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Comics are a great medium to explore social topics. They present another level of storytelling that allows one to represent a very real issue and inspire the needed discourse to help address them. Comics can also be extremely political. In fact, it can make them better because it helps them to remain relevant years after being published, offering a snapshot of contemporary social issues through the lens of a popular medium. The more things change, the more they stay the same, which is why a comic story arc from over thirty years ago can still hold relevance. The Avengers comic series has been filled with cutting social commentary throughout its many years of publication. Affirmative action was once an underlying storyline in that series which still holds relevance today.
Affirmative action is the policy of promoting the education and employment of members of groups that are known to have previously suffered from discrimination. It is intended to achieve goals such as bridging inequalities in employment and pay, increasing access to education, promoting diversity, and redressing apparent past wrongs, harms, or hindrances. It was implemented over 40 years ago, but unless you’ve been living in a bubble (which some people have the privilege of doing), you'll know that there is still so much work to be done. For instance, we are still celebrating many marginalized groups achieving firsts in a number of fields, from political positions to pop culture pioneers. The Avengers come into play with this topic because of a 1979 storyline about affirmative action and how it affected Sam Wilson, better known as The Falcon.
The story begins in Avengers #181. Henry Peter Gyrich is a government liaison for the Avengers and someone that most of them couldn’t stand, often treating him as a bad substitute teacher — and rightfully so, because Gyrich never hid the fact that he was extremely prejudiced against those with superpowers. He often did whatever he could to obstruct and make the Avengers' ability to exist as a team difficult. So it's no surprise that he was the one to notify the Avengers they had to trim down their active roster to seven. In comes affirmative action.
Gyrich lists the names of the Avengers who will stay on the active roster and introduces a new hero to the group, Falcon. This leaves Hawkeye without a place on the team and he isn't at all happy, neither are some of the other Avengers. Regardless of this group of people being heroes and supposedly moral compasses, they show their prejudices and just general lack of understanding, possibly mirroring workplaces around the country and world.
Hawkeye is disgusted at the news and even asks how can someone that can fly around and talk to birds be an Avenger over him. Iron Man believes they already have enough marginalized people on the team because Vision is an android and Beast is a mutant so there is no need for the Falcon to replace Hawkeye.
Cleary Tony thought the quota had been filled. Quicksilver pipes up and gives his two little cents. He feels like the team will be put in jeopardy by Falcon because he doesn’t think he’s qualified. Captain America defends Falcon by saying he’s a good man, but it really sounds like, “he’s one of the good negroes I know.” Each of their reactions is not only believable, but some forty years later are still very familiar reactions. We see it every day, especially on social media, where someone from a marginalized group is brought into predominantly white space (more specifically a predominantly white cishet male space) and the reactions that ensue show everyone’s true feelings. Often, this manifests as more privileged voices insisting that the marginalized person hired isn’t as qualified or more qualified than the white cishet male who feels as though they should've gotten the position (like Hawkeye's response). This can make an already uneasy environment even more hostile for the said marginalized person when they show up to do the job they were hired for. It also can leave them to play an unfair game of “what if”.
For the next 13 issues, Falcon works as an Avenger and it's very clear that he feels uneasy about being brought on due to affirmative action and being the token, which he mentions a few times throughout this arc. When Cap first gives him the news about becoming an Avenger, Sam shares his apprehension with him. The response Captain America gives is right on brand for him, but makes it seem as though his only concern is the Avengers' priority remaining unsuspended, a decision which hinges on Sam Wilson joining the Avengers. With that kind of pressure on his shoulders, it makes total sense that Sam would feel like he is filling a quota, even though he has proven himself to be just as capable a hero as Hawkeye. His feelings are all too relatable. As a member of a marginalized community, when you get a job position in a space that has been historically comprised of certain persons, you might find yourself questioning your merit and it doesn’t help that those in that space might be openly questioning it as well. Throughout the series, Sam deals with what feels like microaggressions towards him, such as no one asking his opinion on how they should handle leaving Russia after saving Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.
Falcon ends up giving his resignation from the Avengers in Avengers #194 even though he showed himself to be more than deserving holding a title as an Avenger in his short time with the group. The quota he was filling no longer needed to be filled so he bounced. When everyone feigns surprise, he reminds them that there has been very weird energy amongst the group since he joined and of course Captain America kind of gaslights his assessment by saying that no one really noticed. As Falcon flies off one of the Avengers mentions that they’ll miss him even after all of the gripes they had. So there was definitely a weird vibe going on while Sam was there, but unfortunately, Cap had never noticed — which is a shame.
The Avengers series would include affirmative action into a story arc again in 2000 when the team was reorganizing again. This time instead of Falcon, a hero by the name of Triathlon was the recruit. In Avengers #24 protestors were demanding more people of color to join the Avengers. The new government liaison, Duane Freeman, again ordered them to find someone from a marginalized community.
Twenty-one years later, the same themes were brought up as they were in the arc from 1979. It could easily occur again in 2019 and still have the very same themes as the previous story arcs. Yet another reminder that society still has a long way to go.