in both its recruitment and promotion among its ranks. A 2013 New Republic article describes the history: “In part through aggressive integration goals imposed on unit commanders and heavy minority recruitment at the service academies, officer candidate schools, and ROTC programs, the military transformed itself from a heavily segregated, race-riot-burdened institution in the early 1970s to a widely-praised example of successful racial integration by the late 1980s.”

The role of timing coupled with black activism in relation to the study’s conclusions cannot be overstated. Particularly with respect to military service being causally linked to economic success later in life, those black men who were born during the years 1957-64 would have reached legal service age during the mid to late-70s, a time when they would have been precisely the most sought after candidates for recruitment into the military and, thus, the beneficiaries of all of the institution’s social welfare programs.

The authors of the AEI report would prefer to gloss this and simply conclude with the following platitude: “As this report shows, young black men who believe they are captains of their own lives are more likely to do well as they reach midlife.” In fact, what the report demonstrates most clearly is the generational specificity of a group of black men whose prime working years dovetailed with a government that was responsive to the historical disadvantages of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the role of the country’s pervasive discrimination in refusing economic opportunity to its black citizens in a way that more modern administrations are simply not.

If the AEI was genuinely interested in the replicating outcomes of success in black men in America, they would full-throatedly advocate for the features of economic stability like those offered in the modern military welfare state (near-universal coverage in housing, healthcare, childcare, family counselling, legal assistance, education benefits) to be made available in a broader context of society.5 Moreover, they would need to come to terms with the most salient—but unspoken—finding of their own study: the singular importance of affirmative action policy in helping to effect those improved odds of economic well-being for black men in America.

In an era of tremendous economic precarity—and with what little recourse to systemic racism that currently exists being either too diffuse to meaningfully impact descendants of slaves, or simply being fed directly into the buzzsaw of the conservative courts—it is unconscionable to encourage the mentality in those who are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us that they can improve their lives merely by enlisting in the military and espousing certain values of personal responsibility and discipline. Even the study’s more precise efforts in describing how the military’s robust welfare programs had promoted economic stability in the black males they studied reveal only a partial picture, as it omits mention of those race-specific initiatives that provided those men access to acquire those benefits in the first place.

All of this is to say there are in fact valuable lessons to be found in the study. Acknowledgement of those particular lessons, though, would likely make the AEI squirm in its proximity to reparative politics. After all, that success achieved by the cohort of black former service members, which the study extols, is fundamentally made possible by the military’s affirmative action efforts, the results of which veteran sociologist Charles Moskos—writing for the Washington Post in 1995—describes as being without match: “[N]owhere else in American society has racial integration gone as far or has black achievement been so pronounced.”

Perhaps if the report didn’t ignore the vast differences in access between the black baby boomer generation and black millennials, and didn’t self-consciously avoid mention of the importance of instruments of opportunity like affirmative action in effecting positive outcomes for the former group—while the latter has languished in a policy climate of colorblindness—then we could begin to move from propaganda to actual progress.


1. Moreover, they frequently label the claim that AA policies actually benefit the group(s) for whom they’re intended as spurious. It’s a conclusion they reach by looking at studies that show how a vast number of AA recipients at elite schools tend to come from the top half of the income distribution. And to be honest, AA policy has been so totally warped and corrupted and expanded from its original intent to specifically redress the sheer dearth of disadvantage faced by descendants of slaves, that AEI’s position—in this particular respect—is probably really not all that inaccurate or arguable. Other such claims, like that AA policy engenders in minority high school students a ‘coast’ mentality—since they can simply rely on their race to secure entrance into college—are far, far less persuasive. 

2. In one glaring example of what the report recommends will be required to bring about economic success for today’s black males, the authors write how “schools and colleges need to do more to identify, recruit, and support young black men so they are accepted, attend, and graduate from four-year colleges and universities in the US.” This basically ringing endorsement of what is literally, by definition, affirmative action policy, is symptomatic of the report’s most curious phenomenon; that is, an obsessive avoidance of using the term affirmative action itself while simultaneously—at virtually every turn—bolstering the case for its necessity.

3. A perhaps entirely more accurate way of putting it is that the researchers began with a specific conclusion in mind (e.g. that black men in America are successful), and then very selectively chose a group whose highly particular set of opportunities and outcomes would function to prove their thesis. Basically conducting what any professional with a lick of integrity and honesty would describe as the exact opposite of good scientific-sociological research.

4. In contrast to ‘affirmative action,’ the word ‘marriage’ appears a total of 46 times in the report.

5. If those programs don’t ring an ideological bell, here’s Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of Nato forces in Europe being quoted in the New York Times placing the organizational structure of the military in its proper place on the political spectrum: “It’s the purest application of socialism there is.” And to the recommendation that those benefits should be extended to the general population, the authors of the study might respond in a manner predictable of conservatives; namely, that those entitlements are earned through hallowed service to the country. But given the fact that the ancestors of U.S. native blacks effectively built this country—the world’s richest nation—for free, I’m really struggling to come up with a more apt definition of ‘service’ to the country.

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