Origins and Development of
Race-Conscious Affirmative Action
O ne of the great puzzles of modern American history is the speed with which race-conscious implementation policies in the 1970s followed the triumph of liberal nondiscrimination in the 1960s. As sociologist John David Skrentny pointed out in his 1996 book, The Ironies of Affirmative Action, so powerful was the American belief in the principle of color-blind law by the 1970s that advocacy of racial preference became one of the “third rails” of American politics: Touch it and you die. 1Race-conscious affirmative action is a familiar term of journalistic convenience. It identifies unambiguously the controversial element of minority preferences in distributing benefits. But it also conflates racially targeted civil rights remedies with affirmative action preferences for groups, such as Hispanics and women, given protected class status irrespective of race. For this reason, editors of The New Republic substituted the term hard affirmative action. It includes nonracial as well as racial preferences, and it distinguishes such remedies, available only to officially designated protected classes, from the soft affirmative action of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, which emphasized special outreach programs for recruiting minorities but did so within a traditional liberal framework of equal individual rights for all Americans. In these pages, the descriptors raceconscious and hard affirmative action will be used interchangeably.
The architects of race-conscious affirmative action, Skrentny observes, developed their remedy in the face of public opinion heavily arrayed against it. Unlike most public policy in America, hard affirmative action was originally adopted without the benefit of any organized lobbying by the major interest groups involved. Instead, government bureaucrats, not