Affirmative Action: Doing What Is `Just'

Article excerpt

SEVERAL years ago, Sandra Day O'Connor said that the United States Supreme Court had not yet reached a consensus on affirmative action.

At the time, the justices, including Justice O'Connor, were sharply divided over whether race-conscious programs that favored blacks and other minorities in the workplace were addressing past discriminatory practices or reinforcing racism by mandating preferential employment of blacks over whites.

The court swung in both directions, supporting certain laws and agreements that generally addressed inequity but striking down others that resulted in reverse discrimination against white workers. Opposing forces clashed on basic philosophy.

The Reagan administration generally took the position that affirmative action needed to be "color-blind" and address individual biases case-by-case, rather than grapple with group discrimination stemming from historical disadvantage.

The liberal wing of the Supreme Court took the position that, in the words of Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, "in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently."

Conservatives charged that such favoritism reinforced the discriminatory "separate but equal" policies of the first half of the 20th century and promoted racism rather than eradicating it.

Today, the high court is no closer to consensus over affirmative action than it was four or five years ago.

Despite a clear conservative tilt - as a result of judicial appointments by former President Ronald Reagan - race-related remedies have not been ruled out, as many had predicted. Neither have they been cemented in. It's unclear whether President Bush's replacement for retiring Justice Brennan will tip the scales.

The justices' stance perhaps mirrors that of the general public. For the most part, whites believe that affirmative action has done its job and has afforded ample work opportunities for minorities, according to national surveys. Blacks say discrimination in jobs and pay still exists, say these same public-opinion soundings.

An end-of-term ruling by the Supreme Court, in Metro Broadcasting Inc. …