Affirming Racial Inequality: The Right's Attack on Affirmative Action
By Jean Hardisty
The following article is an excerpt
Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise
Keepers, by Jean Hardisty, (Beacon Press, 1999).
To many white people, affirmative action
is palatable because it helps white women, as well as men and women of color.
The strategy of emphasizing its benefit to white women can therefore be an
effective strategy for defending
affirmative action. But the political struggle over affirmative action is
really about race, not gender. The
right attacks affirmative action primarily on the grounds of race, even when
the attacker is a person of color.
Although the right masks the racial animus behind
its attack on affirmative action, that attack provides an instructive case
study of the subtlety and effectiveness of the right's "new" racism.
Affirmative action has been high on the right's hit list since the mid-1960s.
Its virtual defeat in the policy arena and in the voting booth exemplifies how
a well-funded and highly-coordinated political movement has engineered a
retreat from the goal of decreasing economic and social inequality and has
redefined fairness to apply only to the individual, not to the group.
Similar to its campaign against welfare or its attack on lesbians and gay men,
the right incubated the campaign against affirmative action in the 1960s and
1970s, designed its implementation in the 1980s, and brought it to fruition in
When the early architects of affirmative
action developed it as a policy to benefit African Americans, who had mounted a
strong civil rights movement to demand an end to racial discrimination, the
right reacted almost immediately. Later, when other people of color and
white women began to benefit from affirmative action, many white people
continued to see affirmative action as a program to benefit African Americans.
The right often frames the issue to reinforce that perception, perhaps because,
in the United States, African Americans are the principal target of white
racism, and benefits for Blacks, especially if they are cast as "special"
benefits, are politically unpopular among many white voters.
In the 1980s, the first decade of the
right's electoral power, its strategists refined the ideological basis for the
attack on affirmative action and developed various tactics for rolling it
back. During the same decade, Ronald Reagan's appointment of at least half the
entire judiciary ensured that the US Supreme Court and the lower courts would
abandon their role as a bulwark against reactionary initiatives. In the 1990s,
having refined its arguments and softened the terrain of public opinion,
the right struck its blow in the legislative arena. The result has been a
triumph for the "new racism" and enormous setbacks for the gains of the civil
Affirmative Action as an Extension of the Civil Rights Movement
The right is
correct when it claims that affirmative action is a government-imposed
extension of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although affirmative action was not
included in the Civil Rights Act, very soon after the Act was passed, the
government was compelled to develop it, reflecting the urgent demand for
justice from the civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson, President in 1964, put the power of his office behind a
liberal vision of affirmative action. His strategy was to mandate it
throughout the executive branch of government, thereby making it
the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, the Johnson Administration relied on the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which had been created to
enforce Title VII, the employment section of the Act. Jobs and promotions
would then be based on the principles of meritocracy,
with open competition and the "best" person, determined in a
non-dis-criminatory way, winning. In those more optimistic times, civil rights
supporters of all races thought that the removal of racial discrimination would
allow Black people to "win" their proportionate share of jobs and promotions.
Many people were moved by the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he
called for a society in which people are judged not by the color of their
skin, but by the content of their character. It is particularly painful to see
the right appropriate King's words and use them to attack affirmative
Right-wing authors seldom note that Dr. King
understood that eliminating discrimination would not be an adequate corrective
to a history of racist oppression. In his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait, King wrote:
Whenever this issue of compensatory
or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil
in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask
for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not
realistic. For it is obvious that if a man is entering the starting line in a
race three hundred years after
another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in
order to catch up with his fellow runner.
King was correct. It quickly became clear to civil
rights activists and supporters within the Johnson Administration that the 1964
Civil Rights Act alone would not eliminate discriminatory practices in hiring
and promotion, and even when it did, Blacks and other people of color would be
unable to compete with more-advantaged white applicants because the playing
field of preparation and past opportunity was not level. Further measures were
necessary, and the Johnson Administration responded with executive orders,
Justice Department lawsuits, and Department of Labor regulations. In 1965
Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which required affirmative action only
from employers holding contracts with the federal government, included
sanctions for those who did not, and ultimately created the Office of
Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) within the Labor Department. During
this period, the unions practiced exclusionary apprenticeship and membership
policies, especially in the building trades. Johnson and the Democratic
Party did not confront this discrimination head-on (except for those
employers holding federal contracts), since the unions were heavy supporters of
the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, the right quickly labeled the Johnson
Executive Order "reverse discrimination."
Ironically, during the Nixon Administration, the
OFCC oversaw four "special area programs" or "home town plans" that culminated
in the famous "Philadelphia Plan," which both strengthened and refined
affirmative action. The Philadelphia Plan required federally supported projects
to establish minimum standards for racial fairness in contract bidding. It
defined the correct standard as a percentage of racial minority employees that
corresponded to a "target" percentage or "goal." It thereby established an
important new benchmark for federal anti-discrimination policy. Though Nixon
was lukewarm on affirmative action, his appointees at the Labor Department
supported the Philadelphia Plan. To the Administration, it had the further
appeal of being opposed by the unions, many of whom supported the Democrats.
In 1970, the Department of Labor
issued guidelines designed to end discrimination against women in jobs paid for
with federal funds. In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Opportunity Act and
several other measures expanding the scope of anti-discrimination protections
for women and people of color, and Nixon signed it into law. In 1973, a
milestone Consent Decree was concluded in a joint agreement between AT&T
and three government agencies -the EEOC, the Labor Department, and the Justice
Department. The Consent Decree created the "AT&T Model Plan," in which the
Bell System agreed to pay damages and change its employment policies in
response to a finding that 95 percent of those employed as low-paying operators
or clerical workers were women, and, of higher-paid craft workers, 95
percent were male and only six percent of those were Black. Virtually no
white women or African American women or men were in managerial positions.
At AT&T, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had had little impact on patterns of
hiring and promotion. The AT&T Model Plan brought the power of the federal
enforcement mechanism to bear on employment practices within the private
(albeit subsidized and regulated) sector.
The Nixon Administration advanced
the cause of affirmative action despite its firm ideological opposition to it.
While the steps above represent progress for civil rights groups and women's
groups, a 1972 New York Times survey
found that the Nixon Administration "has all but abandoned efforts to
force federal contractors to hire more blacks, other minority workers, and
women." The survey found that personnel at the Federal Office of Contract
Compliance were "demoralized" and were not enforcing the 1969 Philadelphia
Plan. Enforcement did not improve
until the Carter Administration came to office in 1976 and extended antidiscrimination
protections. Its Labor Department developed regulations that set goals and
timetables for hiring women on federally-funded construction projects on a
Action and the "New Racism"
Much like members of a
family, the different sectors within the electoral right-the New Right,
neoconservatives, paleo-conservatives, the Christian Right, and new
Republicans-see race differently, often quarreling among themselves and
sometimes changing their positions over time. Outside the family are the
political neighbors, the far right activists who carry guns and advocate violence
against people of color, Jews, abortion providers, and "homosexuals."
Though not welcomed by the electoral right, they do influence the Republican
Party's right wing.
