Affirmative action, as courts and administrative agencies define it, is a temporary, flexible policy of limited preferences for qualified individuals in order to remedy serious gender and racial imbalances. Affirmative action, as conservative politicians and media leaders describe it, is something else again: a system of rigid quotas that incorporates the very biases society should be seeking to eliminate.
During the early days of the Clinton administration, efforts to diversify presidential appointments raised lots of eyebrows. Caricatures of Clinton officials as "bean counters" ran in all the leading newspapers. One Boston Globe cartoon pictured an anxious president studying a spreadsheet of potential cabinet nominees with a few boxes checked ("Hispanic Males," "Black Females") but many left blank: "Icelandic Americans," "Gay Ambidextrous Americans," and "Lesbian Chess-Playing BeerDrinking Americans." Yet these critics rarely challenged the asserted "meritocracy" of past administrations, when presidents parceled out cabinet positions to friends, brothers, and campaign contributors, or when politicians "balanced" party tickets with the right mix of Irish Catholics and Episcopalian WASPs. As a Newsweek article, aptly titled "White Male Paranoia," pointed out, conservatives often objected that the Clinton administration's "insistence on appointing the best female attorney general baldly and publicly violated the canons of fair play and equal opportunity. So, of course, does the ratio of male to female attorneys general in American history: counting Janet Reno, it now stands at seventy-seven to one ...." Clinton's widely criticized efforts put women in only three of fourteen cabinet seats and almost no key White House advisory positions.
Bean counting is not exactly new in American political life or in other employment and educational contexts. But some things are new: the type of beans, the willingness to count out loud, and the backlash that results. The handwringing over Clinton's commitment to diversity typifies our current dilemma. Given the persistence of racial and gender bias, many women and men of color would never even get auditions for desirable positions without affirmative action. But when these individuals receive more than walk-on opportunities, they pay a substantial price: their qualifications, credibility, and self-confidence are subject to continual challenge.
Such mixed results have much to do with affirmative action's practical successes and political failures. The most effective initiatives have also been the most controversial: those that incorporate temporary preferences for qualified individuals. Social science research generally finds that such affirmative action programs have been moderately successful in increasing opportunities for underrepresented groups. Yet public opinion polls indicate that most forms of preferential treatment provoke substantial resistance. Although results vary somewhat depending on how questions are asked, about three-fourths of white men, two-thirds of white women, and two-fifths of people of color oppose preferences on the basis of race or gender.
Fueling this opposition is a range of concerns, some more explicit than others. Most critics claim a moral high ground; they maintain that sex- and race-based remedies subvert the premise of equal opportunity that they are seeking to establish. But underlying such objections are also less defensible assumptions and unstated anxieties. One widespread view is that women no longer need and seldom benefit from affirmative action. As participants in a recent survey put it, there may have been a problem "a hundred years ago." But that was then, and this is now. Qualified women can make it without special help. "After all, I did." Or "she did." A related assumption is that white women have more to lose than to gain from affirmative action. Many of these women "stand by their man," and oppose preferential-treatment programs that might jeopardize opportunities for their husbands or sons. …