The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action

By Richard D. Kahlenberg | Go to book overview

2 Affirmative Action Gone Astray

IN THE LATE 1960s, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the retirement of Lyndon Johnson, and the election of Richard Nixon, the direction of civil rights thinking changed dramatically. King and Johnson had spoken of compensating black America in the context of a broad, ambitious effort to create a Great Society, one with genuine equal opportunity, a genuine color blindness, and a naturally integrated future. The path chosen after their departures focused on a narrow zero-sum effort, pitting the very groups King had sought to unite against each other and following a theory of compensation that many Americans refused to accept. Then, in the late 1970s, came a second shift, just as important as the first but much more subtle, as the justification for affirmative action moved from compensation to diversity, from racial preferences as a temporary bridge to color blindness to racial preferences as a permanent way of life. In the first shift, affirmative action wandered from its noble roots; in the second, it broke with them completely and irretrievably.


FROM COLOR-BLIND TO COLOR-CONSCIOUS REMEDIES

The first great line of demarcation was King's assassination in 1968. In response to his death, and more profoundly to the riots that ensued, America -- its universities, its new president, its businesses, and its civil rights leaders -- decided not to answer the demands of Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign, which would have been very expensive, but rather to implement a system of explicitly racial preferences. Ignoring the fact that

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