How Much Affirmative Action? Racial Preference Laws Promote New Forms of Discrimination

Article excerpt

The apologists for today's racial spoils system typically accuse its opponents of working to "end affirmative action." Those who believe in racial equality too often slide into this semantic trap by agreeing that, on affirmative action, they wish to "end it, not mend it." Such language alarms members of minority groups who fear that a new era of racism is just a ballot measure away.

Whether they realize it or not, the racial egalitarians who populate GOP and free-market circles are no more plotting to "end affirmative action" than they are trying to "end the environment." The trouble is a phrase that agglomerates several concepts, some wildly popular, others fuel for pyrotechnic passions. Scrapping the unwieldy term "affirmative action" and instead discussing its ingredients would disperse much of the smoke that engulfs race relations today.

"Affirmative action" comprises at least three components: * Outreach. Where minorities have endured discrimination, it's fine for public agencies to inform a spectrum of citizens about potential jobs, classroom seats and government contracts. No one suffers when the CIA recruits potential black spies by placing an ad in Headway, a black conservative magazine. In New York, the Police Department has arranged for prospective applicants of Asian ancestry to speak with similar members of New York's Finest. Outreach efforts enjoy widespread support. Here, even Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms can get along. * Anti-discrimination laws. Across the ideological continuum, Americans concur that a qualified would-be fireman who is fired because of his race should receive his due, whether that's a rung on the hook-and-ladder or, perhaps, financial damages. Anti-discrimination laws are more controversial when applied to the private sector. Supporters say bias is inappropriate in commercial establishments. Critics believe the First Amendment's free association rights allow people on private property to work, eat or exercise with or without whomever they wish. Though prejudice might bar some from certain places, these "free associates" would encourage inclusiveness through boycotts, persuasion and ridicule, rather than state action. * Group preferences. Such actions as race-normed tests, racially gerrymandered legislative districts and contract set-asides generate perhaps 90 percent of the commotion over "affirmative action." Those on the right correctly oppose, for example, the entrance exam for San Francisco's Lowell Academy. The top score on this selective public high school's admissions test is 69. To pass, those of Chinese descent must earn at least 62. Whites and other "yellows" need 58 or more. Blacks and Hispanics? 53. The assumption that brilliant Chinese can leap the highest hurdles while blacks and browns need the bar lowered is bigoted, no matter how intended. …