All sectors of the right assert that racism is a thing of the past: specifically, that both legally-sanctioned (de
and the informal practices of de facto discrimination have been corrected. Right-wing
strategists and intellectuals either deny or ignore the existence of institutional
racism-the systematic encouragement
and toleration of racial inequality in a wide variety of sectors, such as
housing, education, and employment.
Throughout the 1980s, press coverage of
the New Right did little to expose the right's denial of ongoing racism. The
press did cover the racist and anti-Semitic activities and ideologies of
the far right, and especially the Identity movement in the West and the
farmbelt, the Posse Comitatus in Wisconsin, white supremacist activity in the
South, and organizing by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and neo-fascist Lyndon
LaRouche. But the New Right's leadership distanced itself from these far
right activities. The movement intended its very title, New Right, to state its abandonment of the
far right's racial agenda. Paul Weyrich, one of the most prominent New Right
leaders, wrote in March, 1984, "Conservative in the black community means
racist and that is understandable. The leadership on the right, however, bears
no resemblance to the reactionary Southern icons of the past.... I am sure there
are people who call themselves conservatives who are prejudiced. But the
leaders are far from it." When
journalists reported a New Right Republican making a racial slur, quick
denunciation by right-wing leaders and an apology from the perpetrator usually
Journalists, wanting to write about New
Right racism, found themselves without a "smoking gun" to document the
move-ment's racism. Further, the New Right embraced, published, and promoted a
cadre of intellectuals of color who developed and refined an intellectual base
for an attack on the civil rights movement. Such tactics proved effective in
obscuring the New Right's racism.
New Right Republicans and their allies
in the Reagan Administration came to office in 1980 with a clear agenda of
rolling back the gains of the civil rights movement. But they did not
promote the Old Right's form of white supremacism-based on the assertion that
whites are biologically superior to Blacks. They renounced that position and
instead promoted what sociologist Amy Ansell has called "the new racism,"
a term that captures the contemporary right's more subtle style of racism.
Its trademarks are the abandonment of a commitment to equality and a
redefinition of the principle of fairness. The new racism declares group identities
to be irrelevant. From the right's perspective, the logic is simple: There
is no more racial discrimination; therefore race is not a characteristic that
should be acknowledged in hiring or promotion; therefore people should be
judged on the basis of "merit" alone. Affirmative action based on race or
gender becomes both inappropriate (because group identities have no
significance) and unfair (because it does not consider only the qualifications of each individual
applicant). This right-wing argument masterfully captures the themes and
language of the civil rights movement and twists them to defeat the movement's
Two well-known intellectuals who are at
the heart of this practice are Harvard history professor Stephan
Thernstrom and his wife, Abigail Thernstrom. Self-described "1950s liberals,"
they are more accurately rightist libertarians who have focused on affirmative
action as the greatest of liberal-ism's mistakes. In their widely reviewed 1997
book, America in Black and White, they argue that Black progress is chronically underestimated,
and racial attitudes in the United States have improved so dramatically that it
is now "dangerous" to promote affirmative action, which often hurts
Blacks. Their personal mission is to promote "colorblind" policies as the
only true reflection of the original intent of liberal racial programs.
Although Abigail Thernstrom doesn't like to be considered a conservative, she
is a senior fellow at the rightist Manhattan Institute and has served on
the boards of three movement organizations- the Institute for Justice, the
Center for Equal Opportunity, and the Cato Institute. The Thernstroms' research
for their book was supported by grants from at least three rightist foundations, as well as by a grant of
$180,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation to promote the book.
Abigail Thernstrom outshines her husband
as an established voice of opposition to affirmative action. She has been a
high-profile opponent of race-based programs since the early 1980s, and America
in Black and White is
her second book on the necessity for colorblind policies. The Thernstroms' next
book is to be a study of the growing gap in academic performance between
Black and white students in grades K-12.
asserting that racism is a thing of the past, the right can justify dismantling
the programs and policies put in place as a result of pressure from the civil
rights movement. For example, welfare programs, affirmative action
programs, protection of the rights of criminal defendants, bilingual
education, and services for immigrants are all policy initiatives that the
right has painted as serving "undeserving" individuals at the expense of
"deserving" taxpayers. The right maintains that the effects of these policies
are race-neutral, while at the same time using vicious racial stereotypes to
fan whites' racial resentments. The result has been a virtual war by the
right against people of color, waged behind a smokescreen of race
For the most part, people of color
have not been fooled. Writing about African Americans, Harvard sociologist
Lawrence D. Bobo states:
All too often, a major subtext of
campaigns about reducing welfare and fighting crime is a narrative about
generally retaining white status privilege over blacks, and specifically about
controlling and punishing poor black communities. This thinly veiled
racial subtext of American politics is not lost on the black community. It
feeds a growing suspicion and distrust among African Americans that
white-dominated institutions may be moving toward overt hostility to the
aspirations of African American communities.
By his own survey research into the nature of white
racism, and his analysis of the research of others, Bobo has found that the
right's "new racism" has now permeated public opinion. While support for Jim
Crow racial practices has declined steadily since the 1940s, it has been
replaced by the right's formulation: People of color are responsible for their
own disadvantaged circumstances because racism is no longer a social
problem. Bobo also finds that the white public is increasingly reluctant to support
any role for government in correcting what racism may still occur. This is especially
true in the case of programs such as affirmative action that attempt to address
racism not as a problem of individual prejudice, but as a problem of a racist
society that systematically discriminates against certain groups.
Weak and Strong Affirmative Action
rightists' attacks on affirmative action, the terms "affirmative action,"
"preferential treatment," and "reverse discrimination" are often used
interchangeably. This clever political ploy blurs the distinctions between
different types of affirmative action and helps to create the mistaken
impression that all affirmative action involves quotas. By further suggesting (repeatedly and
incorrectly) that whites, in particular white men, experience "reverse
discrimination" as a result of affirmative action "quotas," the right's
leadership has created a now widely-held belief that affirmative action is
harmful and unfair to white people. According to the right, it is time now for
white people to mount a movement to protect their "civil rights."
But there are several ways of seeing affirmative
action and several ways of practicing it. For those who support a "color
blind" approach to racial equality, such as US Supreme Court Justice Clarence
Thomas, there is no place in hiring or promotion for any consideration of
race. The only acceptable form of
affirmative action, therefore, is outreach to, and recruitment of,
candidates of color and white women. This "weak" affirmative action does not ensure that these candidates will get to
be represented in the workplace. It only opens up the opportunity for everyone
to compete for jobs, often in settings where people of color and/or white women
have been excluded from competing in the past.
"Weak" affirmative action has strong bipartisan
support. Even the New Right could not attack the practice of creating equal
access for job applicants. Weak
affirmative action does not promote consideration of race as a factor in the
actual hiring process. "Strong"
affirmative action, however, challenges the "color blind" principle of fairness
in an attempt to go beyond open competition for jobs. Its goal is to
achieve a more equitable race and gender distribution among employees and in
their promotions. "Strong" affirmative action requires that employers set up
timetables to meet targets or goals for hiring people of color and white women
in order to increase their presence in the workplace. To meet these targets,
goals, or, in some rare cases, quotas, an employer may choose a candidate of
color or white woman who is qualified over another qualified white male
candidate. Some proponents of "strong" affirmative action advocate hiring
minorities in percentages equal to their proportion in the larger population.
