However, affirmative action does reveal a rift in American political culture. Equality has always been an endemic American value, touted in the Constitution and branded as a key feature of American life. Yet diversity has recently become a keyword in American political culture. Preserving both equality and diversity has become the most current political challenge in the United States and this challenge is encapsulated in the debate over affirmative action.
Affirmative action suggests that equality has not always been a reality for Americans even if the word is embedded in the Constitution. Historical fact supports the point-of-view that non-white Americans have not experienced equality in the ways that privileged people do. Even though discrimination not as tolerated in American society as it was in the 1950s, some residual effects of racism remain in American culture. Enough residual effects of racism exist to prompt some voters to believe that affirmative action politics are required to promote the core ideal of equality.
However, affirmative action is also promoted as a method of increasing the level of diversity in political institutions as well as in social institutions like universities and corporations. A diverse population yields a plurality of political opinions that can make political culture more complicated but more representative of the whole population. In other words, diversity in politics can help prevent a tyranny of the majority. One of the ways diversity has been squelched in American politics is by what can easily be called an elitist political culture. Elected officials become powerful not just because of their race or their gender but because of the increased social capital gleaned from being well connected among the wealthy and powerful elite. Poor Americans, no matter what their race, have fewer opportunities to explore positions of power as viable career options because they have less access to social capital.
Affirmative action has the potential to level the playing field for increased racial or ethnic equality but as it is usually practiced, affirmative action still perpetuates a divide between rich and poor.
An ideal affirmative action is one that increases both diversity and equality within political or social institutions. Race is one of the identities that remains important for affirmative action but class and gender as well as age are also important identity factors. If American political culture values equality, then affirmative action is one of the only ways to eliminate the strong barriers that a traditionally elitist culture has erected. Opponents of affirmative action claim that the process is antithetical to equality because race (or any other identity factor) obscures universal human elements including public speaking skills, work experience, or intelligence. Accusations of “reverse racism” are examples of why affirmative action reflects political socialization and identity politics. Proponents of affirmative action point out that in an ideal world the process would be unnecessary but ours is far from ideal. The United States has a too long and too recent history of injustice, and elitism has become too embedded in American society to allow for upward social mobility for minorities.
Identity politics helps citizens rally around political issues common to a demographic group. Affirmative action is one of those issues: aiding the sons and daughters of politically and economically disenfranchised citizens. For better or worse, race remains an important social issue in America. Equality is a gradual process that does not instantly manifest because of legislation banning discrimination. A politics based on racial identity permits greater plurality in political and social institutions, as the values and beliefs of minority communities are incorporated into the overall political discourse.