Our state and nation are engaged in a debate that goes to the very foundation of the American dream. The question before us: Is preferential treatment based on race or gender consistent with the American Dream of equality under the law?
We are dealing with a charged issue that has been confused by emotionalism on all sides. But we cannot avoid taking a stand. We cannot sidestep this issue or pretend that it doesn't exist. For this question goes to the heart and soul of the American Dream--equality under the law.
The success of the civil rights movement, against enormous odds, was based on its appeal to our heritage that this nation was founded on: the principle, as Thomas Jefferson said, of "equal rights for all, special privileges for none."
Dr. Martin Luther King invoked that principle when he described his dream that his children would one day live in a nation "where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
That principle, however, is slipping away from us when we allow affirmative action programs that grant preferential treatment based on race or gender.
As conceived by President Kennedy, affirmative action merely prohibited discrimination by federal contractors and required that they treat their employees "without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin." But by 1970, the federal government had established regulations that required affirmative action through "goals and timetables." And while unintended in conception, in practice, they soon encouraged preferential treatment for members of the group being recruited and hired. Ultimately, affirmative action became expressly based on preferential treatment in the form of quotas and other efforts that made race and gender determining factors in employment, admissions and contracting decisions.
These preference programs proposed to go beyond merely ending discrimination. They proposed to make up for time and opportunity lost by members of a group that had suffered discrimination by basing employment decisions on race and gender. And if they did not explicitly prescribe lowering the bar on qualifications to do so, that too often was the result.
It is argued that it is perfectly permissible and right to impose wrongful discrimination on members of one group to compensate members of another. This is an unacceptable premise, but in the 1960s and 1970s, great societal guilt was felt in America for the wrongs of past discrimination. So it was natural to want to redress the just grievance of those whose mere membership in a group subjected them to denial of real opportunity.
But however natural this urge may have been in the beginning, its validity has steadily faded since. There is no virtue to membership in a group. Your race and gender are conferred upon you at birth. You render no specific service that earns the right to recognition, as do military veterans, for example.
While I have repeatedly declared that California should celebrate its diversity, achievement of diversity cannot be justification either for lowering qualifications or preferring race or gender to merit.
As President, Lyndon Johnson compared the effort to a foot race in which those who once had been shackled must be given some advantage--the inside track or even a bicycle--to keep up with other runners. Government played the role of enforcer. A full court press was made to persuade Americans that mandating and practicing inequality could bring equality. But, of course, it can't.
The contest simply isn't fair if we grant preferential treatment to some of the contestants based not on past discrimination, but simply on being born into a protected group. Even the architects of this system of special preferences never intended that it would last forever. No one envisioned that redressing two centuries of unfairness would launch a whole new era of unfairness. But it has.
Rather than uniting people around our common core, this system of preferential treatment constantly reminds us of our superficial differences. Instead of treating every American as an individual, it pits group against group, race against race. Instead of moving us forward toward a color-blind society, it is holding us back.
But worst of all, this system is eroding the American ideal that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules has an equal chance to achieve the American dream. Today, without finger-pointing at the misfired good intentions of 30 years ago, we must summon the courage to reassess the course we set.
In what has become a cliche, liberal commentators wrongly attribute the widespread demand for change to a vocal minority of "angry white males." But it is not just "angry white males" who think the time has come for change. Almost every American can sense the tension and unfairness this system of racial spoils has produced.