The right consistently fails to distinguish among types of affirmative action
and portrays all affirmative action as "strong."
point of contention in "strong" affirmative action is whether the "hand up" it gives to people of color and
white women should apply only to those who have suffered
quantifiable discrimination, or to all who belong to a group that has been
discriminated against in the past. Affirmative
action opponent Carl Cohen has
framed this distinction as "redress for injury" vs. "entitlement by
color." The right opposes any affirmative action practice that bestows
preference on the basis of race orgender,
absent proof ofindividual past
discrimination. Rightists sometimes argue that affirmative action is
unfair because it penalizes whites who themselves never discriminated
and sometimes argue that it rewards people who never were actual victims of discrimination.
In making the latter argument, rightist authors often underscore their
assertion that racial discrimination is a thing of the past.
Examples of strong and weak affirmative action are
found in the AT&T Model Plan. In accordance with the 1973 Consent Decree,
AT&T practiced strong affirmative action for six years, until it was able
to break down racial and gender stereotypes and integrate the workforce by
race and gender. Its hiring and firing policies then reverted to weak
affirmative action-essentially a policy of non-discrimination.
The Neoconservative Critique
We see the purposeful blurring of the
distinction between weak and strong affirmative action in the first
widely-dis-tributed salvo in the right's attack on affirmative action,
neoconservative scholar Nathan Glazer's 1975 book Affirmative Discrimination.
Glazer articulated nearly every argument in the backlash attack on affirmative action, and to
this day critics have added little to it. Glazer played a familiar
neoconservative role: to develop the intellectual arguments that subsequently evolve into a
full-scale right-wing campaign. This pattern has been particularly common to
matters in which race is central, such as welfare "reform."
As early as the mid-1970s, it seemed
clear that neoconservatism represented a compelling redesign of Old Right
ideas. Most neoconservatives started their political careers as leftist or
liberal Democrats, then switched their allegiance to the Republicans, in
part because they were deeply opposed to communism. Their former Democratic
Party affiliations gave them a reputation as moderates, with a thoughtful
and mature vision born in idealism but tempered by experience.
Neoconservatives were, and still are,
punitive toward the poor, snide when attacking any category of people they consider
muddle-headed or soft-hearted, forgiving of dictators so long as they are
anticommunist, and condescending toward their fellow rightists. No one book more accurately
captures the nasty tone and right-wing content of neoconservative thought than
Glazer's Affirmative Discrimination. And no book better illustrates how important
neoconservatives have been to the development of the contemporary right's
Glazer presented himself as a scholar who opposed
racism and claimed some mildly
liberal credentials. But his tone and language belie this liberal veneer
throughout the book, including his use of the inflammatory title, Affirmative
Discrimination. Glazer embraced the
role of liberal heretic, nowhere
more so than when he argued that by 1973, racial discrimination in the labor market was no longer an issue, therefore
affirmative action was no longer needed. This is his most lasting (and shameful)
contribution to the anti-affirmative action position.
also contributed nearly all the ideas that were to become the right's critique
of affirmative action, especially that it violates "the first principle of
liberal society" by tampering with equality of opportunity. He argued that by
recognizing group rights above individual rights, affirmative action
re-establishes a basis for discrimination and therefore is not an extension of
the civil rights movement. Glazer reviewed instance after instance of
bureaucratic rigidity in the application of affirmative action guidelines to
support his one-sided argument that affirmative action will lead to
discrimination rather than bring society relief from it. In this
argument-by-anecdote, Glazer built his case that:
- Affirmative action addresses a problem
that no longer exists, because, as of 1973, there were no more patterns of
discrimination in the labor market.
- Affirmative action violates the rights of the
individual to be treated in a "color blind" way. Here Glazer pioneers
another tactic, used by many who followed him, by going back to the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 to point to an injunction in the Act against forcing any
employer to grant preferential treatment. Affirmative action, he argues,
defies this injunction by favoring one group over another, thus forcing
employers to show preferential treatment to members of one group.
- Affirmative action creates a white
backlash. "Compensation for the past," Glazer says, "is a dangerous principle.
It can be extended indefinitely and make for endless trouble."
- If a hiring process is based on judging
applicants' "qualifications," one cannot prove that a group has been
discriminated against on the basis of race just because members of that group
do not appear in certain job categories in numbers equal to their numbers
in the larger society. When the goal becomes "statistical parity" between a
group of employees and the larger society, the original intent of affirmative
action-to refrain from discriminating and to announce, when advertising
the job, that the employer does not discriminate- has been superseded by
"quotas." Instead, Glazer argues, perhaps the members of one group just "qualify"
for jobs more frequently than the members of another.
- Affirmative action does not help the
most disadvantaged members of minority groups, those it was presumably
designed to help, because the benefits accrue to all members of a category,
whether those members are, in fact, targets of discrimination or not.
- Racist assumptions run throughout
Glazer's argument. If, as he maintains, there is no more discrimination in the
labor market, yet many African American and other people of color remain locked
out of jobs, he can only be arguing that whites are better at meeting job
qualifications. The explanation lies either in the genetic inferiority of
racial/ethnic minorities or in the institutional racism that results in poor
preparation for jobs, poor educational opportunities, low quality housing, and
poor health care, all of which contribute to a lowered ability to compete for
But Glazer explicitly
critiques and dismisses the notion of institutional racism. He says: "This
term has not been subjected to the analysis it deserves. It is obviously something
devised in the absence of clear evidence of discrimination and prejudice.
It suggests that, without intent, a group may be victimized." Glazer sees institutional racism as an
empty concept, a device used to explain differences in hiring patterns of
people of color and whites, and an assertion based on no evidence.
Glazer himself would not say that the
failure of people of
color to "keep up" with whites in the labor market results from genetic
inferiority. Nevertheless, his attack on affirmative action is a crucial paving
stone on the path to genetic determinism.
In Affirmative Discrimination, Glazer is concerned about the disruption
of the status quo, a
system of rewards in hiring and promotion that he sees as maintaining high
standards-rewards based on qualifications and high levels of performance.
He implies that creating statistical parity means opening jobs for
"unqualified" people of color, and he is particularly worried that a white
backlash will result when whites resent "those of lesser competence and
criminal inclination" who will benefit from affirmative action. Glazer never
entertains the corollary argument that the current employment of whites "of
lesser competence and criminal inclination" is a matter for policy
discussion. He argues that improving access for people of color will lower
hiring and promotion standards and discriminate against whites, ignoring
the possibility that it would improve the workplace, increase fairness in
the larger society, or expand the talent pool by including those who have been
Glazer's assertion that whites are
harmed by affirmative action has become widespread public opinion.
