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Goodbye to Affirmative Action?

Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice

by Terry Eastland
BasicBooks, 229 pp., $23.00

Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals

by Donald R. Kinder, by Lynn M. Sanders
University of Chicago Press, 391 pp., $27.50

The Future of the Race

by Henry Louis Gates Jr., by Cornel West
Knopf, 196 pp., $21.00

1.

Affirmative action is on the defensive, not least because its defenders are still having difficulty making a convincing case for it. Any program involving preferences means someone will be aggrieved. Most whites resent seeing places allocated to blacks; many men feel they have been displaced by women; some programs bypass native citizens for recent immigrants, causing yet more resentment.

In fact, as the sociologist John David Skrentny points out, these policies never had strong support, let alone an electoral mandate. The first coherent affirmative action measure was Nixon’s “Philadelphia Plan” of 1969, which required federal contractors to show they were hiring blacks. The plan arose from mixed motives. The Republicans needed to make some response to the rioting of the 1960s, and jobs were clearly an issue. But Nixon, who won the 1968 election by less than one percentage point, was also looking for a long-term strategy to undercut the Democrats. Affirmative action was useful to him, Skrentny writes, since it “placed on the table something to help African-Americans at the expense of unions, producing discontent and factional rivalry in two of the liberal establishment’s major supporters.” Nixon gambled that white workers would direct their anger at those taking “their” jobs, and overlook those who had put the plan in place. The strategy paid off in 1972 and he won reelection by a large majority, including white blue-collar voters who would later be dubbed “Reagan Democrats.” A quarter of a century later, Republicans are still betting that affirmative action will stir racial resentments in their favor.

Affirmative action has been applied in a confusing variety of ways. Initially only persons of African-American origin were to receive preferential treatment, because of the burdens they carried from the legacy of slavery. Women were soon added to the list, as were persons with certain national origins, including Native Americans. Thus, as Terry Eastland notes in Ending Affirmative Action, the Small Business Administration expanded its preference list to include immigrants from Sri Lanka and Tonga. Programs have covered educational admissions and financial aid; hiring and promotions; and awarding government contracts, some of which have been “set aside” for minorities. The criteria applied may differ: in one case the program calls for accepting higher bids; in another lower grades or scores. Yet the common aim is to increase the presence of underrepresented groups. But separate standards govern the public and private sectors. The University of Maryland was told recently that it could not limit a set of scholarships to persons of one race. As a state agency, it had to ensure “equal protection” to all potential applicants. However, Johns Hopkins, a private university, if it wanted, could establish grants to bring in Swedish-American students.

The most common justification for affirmative action is that preferences are necessary to compensate for past discrimination, which held back members of certain groups. In some cases, those affected were asked to show that they had personally suffered; in others, group membership has been deemed sufficient. A rather different rationale calls on organizations to display more diversity, either as evidence that they do not discriminate, or because a more varied membership will itself prove beneficial. A third argument takes the first two a step further, asserting that bias is still ubiquitous, and only enforcing affirmative action will compel employers and others to hire a more diverse workforce.

The Supreme Court has already voided the local and federal set-aside programs that allowed minority contractors to bid more than others. It held that particular groups may only be favored if a “strict scrutiny” shows that preferences are the only way to make up for a discriminatory history, a test not passed in these cases. Congressional districts drawn to ensure victories for black candidates—an electoral variant of affirmative action—have also been struck down on grounds the lines were too patently drawn on the basis of race. And a circuit court recently told the University of Texas law school that it could no longer “use race as a factor” in deciding whom to admit. The judges noted that all state institutions were open to integration, so preferences were not needed to redress bygone barriers. They also banned “the classification of persons on the basis of race for the purpose of diversity.” Their decision, which Texas is appealing with the backing of the Clinton administration, will give the Supreme Court a chance to reconsider its 1978 Bakke decision, a 5-4 holding that allowed a California state medical school to modify its admission rules to bring in more minority students.

In California, the regents of the state universities have ordered a halt to all affirmative action programs in the system, including faculty hiring as well as admissions. And soon the state’s citizens will have their say. In November, the ballot will carry a “Civil Rights Initiative,” resulting from a vigorous petition campaign, that will allow the nation’s largest electorate to express itself on this proposition:

The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

Louis Harris, in polling California voters, found 78 percent favored this proposition. Yet much of this support, he found, derives from its being called a “civil rights” measure and its apparent aim of banning all discrimination. When people were asked if they would still favor the proposal after learning it “would outlaw all affirmative action programs for women and minorities,” Harris says support dropped to 31 percent.1 Indeed, knowing where the votes are, the initiative’s opponents are appealing to women and saying little about race. Still, at this point, most observers believe that the proposition will pass.

