George W. Bush's attack on the University of Michigan's affirmative action
admissions policy came just weeks after he helped dump Majority Leader
Trent Lott, whose offhand nostalgia for Strom Thurmond's segregationist
past tarnished the modern Republican image. The Bushies figure that fulminating
against old-fashioned blatant racism provides cover for their more polite
institutional variant. They're probably right.
Still, the greatest barrier to meaningful equality in our astonishingly
unequal society is not unconcealed haters for whom Thurmond's Dixiecrats
are more model than embarrassment. They're dangerous, yes, but not dominant.
It's not even the Supreme Court, which might end affirmative action even
before Bush appoints new justices. More significant are mainstream middle-class
whites with no particular animosity toward the people of color with whom
Many ordinary white Americans insist they never judge anyone by the color
of their skin and prefer to notice how far we have come, not how far we
have yet to go. Many younger ones don't know that segregation was not
just tolerated but legally mandated. They say they want anti-discrimination
laws enforced. And they're reasonably troubled by documented evidence
of persistent discrimination -- job applicants with "white-sounding"
names in a recent study getting more calls for interviews than "black-sounding"
applicants with identical resumes; African American and Hispanic motorists
stopped and searched by police more often than whites, even though, in
a recent report, the whites more often carried drugs; the death penalty
imposed disproportionately on those who murder white people, especially
when the killer is black.
Some continuing bias is attributable to outright racists -- employers
and landlords, cops and prosecutors, judges and jurors consciously preserving
Yet more often than not discriminators do try to assess situations based
on relevant nonracial facts. The problem is failing to recognize how cultural
stereotypes affect what we consider relevant, especially in ambiguous,
subjective circumstances such as deciding whom to hire, search, or execute.
That's why equality requires countering not just bare-faced racism but
the stereotype-driven everyday acts of people who are not racists, only
Back when Thurmond's crowd demanded the traditional right to segregate,
anti-discrimination law was the most promising attack on a vulnerable
status quo. Yet for many activists, legal equality was just the means
to an end that simply banning intentional discrimination could never achieve:
economic, social, and political equality.
Since then, the balance has shifted. Abandoning their ideological Thurmondian
progenitors, today's conservatives concede that nondiscrimination law
is necessary -- but they also insist it's sufficient. History is legally
irrelevant, they claim, because now we're all equal in the eyes of blind
Most liberals -- realizing that ending discrimination makes nary a dent
in wealth and power built on centuries of slavery, segregation, and privilege
-- advocate additional steps to provide equal opportunity outside the
courtroom where it counts. And indeed affirmative action has helped bring
better education and jobs to those traditionally excluded (especially
middle-class people of color and white women). It makes schools and workplaces
somewhat more diverse, a societal good ignored by conservatives focused
only on color-blind individual rights.
But, unfortunately, too many affirmative action supporters believe bureaucratically
administered equal opportunity is the best we can hope for and that true
equality of results is simply impossible.
Affirmative action remains necessary, but it's neither perfect nor enough.
Defensive supporters sometimes deny that, like any bureaucratic system,
affirmative action makes mistakes. They too infrequently address in sufficient
detail underlying questions -- what does it mean to be qualified? who
determines the standards and measures? when should society reward those
with the most measured merit, and when instead capable others with greater
need? The underlying implication that the pain felt by passed-over guiltless
whites is either deserved or unimportant threatens affirmative action's
survival in a capitalist society that refuses to provide decent education
and jobs to everyone.
Not surprisingly, better solutions face stiff resistance. Attempts to
force the U.S. government to fulfill the post-Civil War 40-acres-and-a-mule
promise to former slaves (with compensation in amounts meaningful today)
have gone nowhere. Efforts to recoup profits from slavery-enriched corporations
have yet to be addressed in court; any payments will likely stem from
public pressure rather than judicial rulings. Reparations raise so many
complex issues that they're easily dismissed.
But the justification for reparations seems more intuitive than the case
for affirmative action. The government that allowed slavery still exists
-- under the Constitution, our institutions connect seamlessly to the
past. Corporations have legal immortality; it's time they faced the downside
as well as the advantages. Even new immigrants whose ancestors enslaved
no one benefit from a society built on slave labor.
Descendants of slaves deserve compensation for stolen labor and lost
lives regardless of their current class position. Affirmative action,
though still important, remains a second-best alternative.