Affirmative Action: A Symbol under Siege

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It was never supposed to be permanent, and after some 30 years the time may have come for government "affirmative action" to cease. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D.-Conn.), upon assuming the chairmanship of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council earlier this year, expressed the now-widespread view: racial and gender preferences are "patently unfair."

California is taking the lead in the dismantlement. Governor Pete Wilson recently ordered scores of state affirmative action programs curtailed or eliminated, and a proposition to prohibit the state from discriminating in its employment, contracting, and school admissions is expected to be on the ballot next year. In Washington, President Bill Clinton, prodded by Republican victories at the polls, has ordered a review of federal affirmative action programs.

To Don Wycliff, editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, affirmative action "looks like a goner." Although he says that "not happily, but resignedly," he writes in Commonweal (May 19, 1995), he has long been somewhat troubled by affirmative action. "It really can foster doubt about the legitimacy of the achievements of those it's meant to benefit--not just in the minds of white males, but also in the minds of the blacks, women, or other beneficiaries."

Shelby Steele, author of The Content of Our Character (1990), has been making that same point for years. Writing on the New York Times op-ed page (Mar. 1, 1995), he contends that affirmative action "has always been what might be called iconographic public policy--policy that ostensibly exists to solve a social problem but actually functions as an icon for the self-image people hope to gain by supporting the policy." White supporters feel virtuous, blacks empowered. The uncomfortable reality, Steele says, "can be seen in two remarkable facts: middle-class white women have benefited from it far more than any other group, and 46 percent of all black children live in poverty."

Affirmative action has increased the presence of minorities in the professions and at some corporations, universities, and public agencies, observes Princeton University sociologist Paul Starr in the journal he coedits, the American Prospect (Winter 1992). But this "genuine positive benefit ... has not come without cost." It has fueled white racism, and even its beneficiaries have been hurt by that.

For blacks, the loss of affirmative action "will be more symbolic than substantive," Wycliff says. "To be sure, affirmative action has wrought some genuine successes--I count my own education and career among them. But overall, in terms of bringing black people to parity with whites, it has not overwhelmed."

In the view of Roger Wilkins, a professor of history at George Mason University, however, affirmative action "has done wonderful things for the United States by enlarging opportunity and developing and utilizing a far broader array of the skills available in the American population than in the past. It has not outlived its usefulness."

Some aspects do need to be reconsidered and even, in certain cases, abandoned, Wilkins concedes in the Nation (Mar. 27, 1995). "It is not a quota program, and those cases where rigid numbers are used (except under a court or administrative order after a specific finding of discrimination) are a bastardization of an otherwise highly beneficial set of public policies."

But it may be too late for such tinkering. When, beginning in the 1970s, the concept o affirmative action was expanded beyond blacks to cover women and various ethnic groups, support for it was bound to be undermined, Don Wycliff says, because that expansion diluted "the sense that this was an obligation to justice. …