Not only whites are expected to support it. Today, few affirmative action plans favor Asians, who are seen as able to compete without having any special advantage. As it turns out, Asians have a graver complaint: that they do not get their fair share of places even when they have excellent records. Both they and whites are familiar with figures like those in Table A, which appear several times a year in newspapers throughout the state.

Of the class entering UCLA in 1994, just over two thirds were admitted solely on their academic records. Asians made up half of this group, while whites accounted for about 43 percent. In contrast, far fewer of their black and Hispanic classmates were admitted on the basis of academic criteria; they had other factors—including their ethnicity—taken into consideration. The percentages on the left show the ultimate makeup of the class. (continued from p. 21)

Those on the right indicate what it would have been—and could be in the future—without affirmative action.

As can be seen, Asians now outnumber whites at UCLA. (According to the current joke, the school’s initials now stand for “Unhappy Caucasians Lost among Asians.”) One problem for whites who are turned down is that they cannot complain openly about Asian admissions, since those admissions are based even more on academic merit than their own. Hence there is a tendency to blame blacks and Hispanics for places that they lose. And they will have a chance to do that on the November ballot.

In Divided by Color Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders analyze national opinion polls to compare how far whites feel that blacks should be treated “fairly,” as distinguished from receiving priority. Their findings are not heartening. Some 85 percent of white respondents oppose “preferential hiring and promotion of blacks.” (Note that the question excludes women.) We often hear that Americans favor creating a “level playing field,” with equal opportunities for every race; yet when another question inquires about instances where blacks are not “getting fair treatment in jobs,” over half the white respondents say that redress is “not the government’s business.” This view has serious implications. Since government includes the courts, it is not clear what other recourse black victims of bias might have.

It would also have been instructive to hear the opinions of whites on official intervention, had they been asked for views about whites who were not, as many of them complain, “getting fair treatment.” Also not revealed by polls is an unvoiced objection to affirmative action: it diminishes the value of being white, since it no longer puts you at the head of the queue. At a deeper level, it may have given a good many whites a hint of what it was like to be black. Not surprisingly, they have not enjoyed that revelation, which helps to explain efforts to restore the earlier order.

Divided by Color shows that a sizable majority of Americans feel they have already done enough to assist those of their fellow citizens who are descendants of slaves. Kinder and Sanders say that fewer whites now think that blacks are genetically inferior, but there is broad concern that too many black Americans are behaving badly. “A new form of prejudice has come to prominence,” they write, “one that is preoccupied with matters of moral character.” We all have heard the longstanding complaints against poor blacks—excessive use of drugs, high rates of crime, casual attitudes toward parenthood, reliance on taxpayers to pay the costs of teen-age motherhood. Since solicitude hasn’t worked, growing numbers of white Americans are concluding it’s time to take a tough line. Kinder and Sanders say they found “racial resentment to be the most potent force in white public opinion on race today.” In this light, calls for abolishing welfare and ending affirmative action reflect similar sentiments; indeed, the latter is seen as a sophisticated version of the former. Thus in the minds of many whites, black Americans have forfeited their status as a “deserving” minority.

2.

A recurring issue in the affirmative action debate is how best to measure an applicant’s merit. Terry Eastland recalls a test given several hundred Memphis patrolmen for promotion to sergeant. There were seventy-five openings, ostensibly to be awarded on the basis of scores. However, only a few black officers ranked in the top seventy-five, so another nineteen were promoted over nineteen white patrolmen who had higher scores. The Memphis police force used standardized tests, containing many brief questions in a multiple-choice format. A law firm may rely on interviews over leisurely meals, the better to assess the candidate’s social skills and whether the candidate will “fit in.” Still, more often than not, the recourse of many organizations is to numerical scores.

