Black Ambivalence about Affirmative Action? A Grand Opportunity for the Republican Party

Lucas Morel

January 1, 2003

With a Supreme Court ruling expected before next summer on affirmative action in higher education, a consideration of American attitudes—especially black American attitudes—toward racial preferences in hiring, promotion, and college admissions seems fitting. Stuart Taylor’s National Journal article (Dec. 20) “Do African-Americans Really Want Racial Preferences?” is of the “good news/bad news” variety, and offers a much-needed boost to a national conversation both civic and civil.

Taylor surveys recent polls of American opinion about affirmative action and arrives at seemingly contradictory conclusions. Simply put, black Americans “sometimes” oppose “racial preferences” but “usually” support “affirmative action.” How does he explain this? When asked about the fairness of policies that favor individuals on the basis of race, blacks (like most whites) oppose them in favor of “merit and qualifications.” The overwhelming black support for “affirmative action,” Taylor argues, derives from misleading or dishonest depictions of its current use. When the justice of affirmative action is in question, black Americans offer a decidedly different picture of what they expect from their government.

I would add that what this indicates, as well, is a laudable concern for self-respect among black Americans. After many years of sanctioned denial of opportunity on the basis of race, despite their “merit and qualifications,” blacks would be hard pressed now to doubt or depreciate their ability to compete with individuals of any race if they believed the proverbial playing field to be truly equal.

Perhaps blacks, given America’s track record, simply do not trust an affirmative-action-less world. They have decided to take the metaphorical half loaf offered by affirmative action over no loaf in a world where the educational and employment opportunities and the legal protections are perceived to be only superficially equal.

Of course, this turns a blind eye to the social and legal sea change following the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which put teeth into the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 24th Amendments. Nevertheless, the perception that eliminating affirmative action is tantamount to reversing a palpable gain associated with the modern Civil Rights Movement is the obstacle to true progress in bridging America’s racial divide.

With Trent Lott’s departure as Senate Majority Leader, the Republican Party must now decide by principle and practice if it is a worthy heir to the mantle of Lincoln and therewith to the principles of the American founding. If equality of rights is the birthright of every American, the protection of which is the chief aim of government, then the Grand Old Party should assert that claim with full voice. President Bush’s denunciation of Lott’s controversial remarks was a firm step in the right direction. One hopes this will be followed by a legal brief filed with the Supreme Court against affirmative action as it has been practiced at the University of Michigan and its law school.

For the president and the GOP to do otherwise is to open it to charges of continuing to play the race card by other means, as seen in references to the Republican “Southern strategy” and speaking in “racist code words.” The American legacy of slavery and segregation can ill afford ambiguity and equivocation when it comes to charting a new, more principled and more just course for securing the equal rights of citizenship and humanity to every American.

Lucas Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.