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Affirmative Action or Negative Action
Is There a Different Way to Frame the Debate Over Race-Based Preference?
It was 1986, and I was having a discussion with my freshman composition class at Santa Clara University about racial preference. Several white students were telling me about friends who should have gotten into SCU but didn't because the University was accepting so many "affirmative action students." Others were assuring me that they would have been accepted at Stanford if some minority student had not gotten their slot.
There were no African American students in the class; at that time, the freshman African American population at Santa Clara stood at 24 out of the total 886 freshmen. When I tried to get my students to look at the numbers and explain why they felt so threatened, they regarded me with the half-indulgent look college students used to reserve for 60s children such as myself and shrugged. They knew what they knew.
And me? As much as I liked my students, I found it easy to write off their opinions as racist, or at the least, paranoid.
Ten years later, as the issue of affirmative action threatens to fracture the state of California in the next election, I think back on that conversation. It has come to represent for me what is wrong with the public dialogue on this subject: We throw out anecdotal evidence, mixed with a few facts and figures, and then we all retreat into our preconceived ideas without any empathetic consideration of the other side. At least I know I was not really listening to what my students had to say.
I do not mean to suggest that I have changed my mind about affirmative action. I still support it, which may seem a strange admission in the introduction to an article that I hope will be seen as an evenhanded exploration of the ethical issues involved. But I have come to believe that in the affirmative action debate, at least we cannot move forward unless we understand the justice of the other side's position.
A Controversy Over Justice
For simplicity, I'll confine myself to exploring how this premise applies to race (which, by the way, is how the debate over affirmative action is usually couched, despite the fact that such programs include women and other minorities). Most people agree that the history of slavery and Jim Crow in this country violated the first premise of justice. The color of someone's skin is not a morally justifiable reason for treating people differently.
Ah, but if that's so, say opponents of affirmative action, why is it acceptable to favor people because of their skin color? If everyone were treated similarly, wouldn't we have a colorblind society? Indeed, the California Civil Rights Initiative, the November ballot proposition that seeks to overturn affirmative action, reads like this:
"The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."
To clarify the values that make us come down on one or the other side in this debate, we must address the justice of preference. In the case of affirmative action, we must decide if there are ever circumstances that make it fair to favor one race over another when it comes to jobs or university admissions.
A related concept brings this argument into the present: Affirmative action, proponents hold, neutralizes the competitive disadvantages that African Americans continue to experience because of past discrimination; segregated neighborhoods served by poor schools would be an example.
President Johnson had this justification for preferential treatment in mind when he signed the 1964 Voting Rights Act and said: "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, 'You are free to compete...' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."
While the argument for compensatory justice seems persuasive to me, I find that it often plays differently with the folks who are called upon to do the compensating. First of all, many people are not ready to concede their complicity in the wrongs of the past. It's very hard to persuade a young Asian college applicant, whose parents did not arrive in this country for a century after abolition, that she must take responsibility for slavery. Others cannot see how their race puts them at a competitive advantage. Most Appalachian out-of-work coal miners donÕt see themselves as the benefici-aries of past favoritism.
Even the average white male who has weaker grounds for rejecting the compensatory argument is beginning to rebel against racial preference. While it may fall outside the realm of morality to consider whether an argument is popular or not, those of us who want affirmative action to continue must confront the fact that many Americans believe these programs are asking them to take their punishment like...well, like a man. A lot of them are refusing to bend over.
A Common Good Approach
I look around me at the poverty, crime, and alienation that so disproportionately afflict our minority communities and I ask myself, Is this the kind of society I want to live in or the world I want my children to grow up in? The answer to that question is much clearer to me than deciding where justice resides in the affirmative action debate.
This is not simply a matter of feeling compassion or guilt, though neither of those responses strikes me as inappropriate. But beyond how I feel, I have a stake in addressing these problems. I know that social blights cannot be confined to a particular neighborhood or community; eventually, I will pay for every angry, jobless, poorly educated person through the welfare system and through the prison system (the cost of which is fast surpassing schools in California).
However imperfect, affirmative action has made a small dent in the inequities that have characterized the distribution of jobs and educational opportunities in the United States. According to The New York Times, "The percentage of blacks in managerial and technical jobs doubled during the affirmative action years. During the same period, as Andrew Hacker pointed out in his book Two Nations [Ballantine Books, 1992], the number of black police officers rose from 24,000 to 64,000 and the number of black electricians, from 14,000 to 43,000."
Abolition of affirmative action would clearly reverse these gains. Cities that have dropped minority set aside programs, for example, have experienced a sharp drop in the percentage of government contracts going to minorities.
To say that these programs should be retained is not, however, to ignore the claims of fairness and justice raised by opponents of affirmative action. But I wonder if we need to define these in the competitive manner that has characterized so much of the debate --"You got my spot," as my students might have put it. Wouldn't it be better to create a vision of a society in which my good fortune did not mean your suffering?
Addressing the Underlying Scarcity
That was the experience in Atlanta, which, in preparation for this summer's Olympic Games, awarded almost a third of $387 million in construction and vending contracts to women- and minority-owned businesses. "Grumbling has been minimal during Olympic preparations, largely because Atlanta's economy is so strong that work has been plentiful," writes Kevin Sack in The New York Times.
A common-good argument for affirmative action is part of a broader approach that envisions a society with plentiful work and good education for everyone. I can imagine the eyeballs rolling as I write these lines. Naive. Utopian. But, really, every ethical system is utopian in that it suggests an ideal. Why is my concept any more idealistic than the California Civil Rights Initiative, which is premised on a colorblind society where no one is ever discriminated against on the basis of race?
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