This year, for example, more than 18,000 applications poured into Harvard’s admissions office. Simply to impose an initial order, each folder will display how the applicant ranked on the Scholastic Assessment Test. After that, other information can be factored in. But tests and scores remain of great importance, and this bothers Barbara Bergmann. Too frequently, she says, “people come to have their narrowly defined merit tested by certain fixed and immutable procedures.” Unfortunately, Bergmann neglects some central issues. Indeed, at one point she puts “merit” in quotation marks, as if to suggest it is a frivolous concept. Yet how many of us, to pose a hoary question, would want to be operated on by someone who got into medical school through an ethnic preference? The so far unanswered question, for many professions, is whether traditional tests have actually been yielding the best possible people. Has anyone looked up the law school grades of the most successful practicing lawyers, whether measured by income or prestige within the profession?

We know why police promotions have been based on multiple-choice tests: to thwart political and personal favoritism. Still, Memphis’s population is more than half black, and it is likely that blacks make up a high proportion of those having contact with the police. For the city to have effective law enforcement, it would be prudent to have a strong black presence at supervisory levels. And to obtain those officers, the department would have to reduce the importance of multiple-choice scores. This said, it can and should be argued that what was done in Memphis is not “affirmative action,” but a policy designed to create a more effective police force.

But, it may be asked, can’t black students and adults put in the necessary preparation and do better on the tests? To some degree, the problem is economic: it helps a lot to be raised in a middle-class family where one can learn something of how the academic world works and pick up the kinds of information and language that testers take for granted. However, race is also a factor. The right column in Table B gives average scores only for students from families that have incomes in the $60,000-$70,000 range. Few if any in this bracket attend inner-city schools with indifferent teachers or straitened budgets. Why is it, then, that black students from middle-class backgrounds lag behind the other groups?

It has been claimed that the SAT is racially biased in that it reflects a European-based culture. But most Asians, including many not long in this country, outperform whites in SAT scores. And if they can do well in a test that whites invented and administer, we still have to ask why college-bound blacks are not doing the same. In fact, they are further behind on the mathematics part of the SAT, where nuances of race should not intrude.

So it remains a question why even blacks from families earning $60,000 lag behind on this standard test. Unpublished figures from the College Board show that most of the Hispanics and Asians taking the SAT are from immigrant families or homes where English is not the principal language; yet more Hispanics and Asians than blacks master the test. In his essay in The Future of the Race Cornel West writes somewhat obscurely of “black intelligence,” not as an inferior capacity but as one that derives from black culture and functions differently; but he does not claim that there is a separate “black mathematics,” as some inner-city educators do. They argue that the mathematical understanding of young people raised in black cultural settings should be taught and tested in ways that take account of their background. Perhaps, but the children will have to face the same demands as others for mathematical and other cognitive skills if they are to make progress in school and in jobs and professions. Even after four years at integrated colleges, black students’ scores on the law and medical school admissions tests are still fourth in the ethnic rankings.

The original rationale for affirmative action was that it would combat discrimination, or policies having discriminatory effects. In 1968, the initial class at the medical school of the University of California at Davis was selected by conventional methods with the result that it contained not a single black or Hispanic student. To avoid a repeat of that outcome, the school created a special stream for minority applicants, the program that ten years later would be challenged in the Bakke case.2 Davis’s response could be viewed as a form of reparations. Since black Americans have long been denied a chance to discover and develop their capacities, the school decided that extra steps would have to be taken to increase their presence in professions and at executive levels. Insofar as we now have more black lawyers and professors, along with police sergeants and construction workers, it has been in large part owing to affirmative action.

Colleges and universities have led the way in setting up such programs. Henry Louis Gates is quoted in Divided by Color as saying that in the class that entered Yale in 1963, only 1.8 percent of the students were black. Five years later, when Gates arrived, a recruiting campaign had raised the proportion to 7.9 percent. Today, most schools are embarrassed if they cannot claim a similar figure. For example, Cal Tech’s enrollment is only 1.2 percent black, and even at the more diverse University of Wisconsin the figure is 1.9 percent. 3 Terry Eastland mentions a Harvard graduate program which offered full financial aid to all the black applicants it accepted, even if they did not ask for such help, but was not nearly so lavish with white candidates. The reason is simply stated: schools are competing with one another for a relatively small pool of blacks they feel can be successful students.

