The debate about affirmative action is usually cast as a fight between conservatives who wish to abolish the policy and liberals who want to keep it. That is a misunderstanding. The argument is actually between conservatives who want to remodel affirmative action and liberals who want to conceal it.
Even those conservatives deemed the most extreme on issues of race, like Charles Murray and Dinesh D'Souza, do not favor doing away with affirmative action. Rather, they propose to base it on the principle of economic disadvantage. This, they contend, would bring similar results in terms of diversity, without the evident unfairness. Critics also sometimes argue that race-based affirmative action would be fine if it were limited to efforts at "recruitment" and "training." They generally agree that affirmative action is acceptable as a "remedy" for specific acts of past discrimination. Many who think that affirmative action shouldn't be required by law favor it as a voluntary policy. And, of course, most opponents of affirmative action practice it themselves. Black opponents of affirmative action, for example, are heavily favored over whites with similar views in getting promoted by the conservative propaganda machine.
If group preferences are wrong in principle, as these opponents maintain, none of their exceptions makes much sense. Consider the "remedy for past discrimination" dodge. Say you're a highly qualified white man denied a job by the Birmingham Fire Department. Are you supposed to feel better if you got turned down because the department once discriminated against blacks? You yourself never practiced discrimination. The class-not-race alternative is even less of an improvement. It actually heightens the injustice of affirmative action by punishing some people for a historical wrong that they not only didn't participate in, but that also never occurred. America is as famous for economic opportunity and class mobility as it is for its legacy of racial oppression. Class-based affirmative action trades in a vexed solution to a real problem for an even more vexed solution to an illusory problem.
Liberals, on the other hand, spend less time defending affirmative action than they do trying to make it innocuous and invisible. The Clinton administration clings to the evasion enshrined by Justice Lewis Powell in the Bakke case: "Rigid" numerical quotas are unfair and discriminatory, while "flexible" goals are not. Race should be a factor, but it must not be the factor. What's the real difference? In either case, members of a protected group win jobs, promotions, and educational slots that would otherwise go to better-qualified white men. This is colorblindness of a sort: No one can identify specific victims or beneficiaries of "factor"-style affirmative action, even though both would exist as surely as they do under a policy of explicit quotas.
Other liberals propose more euphemism as a solution. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, George Fredrickson recommends that supporters of affirmative action avoid the words "racial preferences" and "reverse discrimination" in favor of the term "equality of opportunity." This is like Gerald Ford's attempt to fight inflation by banning it from his vocabulary.
Clinton says he wants to "mend" affirmative action. Opponents, it turns out, say the same thing. So, behind the vicious argument is actually something like shared understanding that affirmative action is a toxic medicine, sometimes necessary, that we've been using too freely. The dosage needs to be scaled back. But how? Here's my proposal.
Any kind of affirmative action means preferring some people over others for reasons having nothing to do with their intrinsic merit--however merit is measured. That is not something that the state, or any private institution, should take on lightly. But it remains justified in one case--that of African-Americans. The wrong done to slaves and their descendents is unique in American history. Slavery, racism, and segregation have left a black social deficit that is damaging, not just to blacks but also to American society as a whole. Were this problem evaporating on its own, affirmative action would not be necessary. The condition of blacks is improving, but there is strong evidence--see, for example, Orlando Patterson's new book The Ordeal of Integration--that affirmative action has played an essential role in fostering both integration and the growth of the black middle class. If affirmative action needs to be reformed, the way to fix it is to narrow it, to cover blacks only.
This was the original idea of affirmative action. John F. Kennedy's 1961 executive order, which first created preferences in federal contracting, applied only to blacks. So did Lyndon B. Johnson's better-known 1965 order. The justification was spelled out in Johnson's Howard University speech of that year, written by one Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair," Johnson said. In later years, however, the concept was stretched to cover other minorities and women, who were less hobbled at the starting line. The greatest expansion was under Richard Nixon, who, it has been suggested, saw affirmative action as a Trojan horse to slaughter Democrats. Yet Democrats continued to push to qualify new groups for government set-aside contracts and other forms of preference.
E xpansion of affirmative action was an instinctual response of liberalism, and not in the crude talk-radio sense that "liberals love big government." The New Deal political model for social programs was to include the semideserving and undeserving along with the truly deserving. A broad base of beneficiaries meant a broad base of political support. Clinton has responded to opposition to affirmative action in exactly this way. His "mend it, don't end it" speech of July 1995 emphasized that affirmative action helped women--half the voting population. He even listed "gender" before "race" in defining the policy. Though this approach didn't stop Proposition 209 in California, it has become policy. The administration's explicit strategy for saving affirmative action is to rally women in its defense. Thus new Small Business Administration regulations intended to make it easier for white women to compete for loans.
There is, to be sure, a long history of discrimination against women, Hispanics, Chinese, and so on. But the mistreatment of all groups other than blacks was far less severe, and it has proven far more amenable to cure without radical intervention. Hispanics, Asians, even African and Caribbean blacks, are by and large following the classic patterns of immigrant and ethnic assimilation. For various reasons, blacks are not.
In their abstract mode, conservatives argue that any group bias is unfair. Why should whites who did not themselves discriminate against blacks be punished for what their or someone else's ancestors did? The answer is that it shouldn't be thought of as punishment. Whites who never practiced discrimination are nonetheless beneficiaries of it.
As a thought-experiment, consider what it might mean to a white victim of reverse discrimination if blacks had always been equal. Imagine a law school class with 100 places. Under affirmative action, a white applicant who ranks 99th might well be denied admission while a black who ranks 105th would get in. But where would those two applicants have ranked if blacks had not been enslaved and discriminated against? Under the overmechanical assumptions of affirmative-action opponents themselves (and putting aside the racial IQ theories of Murray and some others), blacks would move up the list, and whites would move down.
Blacks are 12 percent of the population. That doesn't necessarily mean that in a world with no racial discrimination, present or past, 12 of the top 100 candidates would be black. But the number would be closer to 12 than to the likely two or three in today's world. And in that case, the white candidate at 99th place today wouldn't get in anyway.
In other words, if our goal is to replicate a colorblind world, a world with some forms of racial affirmative action comes closer than a world without it.