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 and Lynn M. Sanders
University of Chicago Press, 391 pp., $27.50

The Future of the Race

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


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…

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