Businesses have had a more mixed record. Barbara Bergmann writes that in the oil industry, for example, ARCO’s management is 3.6 percent black, while at Mobil 6 percent is black. But statistics like these tell only part of the story, since “management” has become an elastic category. (Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found more than 17 million men and women in this group.) A more realistic count comes from the Executive Leadership Council, which says it limits its membership to the “nation’s most senior African American corporate executives.” Its 133 members come from 104 corporations, which itself tells us that few blacks get to the top. Indeed, most firms have a single black manager in a senior position; only five corporations of the 104 can point to three or more persons at that level. Currently, no more than a handful of black executives head operating divisions. More common are positions in charge of “community relations,” “corporate diversity,” and “market development,” the last usually referring to promoting products among black customers.4

Programs that establish preferences for one group soon find members of other groups clamoring to join them. If affirmative action was initially intended as reparation for slavery and the subordination that followed, it was not easy to bar Americans of Hispanic heritage, who claimed that they too had been victims of bias. Nor do many seem worried that being a beneficiary may carry a stigma. At the City University of New York, committees involved in recruiting faculty are advised that candidates of Italian origin must also take precedence, ostensibly to remedy this group’s underrepresentation. Terry Eastland points out that most immigrants now arriving in this country are, because of their race or origin, immediately eligible for preferential treatment, among them immigrants from parts of Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. They literally become eligible for preference on debarking at the airport, even before encountering prejudice or rebuffs. Since 1970, the proportion of black Americans has declined from two thirds of affirmative action candidates to less than half. In Ohio, firms owned by immigrants from India were added to the set-aside list for public contracts. Some black companies sued, claiming this was not the program’s mandate. They lost, the judge noting that the statute included “Orientals.”

The Clinton administration, which granted $11 billion in contracts to minority firms last year, recently changed its rules to meet the Supreme Court’s “strict scrutiny” test. Applicants must now provide evidence of actual discrimination, so the award can be construed as a redress. Nor is it easy to argue with the Court’s earlier annulment of a Richmond law that put on the priority list contractors of Eskimo and Aleutian ancestry. In fact, the Census found only five such persons in the region, and none of them had even tried to do business with the city. The sad thing is that black contractors trying to get started will face more obstacles because of excessively broad interpretations of the program.

In the past, most colleges and companies were almost wholly white, and many still are. In business, it is acknowledged that inbreeding can stifle innovation and responses to new challenges, and law firms and corporations that were once Protestant preserves now make a point of hiring some members of minorities. Of course, the world is becoming less white, so being other than Caucasian may be a qualification. But it has yet to be shown that someone of, say, Puerto Rican origin would be better able to achieve rapport with distributors in Sri Lanka than a white Anglo-Saxon. The Japanese are hardly multicultural, yet their firms sell successfully around the globe, largely thanks to their diligence in studying local conditions.

The strongest voices for reducing the proportions of whites are heard in colleges. For Barbara Bergmann, “the desirability of diversity provides the strongest justification for affirmative action in college admissions.” Since students are going to live in a more multiethnic America, they should be exposed to classmates of different backgrounds. Of course, the drive for diversity is not new. Some schools have always given special status to athletes and cello players and candidates from distant states.

The rhetoric about diversity, however, is contradicted by the fact that the children of alumni have always benefited from affirmative action. Thus while Princeton accepts only 15 percent of its total applicant pool, it takes upward of 40 percent of those whose parents have been there. These “legacies” have exceeded 10 percent of each Princeton class, compared with a black enrollment of about 6 percent. More often than not, these students, who do not make up a very diverse group, displace candidates with better records. So far as I can see, the universities do not make an explicit or principled defense of this practice. In private, officials may acknowledge that they depend on alumni for financial and other support and the preference for their children is, in effect, a quid pro quo for that kind of loyalty. That such arguments remain unexpressed underlines the hypocrisy of much of the talk about admissions being decided strictly on “merit.”5

Neil Rudenstine, president of Harvard, justifies using extra-academic criteria by claiming that Harvard “students benefit in countless ways from the opportunity to live and learn among peers whose perspectives and experiences differ from their own.”6 Taking that view on its face, one can hardly contest it. A freshman from suburban Boston will have her eyes opened by a roommate reared in North Dakota. Still, I have doubts, based on my own experience teaching at a college that may well be the most ethnically diverse in the nation. Last term I had in my classes undergraduates who were born in Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Greece, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Ireland, India, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Pakistan, Paraguay, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Trinidad, and Yemen. Yet it would be wrong to regard them as “foreign” students. On the contrary, they and their families are here to stay. They have learned English right away, and quickly gain a sense of how America works.

