Even Liberals Admit Affirmative Action Failure

Steven Hayward

October 9, 1997

A remarkable breach in the liberal monolith is on display in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine, one of the most leftist magazines around. An editorial by Jeffrey Klein splits from the liberal party line on affirmative action.

“Support for affirmative action became a virtual mantra for liberals,” Klein wrote, “even though it contradicted a widely held American belief that no racial or ethnic group deserved a mandated advantage in the marketplace… [W]e need to admit that affirmative action has failed as a long-term political strategy.”

While Klein’s openness and self-criticism is certainly welcome, his history is not quite correct. The liberals of the 1960s who led the fight for civil rights laws opposed affirmative action quotas then. The legislative history of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, especially its famous section 703(j), is clear: it was intended to prohibit reverse discrimination and quotas. The Senate floor leader for the Civil Rights Act, Hubert Humphrey, declared that Title VII “would prohibit preferential treatment for any particular group,” adding famously that if this proved not the case, he would eat the pages of the statute book where the Act appeared. “Do you want a society that is nothing but an endless power struggle among organized groups?” Humphrey asked. “Do you want a society where there is no place for the individual? I don’t.”

Neither did many other civil rights leaders. Frederick Douglass had opposed quotas back in 1871, writing that “equality of numbers has nothing to do with equality of attainment.” Jack Greenberg of the NAACP said in the 1950s that “The chief problem with quotas is that they introduce a potentially retrogressive concept into the cherished notion of individual equality.” And of course Martin Luther King held up a regime in which people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

However, this vital center did not hold. There were always some impatient voices within the civil rights movement that wanted quotas, perhaps as a means of reparations. In 1961 a National Urban League official testified before a congressional committee that “I am sick and tired of people saying they are color-blind… What we need is to be positively color conscious…” A year later the Congress on Racial Equality demanded compensatory preferences in hiring. The NAACP’s Roy Wilkins wavered and offered a mild echo of this idea.

Eventually, the color-blind principle of equal opportunity lost out to the opportunism of quick-fix quotas. (In fairness, it wasn’t simply liberals who capitulated. Although Lyndon Johnson first set the affirmative action game in motion, it received a substantial boost by Richard Nixon as well. In fact, some Democrats and labor unionists actually opposed Nixon’s quota-expanding policies.) And liberals have marched in lockstep ever since, surrendering their intellectual integrity along the way.

For example, the American Civil Liberties Union strongly supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But, when it came time to choose sides on the California Civil Rights Initiative, which seeks to reestablish non-discriminatory principles with language virtually identical to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ACLU didn’t even blink. It led the opposition in federal court the day after the election. ACLU executive director Nadine Strossen defends affirmative action as a “temporary” legal remedy for discrimination. Most amazingly, Strossen says she sees “no inconsistency between individual liberties and affirmative action.”

Klein’s Mother Jones editorial offers the prospect of a genuine colloquy between left and right about what to do next. Klein writes: “the left should call the bluff of affirmative action opponents, by crafting a more pragmatic strategy that emphasizes the basic solutions to racial injustice—such as making superior public education accessible to all students.”

Conservatives have long had an answer to this so-called bluff—school choice. In fact, the idea of school choice is the perfect example of an enlightened civil rights agenda: give power directly to individuals as individuals, rather than to individuals as a part of some group. School choice would empower parents in the marketplace to seek and reward good educational providers, instead of being trapped in their monopoly neighborhood schools. The idea could easily be expanded to health care and housing as well. Conservatives are ready for your bluff-calling, Mr. Klein, and will see and raise you as well.

Steven Hayward is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.