The Shady Legacy of Affirmative Action


As right-wingers and resentful whites step up the attack on affirmative action, it's easy to lose sight of the reasons why some liberals and Blacks oppose--and should oppose--racial preferences.

One of these arguments comes from Shelby Steele, a Black writer who is famous for his penetrating insights into the psychology of affirmative action. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Steele reiterates his long-standing critique. Affirmative action is really a "iconographic public policy--policy that ostensibly exists to solve a social problem but actually functions as an icon for the self-image people to hope to gain by supporting the policy."

Steele has long held that white liberals gain from affirmative action for more than Blacks do. By supporting affirmative action, white liberals convince themselves and others of their own social virtue, symbolically atoning for white guilt.

Blacks, meanwhile, are left to grapple with affirmative action's more ambiguous implications. Affirmative action expands opportunities for Blacks through racial preferences, but also corrupts Black achievements with doubts.

As long as admissions and hiring preferences favor Blacks on the basis of race, can Blacks ever escape the gnawing uncertainty over whether they would still have gotten in had they been white? In 1985, Derek Bok stated that if admissions were colorblind, only I percent of Harvard's entering class would be Black. In Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Yale Law professor Stephen Carter flatly admits, "I got into law school because I am Black." For other Black professionals, Carter writes, "the matter of who got where and how is left in a studied and, I think, purposeful ambiguity."

Affirmative action has shady origins. Mysteriously, liberals somehow came to abandon to the color-blind ideal of the Civil Rights Movement and embrace the entrenched quotas, targets, and racial preferences of affirmative action.

The original thrust of affirmative action was unambiguously color-blind. In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "affirmative action" refered to acts such as hiring or reinstatement of employees that a court would order an employer found guilty of actual discrimination to take. Otherwise, employers were explicitly not required to grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race on account of a racial imbalance or disparity among employees.

Similarly, Executive Order 11246, issued in 1965, ordered federal employers and contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

While guiding the Civil Right Act through the Senate, Sen. Hubert Humphrey explicitly assured senators that the bill "does not require an employer to achieve any kind of racial balance in his work force by giving preferential treatment to any individual or group." In a memo to the Senate, the floor managers of the bill assured their colleagues that "any deliberate attempt to maintain a racial balance, whatever such a balance may be, would involve a violation of Title VII [of the Act] because maintaining such a balance would require an employer to hire or to refuse to hire on the basis of race."

Despite these careful assurances, affirmative action departed radically from the color-blind standard and became a system of racial balances and group preferences. Where work forces were founded to be racially imbalanced, employers were now required to establish numerical "goals" and "timetables" for correcting the imbalance and to demonstrate "good faith" efforts to achieve racial proportionality.

What caused this reversal? The main impetus was violence. In 1966 and 1967, hundreds of riots exploded in cities across America, culminating in the violence following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. The Kerner Commission, appointed to discover the roots of these riots, concluded that the government had to implement nothing less than extraordinary measures to improve the lot and quell the growing resentment of Blacks. The reported warned of "the feelings of desperation and anger which breed civil disorders."

The Kerner commission recommended "a comprehensive approach designed to reconstruct the ghetto child's social and intellectual environment, compensate for disadvantages already suffered and provide necessary tools for development of essential literary skills." But policymakers, strapped for money and short on time, rejected the comprehensive approach and opted for a quick and dirty one.

Rather than producing a serious legislative program to improve the preconditions of Black success (e.g., good primary and secondary schools, freedom from criminal violence, and family stability), the federal government decided to take a shortcut, pressuring employers and universities to ensure an "equality of results" via employment law and federal regulations.

The result, according to Andrew Kull, a historian of civil rights legislation, was that "[e]xpenditure was minimized, because the really expensive part of the traditional [liberal] prescription--substantial government intervention to alter the lives of the truly disadvantaged--was being abandoned."

As a final shady irony, historian Herman Belz notes that President Richard Nixon--by virtue of his "decisive executive branch support for color-conscious policies"--was most responsible for the abandonment of the color-blind standard and the commitment of government to racial preferences, targets and set-asides.