From what they say in my classes, I cannot claim that a Korean-born student has perceptions and reactions that differ from one who comes from Haiti, or that their reactions diverge from those of classmates who were born and raised here. Nor should we expect much from informal conversations among students from diverse backgrounds, assuming that they will involve shared experiences. While such discussions do occur, ethnic self-segregation tends to characterize most campuses, especially among black students at dominantly white institutions.

Obviously, I welcome having black students in my classes when we talk about race. Still, I do not expressly ask them about their opinions and experiences, since they often resent being singled out. When they volunteer, as some usually do, it clearly adds to the discussion, but large gaps remain between them and the white students, who have difficulty visualizing what their black classmates describe as racism. In a recent seminar, a black student remarked that he continually felt that he was at a “white college,” despite the fact that the enrollment is not much more than half white.

3.

Terry Eastland subtitles his book, “The Case for Colorblind Justice.” He quotes from John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in the now century-old case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Harlan’s Supreme Court colleagues had upheld a Louisiana law that required railroads to seat black riders in separate, but ostensibly equal, cars. Harlan replied that “our Constitution is color-blind… The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or his color.” His point was that persons who happened to have African ancestors should not be singled out for treatment that is patently degrading. As to the reply that whites would also sit separately, it only need be said that their separation gave them a racially privileged status. So Harlan evoked the principle of the “colorblind” Constitution for a very specific reason: to protect persons who were being consigned to a subordinate caste because of their race. It was in a similar—and consistent—context that Justice Harry Blackmun made the Constitution “color-conscious” in the Bakke case, when he said that “to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race.” In fact, Eastland’s proposal for ignoring color seeks to reinstate white preferment by proclaiming that members of a 200-million-person majority are the most vulnerable victims of racial discrimination.

Eastland does not say whether he wants all racial identifications barred from college and employment documents, including the personal essays that are often requested of applicants. If so, a candidate who wished to speak of her impoverished upbringing presumably could not say it was in a segregated slum. After all, even an indirect racial reference could raise the suspicion that her color swayed the decision. This year’s circuit court decision involving the University of Texas law school followed Eastland’s logic: to make special allowances for a racial minority penalizes the racial majority. In Hopwood v. Texas, the three-judge panel held that the school’s willingness “to elevate some races over others” had denied “equal protection” to the white plaintiffs in the case, who said that their records would otherwise have won them admission.

Nor was the panel impressed with the law school’s desire for a better mixture of races. A public institution, they wrote, “may not use race as a factor in deciding which applicants to admit, in order to achieve a diverse student body.” Eastland, in a discussion of the early stages of the case, grants that under a “colorblind” system, the Texas law school would have far fewer black and Hispanic students. However, he argues that they could probably find places at less-demanding institutions, which, in his view, is where they belong. But if the Texas law school ruling is extended to all of public education, we had better be clear on the consequences. With affirmative action, UCLA’s 1994 entering class of 9,862 had 663 black students. If the school had confined its judgments to academic records, it would have had 77. Applied nationwide, the Texas ruling means that most blacks will end up in community colleges. Conservatives no less than liberals like to point to the growth of a black middle class; but it would be well to admit that from Colin Powell to construction workers, this group would be much smaller were it not for extra efforts to put blacks in places where they have been underrepresented. Nor should it be said that such efforts are no longer needed because legal barriers to opportunity have been overturned. As was seen with corporations, some kind of pressure is still needed—from conscience, government, or concerns about public relations—to achieve even one black vice president.

4.

If Eastland concentrates on policies which use race as their basis, Barbara Bergmann gives equal attention to those aimed at aiding women. However, neither writer offers data that might tell us who has benefited most from affirmative action. This is not an easy question to answer, since we cannot know for sure how many admissions or appointments can be attributed to special initiatives. Some changes would undoubtedly have occurred without such preferences. Still, some inferences can be drawn from census records. Table C gives distributions by race and gender for various occupations in 1970 and 1990. (Only the decennial censuses provide this detailed information.)

Clearly, white men have lost much of their dominance. They now make up less than half of the workforce, less than two thirds of all physicians, barely half of college faculties, and are a minority among journalists. While there are variations among the different occupations, by and large white men have been displaced by white women, Asians, and black women. Except for two blue-collar occupations—electricians and sheet metal workers—black men made smaller gains than members of those other groups. In many spheres, black women have moved further and faster than black men; the most depressing reason for this trend is that fewer black men now have jobs of any sort, and those who do are outnumbered by black women.

