President Bill Clinton's order to review federal programs that give preferential treatment to minorities airs an issue that promised - or threatened - to be a major point of contention in next year's election. Mr. Clinton insists that evaluating such affirmative action programs is not the same as retreating from them, and until he shows differently, voters should take him at his word. When the review is complete, he should make sure the federal government maintains its commitment to the goals that the programs were designed to accomplish.
As the phrase "affirmative action" has become a polarizing influence, its true meaning has been obscured. At its root, it simply means not letting society go as it always has, regardless of the consequences, but actively making changes to achieve a desired end. In this case, the end was to ensure that in a number of areas - hiring, education, lending, contracts - all races are treated fairly.
The difficulty comes, of course, because the races - and for the most part, the sexes - have never been treated equally. People tend to hire, reward, accept and do business with people much like themselves. For most of this nation's history, the people who made those decisions have been white males. Whether their decisions have been made out of ignorance, malice or simple inertia, those in power have chosen people like them, perpetuating the cycle.
Affirmative action was designed to force decision makers to look beyond themselves, to acknowledge that people of other races and the opposite sex have unique talents and perspectives that deserve to be heard and used. No nation has so many gifted minds that a significant portion of them can be ignored without consequence.
With a finite number of jobs, contracts, loans and student slots available, though, once new people were brought into the system, others were necessarily excluded. …