Analyzing data from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in 1990 and
1994, sociologist Orlando Patterson concludes that, whereas 70 percent of
whites surveyed believed that affirmative action was harming white people, only 7
percent had experienced "reverse discrimination," and only 16 percent knew of
someone close to them who had. Patterson goes further to conclude that
"the vast majority of Euro-Americans are actually quite content with the
affirmative action programs with which they are acquainted at their own
workplaces. " (italics
in original) Here we see the effects of what Patterson calls the "concocted
controversy" over egregious harm done to whites by the practice of
Although Affirmative Discrimination has been called "the bible of neoconservative
thought" on affirmative action, Glazer has had a change of heart in the late
1990s, and began to support affirmative action, to the fury of his
neoconservative colleagues. He argues that affirmative action is necessary to
preserve the legitimacy of American democracy. As a result, Nathan Glazer
is enjoying another run in the public spotlight, as the defender of affirmative
action, making precisely the same arguments about equal opportunity for people
of color that he spent much of his career denying and blocking.
Black Conservatives Insert a Wedge
the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s many other rightists built on Nathan Glazer's
influential text. A number of these critics of affirmative action are people
of color; of all those, "Black conservatives" are the greatest in number
and in influence. Nearly every prominent critic of affirmative action who is a
person of color is male. Linda Chavez, former director of the US Commission on
Civil Rights in the Reagan Adminstration and now head of the Center for Equal
Opportunity, an organization dedicated to opposing affirmative action, is
the rare exception. Most of the critics of color have asserted, like
Glazer, that the civil rights movement succeeded in dismantling the racial
barriers of the Jim Crow era, making affirmative action policies unnecessary.
Black conservatives Thomas Sowell,
Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, Glen Loury, and Stephen Carter, as well as
other scholars of color, such as Dinesh D'Souza and Linda Chavez, play a
politically important role in the right's attack on affirmative action.
Criticisms of civil rights goals and support for the dismantling of affirmative
action by a person of color, especially a Black person, whom affirmative action
was originally intended to benefit, legitimize the racially hostile white
critique of affirmative action. The New Right leadership has been acutely aware
of this racial dynamic. It is no accident that, at the same time that Clarence
Thomas complained that Black conservatives were barely accepted within the
white New Right establishment, Black conservative intellectuals who attacked
affirmative action were widely published in New Right outlets.
Black scholars who oppose affirmative
action are not necessarily part of a political movement. They prefer to label
themselves as "conservative" rather than as full members of the New Right.
Some Black conservatives have attained prominence within mainstream media
outlets and have written for liberal, as well as rightist, presses and periodicals.
But many of them have documented ties to the right, are supported by
right-wing institutions, and speak within right-wing venues. Equally important,
their ideas have become central to the New Right's analysis of civil rights,
not only in the area of affirmative action.
Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams are
two Black conservatives whose careers illustrate the links between Black
conservatives and the right. Both men became identified with the New Right
after movement organizations began to supplement their incomes, publish
their work, especially in neoconservative publications such as Commentary and The Public Interest, and adopt their ideas and arguments.
Sowell, who was a student of libertarian
economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, is the most
widely-pub-lished of the Black conservatives. He is a free market purist who
emphasizes self-reliance and opposes government intervention in any form, and
is a social traditionalist who dissents from the civil rights movement's liberal
ideology. For many years, Sowell has been a professor of economics at UCLA, and
a senior fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and
Sowell was an early critic of affirmative
action. In 1975, the same year that Nathan Glazer published Affirmative
American Enterprise Institute, a rightist think tank where Sowell was an
adjunct scholar, published his slim booklet titled Affirmative Action Reconsidered.
Sowell's booklet was
not widely circulated and is narrowly focused on academia, but many of his
arguments are the same as those promoted by the higher-profile Glazer. Sowell
asserts that affirmative action violates the spirit and intent of the 1964
Civil Rights Act, and that job discrimination in academia had become a thing of
the past before affirmative action was instituted. Sowell, like Glazer, ignores
Walter Williams, a widely published
conservative economist, joins Sowell in arguing that the key to "minority
group" progress is economic success. He criticizes the civil rights movement,
with its emphasis on political clout, for offering African Americans false
promises of progress. Especially egregious, according to Williams, is the
damage done to Black economic progress by government affirmative action
programs, which violate free market principles of supply and demand, and
harm minority groups by interfering with the very mechanism (the free market)
which holds the most promise for economic success for poor communities.
Williams's work, especially his 1982 book, The State against Blacks, has received support from right-wing
sources, including the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, and the
Scaife Foundation. The book is a publication of McGraw-Hill's New Press, but is
identified as a "Research Book" of the rightist Manhattan Institute.
Black conservatives adamantly assert
that their beliefs are not contrary to the interests of people of color. But, in part because their work is so
useful to the right's attack on affirmative action and on other gains of the
civil rights movement, the majority of Black leadership has furiously denounced
them. No two Black conservatives have been more denounced than Justice
Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly, a member of the University of California
Board of Regents and spokesperson for Proposition 209, California's 1996
anti-affirmative action initiative. Although both men have themselves benefited
enormously from affirmative action programs, as have most of the critics
of color discussed here, their opposition to it seems to be the central
principle driving most of their career decisions.
In one of the earliest studies of Black
conservatives, sociologist Deborah Toler sees contemporary Black conservatism
as consistent with a long-standing "Black bourgeois mythology" that has long
asserted that middle-class African Americans are different from (and
superior to) the Black majority. To establish this difference, Toler
argues, members of the Black bourgeoisie insist they do not manifest the
attitudes and behaviors associated with negative Black stereotypes, but instead
identify with the positive attitudes and behaviors associated with white stereotypes.
As a result, a sector of the Black bourgeoisie has been characterized by
political conservatism and an acute sensitivity to white opinion. The
progressive African American scholar Cornel West sees Black conservatives
similarly. According to West, the members of the Black bourgeoisie who align
themselves with the right are engaged in a middle-class identity crisis, as
they both seek white approval and distinguish themselves from "the state
of siege that rages in working-poor and very poor communities."
Glen Omatsu, discussing Asian American
neoconservatives, sees a similar link between class status and conservative politics
among Asian American conservatives. But Asian American conservatives, in addition
to distinguishing themselves from working-class Asian Americans, distinguish
themselves from other communities of color, which they see as lacking their own
high level of commitment to education, achievement, and traditional values.
Often they blame quotas, which set upper limits on the admission of Asian Americans to colleges
and universities, and on affirmative action programs for African Americans,
Latinos and American Indians, whom they see as "less qualified." Asian American
conservatives are largely professionals who speak to other professionals,
and ignore the great need for affirmative action on the part of large numbers
of poor Asian Americans.
Fanning the White Backlash
conservatives played an enormously influential role in refining the
intellectual arguments against affirmative action and giving them increased
legitimacy, the books of two white scholars, George Gilder and Charles Murray,
took these positions into mainstream public debate and received widespread
media attention during the Reagan Administration. Gilder's Wealth and
Poverty and Murray's Losing
Ground reframed the Old
Right's explicit racism into the coded discourse of the new racism. By calling
for the legislative rollback of all anti-poverty programs, including welfare, housing subsidies, job
training, and affirmative action, they were in tune with both Reagan
Administration policy and an ongoing shift in public opinion regarding
poor people, especially poor people of color. By breaking out of academic
intellectual circles and becoming bestselling authors, Gilder and Murray
were able to reach the white legislators and opinion-makers who were crafting
the rollback of affirmative action.