The rising proportions of Asians in college faculties and among computer analysts and engineers are largely explained by their having skills that are in short supply. The Asians who come to the US, moreover, are likely to be among the more ambitious and intelligent in their own country of origin, more willing to take on the difficult subjects that many Americans now are shying away from. Some Asian physicians come here as hospital residents and then stay, often practicing in areas that are badly in need of doctors. But more young Asians raised here are also being admitted to medical schools, not through affirmative action, but because they have excellent undergraduate records.

The increasing feminization of the workforce is a central fact of our time. Many of the new jobs are at or near the minimum wage, like cutting up chickens and shelling shrimps, and these jobs are often held by single mothers. (This is the sort of employment envisaged by many who seek to end welfare and get recipients into the work force.) However, at least equally striking is that women now make up 54 percent of those receiving bachelors’ degrees, compared with a 43 percent share in 1970, and 35 percent in 1960. The decisions by young women to enter and complete college are largely unrelated to affirmative action; they arise from heightened aspirations that have been evolving for several generations. Women on the whole get better grades in college than men, and are increasingly surpassing men in the attitudes and abilities employers look for.7 In 1970, women held 16 percent of the jobs the census classes as “managers, executives and administrators.” Last year, they filled 43 percent of those jobs, an impressive advance even after allowing for title inflation. Since most of these women are still relatively early in their careers, few have yet reached the higher ranks. Still, there are signs that time is on their side. After all, with men down to 46 percent of college graduates, the male pool for promotions will become smaller.

But there are less cheering reasons why women are displacing men. Employers long ago learned that they turn in the same quality of work for less pay. An early example was bank tellers; today, notice how many company statements come from a spokeswoman. When a $500,000 corporate counsel retired recently, his successor was a woman who took the job at half his salary. In the last intake of students at Yale, Stanford, and John Hopkins medical schools, women outnumbered men. While affirmative action might explain some of these admissions, it does not account for women being a majority. But women doctors face less favorable prospects than the preceding generation of men. Just as women are getting closer to parity, earnings from medical practice are declining and firmer controls are being imposed on the profession. And in the academic world, while affirmative action has given women a greater share of new appointments, they are finding that they get fewer tenured positions and heavier teaching loads.

5.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornel West, both now professors at Harvard, agree that they owe their careers to efforts to recruit members of their race. In a joint preface to The Future of the Race, they write that they got good starts as undergraduates—West at Harvard, Gates at Yale—“only as a result of the pressure of affirmative action to end these schools’ racist quo-tas which had barely been disturbed for over a century.” They agree that had those doors not been opened, they would have attended black schools like Howard or Morehouse, which are less likely to set one on a track leading to Harvard chairs. But they also blame affirmative action for much of the malaise in racial leadership.

In separate essays, they use W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth” as foil to defend their own positions. Du Bois had written that “the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” And by these he meant the few who had gone on with their schooling. “The college-bred Negro,” he said, will be “the man who sets the ideals of the community where he lives, directs its thoughts and heads its social movements.”

Gates wonders about Du Bois’s formula, in view of “the remarkable gap between the leaders and the led in black America,” which persists because “poverty has, in lockstep, kept pace with privilege.” Indeed, “black America isn’t just as fissured as white America, it is more so,” since white America has never allowed as sharp a divide between its poor and the rest. Gates is highly critical of “the motley crew” of black leaders, in a list that includes two who went from public office to prison (Marion Barry, Mel Reynolds); two forced to resign from prominent positions (Mike Espy, Ben Chavis); and three noted for flamboyant rhetoric (Al Sharpton, Leonard Jeffries, Louis Farrakhan). Yet he cites none of the successful black public leaders, mayors like Baltimore’s Kurt Schmoke and Norman Rice of Seattle, who have been able to appeal to black and to white voters as well.

