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Negatives vs. Affirmatives

Countermeasures against racism have gone too far for much too long.

June 24, 2003|Jim Sleeper | Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" (Roman & Littlefield, 2002) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (W.W. Norton, 1991).

Discrimination. Disparity. Disadvantage. Diversity. Across 30 years, the rationales have followed one another like mantras, justifying affirmative action in admissions offices, human resources departments and public programs.

Now, in the University of Michigan cases, the Supreme Court has fixed the diversity rationale in place for what could be another generation. That endangers both liberal education and real civic diversity by equating one's "culture" with one's skin color.

At first, affirmative action implied no such thing. Racial goals and timetables were introduced in the late 1960s only to document and stop discrimination, not to reinforce racial thinking. As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote much later in the Bakke case: "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race." And so we did, but with a vengeance.

For a while, color-coding and standard-bending was necessary to repair historical racial disadvantages that disqualified applicants even when equal opportunity was in place.

But even as hiring criteria in the workplace and admissions criteria in education were fine-tuned to remove racial bias, deep disparities persisted. As Lyndon Johnson had reminded us, racism hurt its victims in ways that wouldn't disappear the moment white attitudes changed and doors swung open.

But Americans are impatient. Faced with persistent racial gaps and in the face of charges that they were perpetuating an unfair system, affirmative action's champions got defensive: "What about all the patronage and legacy admissions given to deficient whites?" they asked, as if two wrongs and turning the tables would make a right. And some got excessive: To make every place "look like America," they bent standards ever lower while they denied that's what they were doing.

Yet by the early 1990s, such machinations seemed almost unnecessary as strong currents of nonwhite immigration and entrepreneurship, and sea changes in civic and pop culture, blurred some ethnic and racial boundaries.

It was then that affirmative action's most disingenuous rationale -- diversity -- emerged. It trumped concerns over discrimination, disparity and disadvantage. Magically, it turned some academic and professional deficiencies into cultural "differences" to be celebrated, like ebonics, or to be targeted by niche marketers, like gangsta rap.

True, some conservative chief executives and military commanders who joined liberals to defend diversity in the Michigan cases wanted to accelerate the racial integration that Justice Blackmun had envisioned. But liberals had changed; for them, the goal of diversity now made color-coding not a transitional strategy but a permanent dodge of the real challenges.

Some nonwhites see that color-coding risks submerging their individual dignity in race-group claims. It discounts their hard work to meet standards they consider not racist but universal and liberating. Many who resent being turned by race-weighted admissions into walking placards for disadvantage also dislike being turned into posters for diversity. No wonder that in the 1996 referendum on California's Proposition 209, 26% of black voters backed its abolition of affirmative action.

The Supreme Court has agreed with them enough to void the University of Michigan's "race points" undergraduate admissions formula, but it has maintained the diversity rationale in law school admissions -- even though you might think that qualified applicants who got a racial boost in college wouldn't need another for law school.

The court has diverted us all from two basic truths. For conservatives, the more important one is that damage caused by racism is severe enough to require transitional but daring public investments in early child-rearing and primary education. That kind of heavy lifting requires civic unity. Enforcing diversity in the military, which conservatives defend, works only because generals can order soldiers to remedy their deficiencies, on the taxpayer's dime.

But for liberals, the important truth is that some racist damage can be repaired only by the damaged themselves, with clear moral signals from a cohesive and, yes, demanding society. That's a different kind of heavy lifting. To shirk it is to discount the dignity of racism's victims. When low expectations demoralize and demobilize the poor, conservatives have an excuse for providing virtually no public investments at all.

The court should have forced us back to basics. Instead, its diversity rationale delays introducing the only D-words that should matter in American education and public life: daring and dignity.

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