In Wealth and Poverty (1981), Gilder popularized many of the
arguments incubated in the late 1960s and 1970s in the pages of relatively
obscure right-wing publications, especially the Old Right Human Events and the neoconservative Public Interest.
According to Gilder,
poverty is caused by liberalism and its wrong-headed thinking about values
and family structure. He is particularly disdainful of the "equal rights
conglomerate," especially the EEOC. Gilder argues that governmental bureaucracy
is a universally evil influence on a society that would do a far better job of
creating wealth and eliminating poverty if it abolished all government programs
and adopted the free-market model of Milton Friedman and his "Chicago School"
In Losing Ground (1984), Charles Murray builds on
Gilder's arguments. He points to the increase in government transfer programs
and the simultaneous increase in "social problems" as evidence that liberalism
has made poverty and crime worse. He accuses liberal whites of "excessive
solicitousness" and "condescension" toward Blacks in maintaining that
Blacks are owed a debt, and that when they fail to succeed, it is because the
system is stacked against them. In discussing affirmative action and set-aside
programs, Murray holds a typical take-no-prisoners position: "My proposal for
dealing with the racial issue in social welfare is to repeal every bit of
legislation and reverse every court decision that in any way requires,
recommends, or awards differential treatment according to race, and
thereby puts us back onto the track we left in 1965."
Quite understandably, New Rightists
Gilder and Murray became the darlings of the Republican policy establishment.
Backed and promoted by the New Right's think tanks, they benefited from their
media savvy. The Manhattan Institute supported Murray as a senior research
fellow when he published Losing Ground. It raised $125,000 to promote his book and paid him a
stipend of $35,000. Most of the money came from two prominent funders of New
Right organizations, the Scaife Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation.
The Manhattan Institute has also supported George Gilder.
Gilder and Murray point to the "dependency"
caused by liberal programs and the "culture of poverty" these programs encourage
as responsible for poverty. From this perspective, poverty is the fault of
the individual poor person, whom they often portray, in anecdote and example,
as an undeserving, unmotivated, dependent, and sometimes rapacious person of
color. Although Gilder and Murray certainly did not cause the Reagan Administration's legislative
attack on the poor, their books were crucial to popularizing an image of a
poor person as both Black and "undeserving." And this image, in turn, enhanced
the backlash against programs such as affirmative action that the right
painted as "favoring" Blacks and other "undeserving" people of color.
In keeping with the new racism, Gilder
and Murray, like Nathan Glazer and the Black conservatives, present themselves
as "true" civil rights advocates, conservatives who take Blacks seriously and
treat them fairly, as individuals who must stand or fall on their own merits.
In their attacks on liberalism, their critique of liberal attitudes toward
Blacks and other people of color is often on target. Their accusations that
white liberals patronize voters of color, use people of color as tokens, and
relate to people of other races in a paternalistic, rather than power-sharing,
style all too often portray liberal arrogance in action. By exposing these
shortcomings in liberal race attitudes, Gilder and Murray become more effective
agents of the right's backlash appeal to white voters. What reveals the
hypocrisy of their arguments is their denial of existing racism, their
dismissal of the need to level the playing field, and their sneering disdain
for the ongoing struggle for equal rights.
Action, the New Right, and the Reagan Administration
Ronald Reagan's presidency, most Administration policy initiatives and
decisions were either derived from, or informed by, such right-wing think tanks
as the Heritage Foundation, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress
(now the Free Congress Foundation), and the American Enterprise Institute.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the area of affirmative action. The
"color blind" argument- that one should ignore race because it is not a legitimate
consideration in hiring, admission to colleges, or job promotion and
affirmative action- quickly became the ruling ideological position within
the Administration. Its members denounced racial group preference as a bad
means for achieving equality, maintaining that racial minorities do not
have legitimate collective interests. Results, the Administration argued, do
not have to be equal, so long as employers and educational institutions
provide equal opportunity to compete for jobs and admissions.
Rightist Reagan Administration appointees
implemented many of the policies that rolled back affirmative action
enforcement. Many of them were strategically placed in the bureaucracies
responsible for administering and enforcing civil rights protections in
general and affirmative action in particular. Reagan appointed Black
conservative Clarence Pendleton as head of the US Commission on Civil Rights,
and another Black conservative, Clarence Thomas, as chair of the EEOC. White
rightist William Bradford Reynolds was appointed Assistant Attorney General
for Civil Rights in the Justice Department, where he defined all
affirmative action as "quotas" and insisted that discrimination could not
be charged without proof of "intent."
Such a position was difficult to hold
publicly because the Reagan Administration portrayed itself as a friend of
civil rights. But while wanting to maintain this image, the Administration
agreed politically with New Right leaders in their push for a complete rollback
of all programs except those that addressed cases of discrimination on an
individual basis. To simultaneously satisfy the need for a pro-civil rights
image and pursue an anti-civil rights agenda, the Reagan Administration
defunded the civil rights enforcement arms it controlled.
The Bush Administration continued this
policy with greater momentum and success, as the Supreme Court and the
lower courts became increasingly dominated by Reagan and Bush appointees. The
Reagan and Bush Administrations accounted for half of the appointments to the
Supreme Court, virtually guaranteeing a rightist tilt to its decisions. The
departure of Justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall,
and Byron White deprived the Court of its liberal civil rights supporters.
The Reagan/Bush appointments of Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Con-nor,
Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas and Reagan's appointment of William
Rehnquist as Chief Justice, have reversed the court's previous liberal bent.
The Reagan Administration's policies on
affirmative action exemplify the "new racism." Despite that Administration's
pro-civil rights rhetoric, its policies rolled back both the practice of
affirmative action and the enforcement of civil rights laws. In addition to
opposing affirmative action, the Reagan Administration initially supported tax
exemptions for the private, segregated academies set up in the South to avoid
legally mandated integration in the public schools. It supported South Africa
at a time when US Blacks and others were urging a boycott of its apartheid
regime. It opposed school busing, a strong Voting Rights Act, and the
celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. It
pursued a policy of "states'
rights," a phrase that surely had enormous appeal for the Old Right southerners
who had used it to justify segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
George Bush, who accurately perceived his need for the
support of the New Right and the increasingly powerful Christian Right, often
promoted programs and policies that blocked the advancement of people
of color, despite his reputation as less "racially insensitive" than Reagan.
The Bush Administration carried out the policies of the Reagan
Administration, including the smear of women receiving welfare as "welfare
queens" (stereotyped as lazy and sexually promiscuous Black women); opposition
to race-conscious electoral districting that increased the chances of
Blacks winning office; the appointment of conservative judges hostile to
civil rights; and support for the death penalty, without regard for its
disproportionate use against people of color. Like the Reagan Administration,
the Bush Administration saved its most florid and explicit rhetoric for the
attack on "preferences and quotas." During both Administrations, opposition to
affirmative action played an important role in the New Right's strategy of
appealing to a white ethnic and southern backlash against civil rights and
against the Democratic Party.
