Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2003 / 13 Shevat, 5763
End racism in affirmative action
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The Bush administration and the U.S. Supreme Court now face the same quandary: how to handle the competing needs of the poor for affirmative action and the society for a racially neutral environment.
With two cases challenging affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan now on the court docket, the Supreme Court - and the Bush administration - has a chance to strike down race- and gender-based preference programs but, at the same time, permit objectively based efforts to help the poor and underprivileged.
Too often the debate on affirmative action is cast in a simplistic context. The parties' political positions on affirmative action are dogmatically pro and con, reflecting the needs of their political bases.
The Democrats are so heavily indebted for campaign contributions and political support to the official black and feminist organizations that are dependent on affirmative action set asides that they cannot act independently. The Republicans are reflexively captive of their base, which opposes any aid or advantage to anyone but themselves.
But public policy should militate toward a plague on both of them. We need a way to help the poor without being racist about it. Neither answer is the right one. It is morally, ethically, legally, constitutionally and democratically wrong to base preferences on race, gender, religion or any other immutable characteristic.
Reverse racism is still racism. Reverse gender bias is still bias. But it is just as misguided to end programs designed to level the playing field for those from poor families or who live in poor neighborhoods.
In a world where one of eight new admissions to Harvard are effectively reserved for the children of alumni, some kind of affirmative action is necessary to redress the balance and give the poor a chance at upward mobility.
But to base this access to opportunity on race or gender is un-American. The law must be color-blind and gender neutral. But it must not ignore the need to help those who are born into the underclass to move up the social and economic ladder.
Affirmative action is a good idea. It should be continued. It ought not to be struck down. But it should be based on objective measurements such as family income, impoverished background or residence in a poor neighborhood. All affirmative action programs, those that award admissions to schools and those that give the advantage to minority- or female-headed firms in government contracts, should be based on objective criteria.
The Supreme Court should strike down those programs that are based on race or gender, but leave the door open to affirmative action to combat poverty and deprivation.
One half of all poor children in the United States live in households headed by a white man. One in eight live in a home with only a white male adult. These poor people deserve the same consideration and the same advantages as we confer on families headed by women or by minorities. Poor is poor and it makes no difference what is the color or gender of the poverty.
It is particularly important that the Supreme Court close the door on preference programs which award a certain percentage of their construction and other contracts to firms headed by women or minorities. These programs too often reward companies only nominally run by a member of the protected class or, worse, give preferences to wealthy black, Hispanic, or female businesspeople in the name of fighting poverty.
These set-aside programs - which set aside a certain percentage of contracts for protected categories - should be based on only two criteria: Are the companies based in inner-city poor areas? And do they employ large numbers of poor people?
Democratic politicians regard set-aside programs as a political gravy train to reward minority and feminist constituents, many of whom need no help. By targeting the poor, rather than the female or the black, affirmative action can more nearly approximate its initial raison d'etre - to help the poor.
The Bakke decision, which has stood for two decades as the Supreme Court's word on affirmative action, was an unimaginative compromise which, while prohibiting quotas in university admissions, allowed pursuit of diversity in which race was considered as one of a number of factors. The public interest in enriching the university experience by having a diverse student body is minor compared to the need to use affirmative action to promote admission to elite schools as a way to shuffle the social deck and help the poor come out on top.
Conservatives rant against affirmative action as reverse racism. Insofar as it is
based on the color of one's skin, they are right. But we should extend preferences to
poor people who do not have a rich uncle or well-connected father to arrange jobs,
interviews and university admissions for them. If we don't, we risk betraying the
dream of upward mobility. But if we base these preferences on race and gender, we
endanger the equally important dream of a color-blind and gender-neutral
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
01/13/03: The new swing voter