The Affirmative Action Controversy

By Kaplan, Morton A. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Affirmative Action Controversy


Kaplan, Morton A., The World and I


The Special Report "The Rise--and Fall?--of Affirmative Action" in the Current Issues section refers to a concept that is anything but clear. For instance, remedial education for a dyslexic child is a form of affirmative action to which few would object. Restricting the search for a job candidate to members of a particular ethnic group is a form of affirmative action to which many would object. Yet surely there are circumstances in which even this may be the appropriate thing to do. For instance, in a community in which the police have behaved badly toward some significantly large minority, the choice of a police chief from that minority may make such a significant contribution to social solidarity that it is the wise thing to do.

The previous generalization, however, should be handled with kid gloves. When I was a graduate student in New York, everyone knew that both a Jew and a Catholic would be on the state ticket of the major parties. As long as the communities did not demand this as a virtual entitlement, the actual choices were accommodations that the various communities that made up the electorate could accept as part of smart politics. When it becomes a public demand by the group in question, rather than a behind-the-scenes consideration, the matter becomes more problematic.

As a young Jew I knew how quotas kept many Jews from attending college. I thought that entrance to the university--or indeed the acquiring of any job--should depend strictly on merit. Then I heard a perhaps exaggerated but illuminating story from Herman Kahn. He told the tale of a clearly superior Jew who was turned down for a position at the RAND Corporation in favor of a less gifted gentile. He ran to the president to complain and learned of the 95 percent quota for Jewish professionals.

This story is revealing in a number of ways. It shows that all principles have limits beyond which they become counterproductive. On the other hand, because the concept of ethnic proportionality in occupations is usually unrelated to the actual characteristics of the candidate pool, it reveals that goals that become de facto quotas are destructive of the principle that positions should be awarded to those who possess abilities best suited to task requirements.

Make no mistake about it, the goals that were built into official affirmative action were implicit quotas designed to be achieved over some finite period. As such, they made a mockery of the principle of the right to equal treatment on the basis of performance that is at the heart of American ideals and also of our superior performance. The novels of Evelyn Waugh show how the failure to apply this principle led to the decadence of English industry in the interwar period. As a result, poor blacks may run a higher-than-usual risk of being killed through incompetence on the part of quota doctors (see "Clinton's Silenced Dialogue on Race" in the Currents in Modern Thought section). On the other hand, poor blacks, even more than poor whites, are likely to die from the inattention of some doctors who are prejudiced against them.

I do not doubt that prejudice, particularly against black Americans, is a fact of American life. The examples of Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey are somewhat misleading. True, if Powell had been the Republican candidate for president in 1992, he might well have been president today. Powell and Winfrey are examples of individuals who have been coopted into the dominant American culture. However, the violence of a visible minority of lower-class blacks is projected onto other blacks until they prove otherwise, thus depriving them of equal opportunity.

Special tests for acceptance are demeaning. When Herbert Goldhammer, a Jew, was offered a position at Stanford, Everett Hughes, the chairman of his department at Chicago, told him to remember that he now represented his race. He must dress well and bathe regularly. When I was sent to the Army Specialized Training Program at Stanford for graduate work in psychology, a junior faculty member told me of two long discussions about me in faculty meetings. …

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