In light of the decision last year by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow a lower court's ruling on Proposition 209 to stand, it seems as if the issue is resolved. Yet there are many observers who hope that the court's unwillingness to act will signal that society cannot depend on a legal remedy to resolve a social problem. If resolution is to be achieved, it must come from listening, respectful questioning, intelligent debate and collective goal-setting.
In viewing Regent Ward Connerly's opinions on affirmative action, I am reminded of the power of his presence. Certainly, the conservative forces knew what they were doing in choosing the image of a black man to champion their anti-affirmative action cause. Personality and presence aside, I now see his power in a different light. Real power is not just military might, physical force or even a regent's title and influence.
Real power is the ability to define reality and to make other people respond to that definition as if it were their own. Connerly's power, and to some measure Gov. Pete Wilson's, derives in part from defining issues in ways that exploit the fears and anxieties of the larger white community.
I take issue with their statements that equate the principles of affirmative action with preferences and quotas which consistently give advantage to unqualified people over more qualified ones.
First, affirmative action is about proactive recruitment, hiring (admission) and retention of qualified individuals and offering them the chance to take advantage of opportunities previously denied them through decades of discrimination and racist policies and practices.
Second, "merit" is a very subjective term and difficult to define. What becomes meritorious for some (i.e., test scores on an aptitude measure of employment or SAT scores) may have little, if anything, to do with qualification, competence and one's ability to take advantage of the opportunity being presented.
Third, the assertion that those assisted by affirmative action are all unqualified assumes that all whites admitted to school, awarded contracts, or hired into career positions have been the most qualified of the candidate pools.
All of this talk of unqualified people of color contaminating our "meritocracy" can be disputed by simply examining the facts. Examination of national trends will show that white women, and not people of color, have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action programs. In addition, the so-called "unqualified affirmative action candidates" seem to do as well or better than their white male counterparts on some outcome measures.
Framing the affirmative action argument incorrectly has led opponents to focus on evaluating the effectiveness of particular affirmative action remedies and the consequences they hold for those not included. I would argue that this focus is a little bit off-center.
Many affirmative action programs initially were designed to address the structural inequities that existed in the larger society. Clearly racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination dominated the policies and practices of academic institutions and corporate boardrooms. This being the case, the real question Wilson, Connerly and other affirmative action opponents should be asking is not whether affirmative action programs work but whether we as a society have addressed the structural inequities that existed historically. I would offer an emphatic no.
Given that Proposition 209 is the law of the state, the challenge is to ensure that we eliminate all forms of discrimination. Do Connerly and Wilson plan to attack discrimination with the same zeal they applied to their assault on affirmative action?
Another challenge revolves around the question of how we who run the institutions of society make equity and fairness real for underrepresented people. Assuming our society is committed to diversity, how do we maintain a commitment to multiculturalism and diversity in the absence of remedies like affirmative action?
A third challenge is measuring progress toward achieving this "colorblind" ideal.
A fourth revolves around how we enforce antidiscrimination laws and sentiments and establish greater levels of accountability. I know the laws are on the books, but how do we convert theory into practice?
Ultimately, the tensions that exist between the pro- and anti-affirmative action forces will not dissipate without a commitment from everyone to make the principles of fairness and equity operational and to eliminate racism and sexism in our society. As long as these social ills exist, we will need programs like affirmative action to help level the playing field.
Thomas A. Parham is assistant vice chancellor, counseling and health services, and director of the Counseling Center at UC Irvine.