The Bell Curve
the Bush Administration, a split occurred within the electoral right. The
extreme right of the New Right took the humorous name "paleo-conservatives," to
distinguish themselves from the "softer" members of the New Right. Prominent
paleo-conservatives include Pat Buchanan, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Alan
Keyes, African American talk show host and political candidate. No book has
stated the paleo-conservative case on race in a more incendiary fashion than The
Bell Curve (1994), co-authored by
Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein. For over 800 pages, the
authors make the case that race and class inequalities in society can be
explained by differences in genetically determined intelligence, not by
institutional racism, unequal opportunity, or differences in social and
On the topic of affirmative action, The
Bell Curve is
consistent with Nathan Glazer's Affirmative Discrimination, written twenty years earlier, and with
many of the arguments made by Black conservatives. In two chapters devoted
entirely to this topic, Herrnstein and Murray argue that affirmative action
defies the reality of a gap between the elite and the rest. They assert that
people find their "natural" place in society based on IQ. When affirmative
action violates the "natural" assignment of a place, the result is negative
stereotyping and lowered self-esteem. The authors argue that affirmative action
is no longer needed because, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Blacks had
already attained "job fairness," meaning jobs that match their IQ's.
The Bell Curve is a departure from the New Right's
renunciation of explicit racism. Its assumptions update the work of an
independently wealthy nineteenth century Englishman, Francis Galton, who coined
the term "eugenics"-the study of hereditary characteristics that may
improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either
physically or mentally. In the US,
the premiere organization dedicated to preserving the idea and practice of
racial eugenics is the Pioneer Fund, which funded the two most notorious
contemporary eugenicists, Arthur Jensen and William Schockley. Pioneer Fund head Harry F. Weyher
regretted not funding Herrnstein to write The Bell Curve and acknowledged that "we'd have funded
him at the drop of a hat, but he never asked."
The Bell Curve became a widely-reviewed bestseller, with most commentators condemning
it on both intellectual and political grounds. One of the better-known
exposés of the authors' slippery use of statistics is Stephen Jay Gould's
"Mismeasure by Any Measure," which details both the book's erroneous use of
statistics and the fallacy of its central assumption that intelligence
can be measured by the use of g, a "general factor"
of intelligence. A group of six scholars collaborated on a book-length critique
of The Bell Curve's social science
and politics, and a vast array of journalists and writers, representing the
many racial and ethnic identities slandered by the book, wrote masterful
denunciations. Even some
paleo-conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan, John McLaughlin, and Rush Limbaugh
have criticized The Bell Curve, though
other rightist publications gave it generally favorable reviews.
Shockingly, reporters in some mainstream publications gave the book neutral or
mildly sympathetic reviews, including Malcolm Browne, science reporter for the New
The Bell Curve embarrassed the leadership of the
New Right, which attempted to distance the movement from it. But it is a
mistake to characterize the book as outside the ideology and public policy of
the contemporary right. The Bell Curve is, instead, a logical progeny of the
New Right's arguments against affirmative action. Its difference is
in style, not basic assumptions or conclusions. The same indignation aroused by
The Bell Curve should
apply to New Right and neoconservative arguments that racial discrimination is
a thing of the past, institutional racism does not exist, and race is no longer
a factor in the lives of people of color. For if that is the case, then
when people of color do less well in achievement tests or are not promoted in
their workplaces as quickly as white people, no explanation remains except The
Bell Curve 's
explanation that they are "naturally" inferior.
New Rightists and neoconservatives are
more than willing to state (and promote) the assertions that racial
discrimination is exaggerated, or even a myth, and that institutional
racism is the imaginary and unconfirmable creation of liberal
intellectuals. But they want to disassociate themselves from the logical
conclusion that the persistent inequality between white people and people
of color is a result of the "inferiority" of people of color. When the
President's Advisory Board on Race concluded in 1998 that "whites and
Asians enjoy greater advantages economically and have better access to
health care," and that "the social and economic progress of Blacks slowed
between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, the economic status of Hispanics has
declined in the last 25 years, and American Indians are the most disadvantaged
ethnic group by far," the
right remained silent. Unwilling
to state the racist conclusions of its own assertions, it could offer no
explanation except the conclusions of The Bell Curve. Yet the right's leadership
adamantly denies racist intentions.
Certainly, many liberals have also shied away from
naming institutional racism as the cause for lower average test scores among
people of color. For example, Derek Bok and William G. Bowen, in The Shape
of the River, present evidence that
African American students lag behind white students in grade point average.
These self-described supporters of affirmative action and liberals on matters
of race speculate that such factors as the number of books at home,
opportunities to travel, or the nature of the conversation around the dinner
table may explain the gap. They, too, do not point to institutional racism.
New Republicans, New Tactics
after a Republican electoral sweep created a Republican majority in both Houses
of Congress, the incoming Republican "freshmen" were so far to the right
of the New Right that they were dubbed "new Republicans." Anti-affirmative
action efforts increased dramatically, and have taken three forms: statewide
initiatives banning affirmative action, lawsuits, and national
anti-affirmative action legislation. To pursue these strategies, a number of
new organizations, whose principal purpose is to defeat affirmative action
In November 1996, California voters
passed the first successful statewide anti-affirmative action initiative,
Proposition 209 or the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), banning the
practice of affirmative action in state employment, education, and the
letting of contracts. Another blow to affirmative action in 1996 was the decision
in Hopwood v. Texas, in
which a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an
affirmative action admissions policy at the University of Texas Law School.
Lawsuits have since been filed in several other states challenging affirmative
action practices in college admissions. At the national level, a Congressional
bill, "virtually written by Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice," would
eliminate federal affirmative action. Initially known as the Dole-Canady
Equal Opportunity Act, it has become simply the Canady Equal Opportunity Act.
In all these instances, the right
exploited the language of civil rights to turn back civil rights advancements.
It appropriated the term "civil rights" and used it to refer to the rights of
white people. National organizations whose names might be taken to signal
a liberal agenda, such as the American Civil Rights Institute, the Institute
for Justice, the Center for Individual Rights, and the Center for Equal
Opportunity, exist to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement,
especially affirmative action.
In mounting its campaign against affirmative
action, the new Republicans correctly identified a certain amount of
grassroots opposition to affirmative action. Then, following a pattern
developed in other right-wing campaigns, such as the anti-gay Amendment 2
campaign in Colorado and the campaigns against welfare recipients and
immigrants, the organized right directed public attention to the issue, and
defined it by using misleading language and distorted "statistics." The right's
funders, strategists, adherents and politicians all collaborated to
advance the campaign, putting their political and economic resources in support
of the redefined issue.
In the case of California's Proposition
209, Republican Governor Pete Wilson, a presidential candidate at the time,
used the Proposition 209 campaign to promote himself as a card-carrying member
of the right. Ward Connerly, a businessman and member of the University Board
of Regents (which controls the University of California system of
campuses, a central locus of the struggle over affirmative action in California),
provided an African American voice of leadership by heading the principal
pro-Proposition 209 organization, Yes on Proposition 209. Connerly went on to
form the American Civil Rights Institute, whose mission is to replicate the
Proposition 209 campaign in other states.