West attacks Du Bois, calling him “a black New England Victorian seduced by the Enlightenment ethos.” His writings are an amalgam of “glib theodicy, weak allegory, and superficial symbolism,” showing an “elitism that underestimated the capacity of everyday people.” Much of what Du Bois said does not make pleasant reading in 1996, particularly his account of poorer blacks as “grotesque” and “degraded.” But it soon becomes clear that West’s target is not so much Du Bois’s essay as the conduct and composition of today’s “talented tenth.” Affirmative action has expanded the black middle class to at least twice that size, by opening opportunities that had been closed in the past. But most of these professionals keep a distance from others lower on the scale. Even worse, they have been co-opted. “Today, we have a middle class that is beholden to the corporate, banking, and political elites,” West said in an interview last year (in which he reveals considerably more of himself than comes through in this book).8

West wishes to leave the impression that he has avoided this embrace. As an ordained minister, he makes a point at preaching at rural and inner-city churches, and he finds that those who have moved ahead are “viewed more and more with disdain and disgust by the black working poor and very poor.” Hence he fears that “not only class envy but class hatred will escalate, in the midst of a more isolated and insulated black America.” Unlike Gates, he spoke from Louis Farrakhan’s podium at the Million Man March. But at no point does he explore Farrakhan’s strange preoccupations—including his obsession with Jews—as Gates did at length in a recent New Yorker article. 9 Instead, he seeks to show his links with a wider constituency, by citing Mike Tyson, Al Sharpton, Marion Barry, and Ben Chavis as “brothers” who have his support. What seemingly draws West to these men is that they have gained prominence by building followings on their own, not through affirmative action. But it must be said that none seems likely to achieve much for his followers in redressing social grievances.

If affirmative action has a future, it will be as no more than a vestige of its former self. Politically, the programs never had widespread support and that lack is now glaringly apparent. Both the courts and public sentiment seem to agree that black and Hispanic citizens have exhausted their legal claims for preferential consideration. While no one uses “white rights” as a slogan, the current intent is to restore the position once accorded that race.

California’s November initiative will show how far women, at least half the electorate, feel attached to affirmative action. While among women aged twenty-five to fifty-four, over half—52 percent—are not following careers, many may see the proposed law as yet another measure aimed at downgrading women. Some alternative proposals would substitute economic disadvantage for race-based categories, especially with college admissions and scholarships. However, available information suggests that most such awards would go to lower-income Asians and whites, including immigrants from Eastern Europe.10

Each year we see growing portions of this country’s black population languishing in prison, begging on the streets, shooting one another, and condemned for having children they are seen as being unfit to rear. Affirmative action has been our most successful policy for bringing citizens of slave descent into the main currents of national life. Since 1970, black families who are upper middle class (incomes of at least $50,000 in constant dollars) have grown from 11.6 percent to 21.2 percent, a sharper rise than for whites. Even the ablest of black Americans have no illusions that bias has been eradicated and they know that without external pressure they would not be where they are. Further efforts to defend affirmative action will be immensely difficult; but without it, we will be taking a long step away from racial equity and parity.

Letters

Asians at UCLA October 3, 1996

  1. 1

    Louis Harris, “The Power of Opinion,” Emerge, March 1996, pp. 49-51.

  2. 2

    See Ronald Dworkin, “The Bakke Decision: Did It Decide Anything?”, New York Review, August 17, 1978, pp. 20-25.

  3. 3

    University systems in nine states—including Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—have joined in a brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Texas law school decision. All say they want more minority students, and need affirmative action to achieve their goals.

  4. 4

    Fortune, April 15, 1996.

  5. 5

    Thus far, no college I know of has undertaken to explain officially why it accepts children of alumni who displace other applicants with better records. Admissions deans like to refer to graduates as part of their institution’s “family,” but they avoid alluding to donations or other forms of support. For such a circumspect treatment, see Jean H. Fetter, Questions and Admissions: Reflections on 100,000 Admissions Decisions at Stanford (Stanford University Press, 1995), pp. 71-79.

  6. 6

    Why a Diverse Student Body is So Important,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 19, 1996.

  7. 7

    The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests of high school seniors found 57 percent of the girls reading in the first or second “proficiency level,” as against 44 percent of the boys. Eight percent of the girls scored in the highest level, compared with 5 percent of the boys. Digest of Education Statistics, 1994 (US Department of Education, 1994), Table 109.

  8. 8

    Affirmative Reaction,” Transition (Winter 1995), pp. 173-186.

  9. 9

    The Charmer,” New Yorker, April 29-May 6, 1996, pp. 116-131.

  10. 10

    For the figures, see my Two Nations (Ballantine, 1995), p. 146.

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