Proponents of the proposed "California civil rights initiative" are correct that affirmative action has gone too far. The time for reassessment, they properly conclude, has come.
The problem, though, is not that we pay too much attention to racial categories, but that we pay too little. We lose sight of why race looms as such an ominous cloud over our society.
Most current applications of affirmative action represent a dramatic expansion of the policy's original impetus and stray from its most compelling rationale. In the process, affirmative action has alienated the public on whose support it depends. Indeed, affirmative action has lost its way.
The most compelling reason for affirmative action is to address the legacy of our nation's greatest shame: slavery and its aftermath, the black-white racial hierarchy that has most marked this country. As the condition of a large segment of black America attests, slavery's legacy has never been undone; its harms never redressed. The litany of woes verges on cliche: more black men in prison than in college, more black children with one parent than two, homicide the leading cause of death for young black men, and so on.
Unfortunately, affirmative action's most persuasive rationale is now the least discussed. Historically rooted affirmative action has given way to "diversity," a concept whose broad net pulls in everyone from Pacific Islanders to the disabled to gay men and lesbians to recently arrived immigrants. Many affirmative-action programs, influenced by the diversity concept, now include groups scarcely considered when affirmative action was first implemented.
We have rejected the moral imperative to redress the injuries suffered by those whose ancestors endured slavery in favor of the dubious benefits of "diversity." Although rarely clearly articulated, the idea of the diversity movement is that all groups should be represented in American businesses and institutions. While this is not objectionable (of course all groups should have a chance), it ignores that historically some groups have been more excluded than others.
We have also strayed from affirmative action's historically rooted underpinning by making affirmative-action beneficiaries of blacks whose ancestors never bore the curse of slavery in the United States. A disproportionate amount of affirmative-action assistance goes to blacks who freely emigrated to America (or whose forebears did so) from Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, Nigeria and a host of other African or Caribbean nations. Data on this, of course, is difficult to obtain due to the general clumping together of blacks, regardless of background or immigrant status. But anyone who has attended an elite college, graduate or professional school knows that immigrants and their progeny account for a shockingly high percentage of the black students. The same is true in careers such as law, medicine and engineering.
Granting affirmative-action benefits to Pacific Islanders or immigrant blacks does little to undo the legacy of slavery and systematic racial oppression. In fact, current formulations of affirmative-action programs blind us to the history with which we need to grapple and mislead us about the progress we have made. Prestigious universities that take pride in the numbers of black students they have enrolled would find their tallies much lower if those students whose ancestors weren't slaves were excluded.
Limiting affirmative action to indigenous blacks would also address the complaint that more affluent blacks frequently benefit at the expense of poor whites. As Thomas Sowell and others have noted, immigrant blacks earn substantially more than indigenous blacks.
Rather than decry affirmative action and bellow about the evil of racial preferences, we should recast it to benefit those who bear the brunt of the past. Only then will we have begun to fashion a society in which those historically victimized no longer remain so.