California's Republicans and traditional
right-wing donors played a major role in bankrolling the Proposition 209
campaign, contributing approximately $1 million. Well-known right-wing funders
also supported the effort, including media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who contributed
$750,000; Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., who contributed $350,000; and Richard Mellon
Scaife, who contributed $100,000. Altogether, Yes on Proposition 209
raised $5,239,287, while its main opponent, the Campaign to Defeat 209, raised
The story of the passage of Proposition
209 illustrates the complex interaction of the right's effective political
strategy, the political will of the players involved, and the skillful
manipulation of language to exploit the negative mood of the voting public. One
example of this interaction is the naming of Proposition 209, "The California
Civil Rights Initiative," which gave voters no clue that it would eliminate
affirmative action rather than support civil rights. Voter confusion over
the intent of the initiative was widespread. The right applied the same
strategy in Washington State's 1998 anti-affirmative action Initiative 200,
known as I-200, which passed in November 1998.
In each state, the attorney general is
responsible for giving the voters an impartial account of ballot
initiatives. However, California's Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren, who
had often and candidly expressed his opposition to affirmative action, wrote a
required summary of Proposition 209 that omitted any indication that it
would eliminate affirmative action. Despite a court challenge to this
sleight-of-hand, the wording was ultimately retained.
For a number of reasons, affirmative action supporters
were not able to turn back Proposition 209. Because California Democrats hold
varying views on affirmative action, the right was able to successfully
use it as a "wedge" issue to split the Democratic Party's coalition. The
right also had good political timing, since Proposition 209 was on the ballot
just when President Bill Clinton, running for reelection, was unwilling to take
a forceful stand on behalf of affirmative action lest he lose Democratic
votes and give a political advantage to his opponent, Senator Bob Dole. The
Democratic National Committee and the Democratic State Central
Committee of California contributed less than half as much money to defend
affirmative action as the Republican Party contributed to defeat it. Afraid to
take a forceful position in defense of affirmative action, the Democratic
Party chose to keep its distance from an initiative that would profoundly and
negatively affect some of its most loyal constituents, but was
supported by others. In Jesse Jackson's words at the time, "The Republicans are
wedging while the Democrats are hedging."
The outcome of these rightist efforts is mixed, and
the ultimate fate of affirmative action is unclear. Certainly it is weakened,
perhaps fatally. Nevertheless, on November 4, 1997 voters defeated a local
anti-affir-mative action initiative in Houston, and, two days later, the US
House Judiciary Committee voted to delay consideration of the Equal Opportunity
Act (the Canady bill). Many supporters of the anti-affirma-tive action campaign
seem shocked by the drastic effect of their work. For example, in California
and Texas law schools, 1997 admission of Black students dropped 80 percent and
83 percent, respectively. So, affirmative action languishes, receiving only
weak support from the Democratic Party, and opposed by a well-financed campaign
conducted by the Republican Party and the organized right. As a widely accepted
public policy, affirmative action may not be dead, but it has been stopped in
Where Were the
Defenders of Affirmative Action?
liberals were the architects of most affirmative action policies, they seem
unwilling to mount a spirited defense of it in the face of the right's
multi-pronged attack. The right's use of the "color blind" standard to attack
affirmative action has not been adequately challenged, and liberals have not
argued the existence of institutional racism to explain the need for
affirmative action. Liberal Democratic Party officeholders, who have
access to the resources and media exposure necessary to conduct effective
public education, have, for the most part, been unwilling to expend political
capital in defense of affirmative action.
Much of this lack of a liberal defense
reflects changes in the Democratic Party and the weakness of liberalism in
general during a period when it has been under relentless attack. Six
of the most prominent liberal senators lost in the 1980 election as a
result of the New Right's vicious anti-lib-eral smear campaign conducted by The
National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), its Executive Director
Terry Dolan, and a core of about a dozen right-wing organizations that made up
the New Right. Those liberals
remaining in Congress became reluctant to "go out on a limb" for any but a
few carefully chosen issues. Affirmative action was not a strong
Part of the New Right's strategy to lure
white southerners and northern ethnic voters to the Republican Party was
to argue that the Democratic Party had become the vehicle for "minority
interests." The accusation worked well for the right. As Democratic voters
crossed over to vote Republican, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party
lost almost all influence within the Party, the liberal wing became weak, in
numbers and in influence, and Democratic centrists became the dominant sector
of the Party.
Democratic centrists argued that, if it
were to survive, the Democratic Party must acknowledge that much of the white
electorate had tired of any national effort to promote equality for people of
color and (less so) for women. By electing Ronald Reagan, then George Bush,
they argued, a plurality of white voters had sent a clear message that they
were finished with two decades of racial progress, programs designed to empower
the poor and marginal in society, and questions about the superiority of
white, western European culture. The message that the major issues of racial
discrimination in housing, employment, and promotion have been addressed by
civil rights legislation and are now a thing of the past clearly has resonated
with many white voters, because it speaks directly to their fatigue with social
change and their growing resentment of advances by people of color.
Those liberals who have defended affirmative
action have not been able to popularize even the most uncontested
arguments in its favor: for instance, that preferences of various sorts are
often used in selection processes-such as, benefits for veterans, or college
admission for athletes and the children of alumni and alumnae. What makes
those practices acceptable, especially in the case of veterans and athletes, is
the widely held judgment that these recipients are "appropriate" and
"legitimate." Most white Americans do not extend the same benefit of the doubt
to "average" people of color.
Further, while many white liberals are
willing to argue that racial diversity at college and in the workplace has
social value in habituating people of different races to each other, other
white liberals (and even many progressives) have not been willing to present
the cultures of people of color, or the hidden history of women's contributions,
as unique, valuable, and strengthening components of "American culture."
White liberal opinion-makers have not argued forcefully that often these
cultures and contributions have been unacknowledged, or sometimes
excluded, from mainstream cultural outlets. Apparently, for many white
liberals, this message transcends the mandate of the civil rights movement
they support and ventures too far from white America's self-image.
Most of those people who have mounted a strong defense of
affirmative action are progressive rather than liberal, have little influence
with centrist Democratic Party officeholders, and have only limited
influence with liberals. Scholars such as Amy Ansell, K. Anthony Appiah, Ronald
Dworkin, Amy Gutmann, Christopher Edley, Jr., Manning Marable, Salim
Muwakkil, Stephen Steinberg, and Cornel West, who have spoken and written about
the continuing need for affirmative action programs as the unfinished work of
the civil rights movement, have not been able to parlay their arguments
into the political clout necessary to hold elected officials accountable.
Within critical legal studies, the work of Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw,
Richard Delgado, Charles Lawrence III, Mari Matsuda, Patricia Williams, and
many others, has broken the mold of traditional legal discourse to create new
forms of debate regarding the importance of, and necessity for,
affirmative action. But, once again, this scholarship, though it has advanced
our understanding of the necessity for affirmative action, has not translated
into a strong campaign of public education to counter the right's "color blind"
The right has constructed a double assault on liberalism's
rationale for affirmative action: denying the existence of institutional
racism, and confining the debate over fairness exclusively to individual
rights. Liberals were left with two tasks: to prove that institutional racism
exists, which they showed slight inclination to do; and to go beyond
individual rights to argue that society must accept occasional individual
unfairness to promote social justice. Liberals, it seems, lacked either a
belief that institutional racism exists or the political courage to make it
their message. When the scholars mentioned previously have argued that
institutional racism is still prominent in the lives of people of color, and
that sometimes the larger social good of correcting systemic injustices
must take precedence over individual rights, the resulting debate has been
confined primarily to an academic audience.
