On Monday, the Supreme Court once again ventured into the quagmire of affirmative action. In two cases, the court will decide whether it is permissible to use race as a criteria in the selection of students on the elementary or high school levels — three years after the court barely sustained the use of such policies on the university level.
Even after many decades, affirmative action remains one of the most contentious issues in our society. Yet, like abortion, there appears to be less, not more, true dialogue. Many people who are uncomfortable with these programs remain silent in fear that their concerns will be misconstrued or mischaracterized.
All too often, critics of affirmative action are dismissed as racists. Such hair-trigger attacks were common during the debate over Michigan’s Proposition 2, a ban on affirmative action in government contracts, hiring and public education. In launching his organization’s campaign against the measure, NAACP President Bruce Gordon said the organization “does not plan to stand by while the architects of racism dismantle affirmative action programs that attempt to level the playing field in higher education and help create a diverse workforce.”
Such racial politics clearly did not serve opponents well: The proposition passed with an impressive 58% of the vote. According to Gordon’s logic, does that mean that 58% of Michigan is either racist or enabling racism? If so, 55% of Californians were racists in 1996 when they enacted Proposition 209 barring affirmative action, and 59% of voters in Washington were racists in 1998 when they passed Initiative 200 that imposes a similar ban.
Means, not ends
Most Americans are neither racist nor hostile to the ends sought by affirmative action. It remains a question of means.
We have a long way to go to bring down the continuing economic and social barriers for African-Americans. There is considerable support for programs to assist minority students with extra funds for improving schools, creating scholarships, and affording greater opportunities to excel on their own merit. There is also broad support for continuing to offer low-interest loans to minority businesses to help get them into the competitive marketplace. Nonetheless, there is a valid distinction between programs that “level the field” of competition and programs that direct its outcome.
When it finally comes down to the competition itself between students or businesses vying for the same goals, the outcome should be based entirely on merit. In other words, we need to draw a clear line between programs that assist minority students and businesses in reaching the field of competition and those that favor competitors on the basis of race, gender or religion. That means that some anti-affirmative action measures go too far. Yet, it is equally wrong when the government moves beyond facilitating and begins manipulating competition.
Under such an approach, states would be allowed to give disproportionate funds for improving opportunities for minority students or businesses, but they would be barred from using racial preferences in competitive selections for schools, government contracts, or hiring. For example, while a minority business can be given special help in its formation, government contracts should be awarded entirely on the basis of the best product and the lowest cost for citizens.
Not surprisingly, both sides take different meanings from studies of the effect of eliminating affirmative action programs. Thus, many people were rightfully alarmed to learn that UCLA would have only 96 African-Americans among its incoming freshmen — 2% of the class. For affirmative action advocates, it shows why special programs are necessary even after so many years of racial preferences in selection. For opponents of affirmative action, it shows that many students in prior years were not the most qualified on academic scores and achievement.
Both sides might be partially correct. The fall in minority admissions and minority contractors should motivate leaders to improve recruiting efforts in minority areas for schools and explore programs to help minority businesses. But it also shows that many past students and businesses were not sufficiently competitive to prevail on a playing field that is entirely free of racial preference in selection.
Address the root causes
Some leaders, however, cannot shake the desire to manipulate the final outcome of competition. After Proposition 2 passed, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stated his interest in an ordinance that gave a preference to Detroit-based contractors — who would presumably be largely minorities in the largely minority city population. “That way, you don’t have to deal with gender or race,” said the mayor’s spokesperson. Putting aside the legal mistake of openly admitting an intention to create de facto preferences to avoid the law, Kilpatrick would be better off addressing the underlying reasons for the lack of competitive showing through special pre-competition programs. Indeed, the removal of preferences will increase the pressure on such firms to be competitive and the pressure on cities such as Detroit to better educate and train citizens for such competition.
It is time to have a substantive dialogue about the promise and limits of affirmative action — free of race-baiting language. Opposing some forms of affirmative action does not make someone any more of a racist than opposing abortion makes someone a misogynist.
Until such true dialogue occurs, we will continue to speak to each other through ballot referendums, or worse yet, many will continue not to speak to each other at all.