Ironically, many of the corporations
which were initially forced by the federal government to create affirmative
action programs now stand out as defenders of those programs, while elected
politicians and right-wing activists are successfully dismantling affirmative
action programs in the public sector and in higher education. A number of corporations
have simply continued their existing affirmative action programs despite the
right's attack. And, with the majority of public bureaucracies in the hands of
conservative state- and local-level Republicans, it is within the corporate
sector that there seems to be an appreciation of the value of diversity in the
workplace and the advantages of tapping the entire breadth of the US talent
pool- pragmatic rather than moral arguments. So long as the moral justification
for affirmative action remains muddled in the public's mind and infected
with disinformation from the right, it appears that support for affirmative
action will hang on most strongly where it is good for business.
liberals and progressives, understanding that affirmative action as now
conceived is unpopular with the public and likely to be under ever-increasing
attack, are proposing that class replace race as a new basis for affirmative
action. They reason that if affirmative action were based on class rather than
race, it would apply to all races, and that race-neutrality would presumably
calm the white backlash that has plagued race-based affirmative action. There
is strong evidence that when social programs are universally applied-that is,
when they apply to everyone who falls into a specific measurable category, such
as low-income people-public opinion polls indicate more reliable support for
them than when they favor only one segment of a group, such as low-income
people of color. Class-based affirmative action also would address the
increasing poverty of the "truly disadvantaged" by giving them a better
chance for admission to educational opportunities, employment, and promotion.
It carries moral weight by addressing the actual victims of current discrimination
and lack of opportunity. Under class-based affirmative action, a young Clarence Thomas would qualify, but his son or daughter would
Class-based affirmative action addresses
a long-standing theme of progressive social justice work: the grossly unequal
distribution of power and money in the United States, which the Republican
agenda of low taxes and minimal social programs has now exacerbated. A final
virtue of replacing race with class is that it may encourage coalitions
across race. Class-based affirmative action might, therefore, breathe new
life into the progressive movement by focusing it on a goal that minimizes
intra-movement differences, and uniting it around progressives' common
commitment to address unfair privilege.
The arguments for class-based affirmative
action assume that its race- and gender-based version has disproportionately
helped those best able to take advantage of it (primarily middle-class
white women and mid-dle-class people of color) and has left the weakest (of all
races) in society behind. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has been
especially persistent in asserting that only middle-class African Americans
benefit from affirmative action. Because we don't have adequate research on
affirmative action, Wilson's assertion has received wide acceptance. However,
it seems unlikely to be correct, since so many affirmative action programs
apply to working-class jobs in fire, police, and other municipal service jobs,
and in both skilled and unskilled contracting work.
Nonetheless, the gap between the middle
class and the poor clearly is growing (not to mention the increasing gap
between the rich and the middle class), and, despite affirmative action's
dramatic successes, the circumstances of the extremely disadvantaged have
not improved markedly. Obviously much more is needed. Social programs in areas
such as education, job training, employment, and food assistance, which often
are proposed by Black conservatives as an alternative to affirmative action, are
unlikely to be funded, given the current anti-poor attitudes among much of the
voting public. So, a simmering debate among liberals and progressives is
whether the "more" that is needed should be affirmative action programs that
Advocates for both race-based and
class-based affirmative action assume that race and class can be determined by
scientific means. But each year scholars publish more research about how race
is mutable, socially-constructed, and unscientific. A growing body of literature,
especially studies of the historical transformation of groups from one racial
or ethnic categorization to another, testifies to how racial categories can be
assigned for political and social purposes. So long as race remains the basis
for affirmative action (and gender for women-a less problematic
categorization, though not without its own ambiguities), the lack of a
scientific basis for racial classification will remain an issue.
The same ambiguity applies to class.
Many social programs that are means-based require an applicant to prove the
need for service or assistance. Numerous accounts detail the difficulties and
indignities suffered by people who must provide "proof " of their need. As with
race, generalizations are possible; for instance, all those without a high
school education are less advantaged than those who have a college degree. But
individual variations allow injustices to occur. Both race and class are
blunt instruments of measurement.
Nevertheless, although a class-based
affirmative action program seems to comport with basic principles of
fairness, the consequences of the shift from race-based to class-based affirmative action
would make clear that class should not replace race as the primary determinant
of compensatory actions. Because racial discrimination persists in the
United States, and institutional racism pervades our society, the elimination
of race-based affirmative action programs would again deny many people of color
access to jobs, contracts, promotion, and admission to higher education. The
introduction of class as the basis for affirmative action would not
correct that exclusion because race discrimination persists across classes (as
class discrimination persists across races). Even when a child faces positive life
chances based on income or education, that child can be disadvantaged relative
to a white child of the same income and education, simply because of skin
color. Class should be allowed
only as a factor to be considered with race.
Where race-based affirmative action has
been eliminated, such as in California after the passage of Proposition 209,
the number of people of color admitted to institutions of higher
education has fallen dramatically. If class were substituted for race in
affirmative action policies, the result would be similar. Because there are so
many more white people than people of color in the United Sates (whites
outnumber Blacks 8 to 1), and there are more white people who are poor than
there are poor people of color (low-income whites outnumber low-income Blacks
2.5 to 1), the use of class-based affirmative action would help far more poor
whites than poor non-whites. Further, in the case of higher education, white
students from low-income families score higher on SAT tests than do Black students
from low-income families.
Although, in seeking equal opportunity
for all, race may not be the only proper basis for affirmative action, class
should not be the only basis either. "Class" does not take color into account,
and color is a complicating factor across class. "Class" also does not
take gender into account, although gender discrimination excludes women from
opportunities and promotions and results in their receiving disproportionately
A formula for affirmative action that
takes race, gender, and class into account would be complicated to administer
and may not be substanti ally
more popular with the voting public than the current race- and gender-based
policies. It may open the door to demands for affirmative action considerations
from a broad range of groups that suffer discrimination and lack opportunity.
Because race is so prominent in the hierarchy of American prejudices,
the hostility to affirmative action "preferences" may persist in a "reformed"
affirmative action that considered class as well as race and gender. But it
would improve the fairness of affirmative action and better, if imperfectly,
serve the goal of compensatory justice.
When rightists insist that discrimination based on
race is a thing of the past and institutional racism is a myth, they
promote an opportunistic reading of reality that many white voters are anxious
to believe. By asserting that "color blind" policies represent a just
distribution of social goods, the right steals a goal of the civil rights movement,
pretends it has now been reached, and provides a comforting message for many
white voters. These right-wing tactics have been politically successful. Unless
progressives and liberals are more effective in exposing the right's
misrepresentations and devious strategies, the defeat of affirmative action may
even be perceived as a victory for universal fairness. Nothing could be farther
from the truth.