Affirmative In-action?

Lucas Morel

April 1, 1999

Recently the Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal of an affirmative action ruling. In so doing, it allowed a lower court ruling to stand, which struck down a program favoring blacks, Hispanics, and women in promotions within the Dallas Fire Department. While not deciding the case sets no precedent, one can infer that the present Court would only uphold affirmative action in cases where a history of discrimination is clearly shown and government preferences for minorities and women are narrowly tailored to remedy the effects of past discrimination.

So where does that leave the rest of the nation? It’s been four years since the Supreme Court has decided an affirmative action case, but the country–to its credit–has not waited for the high court to act. Citizens in both California and Washington have passed ballot initiatives to eliminate affirmative action from public employment, education, and contracting. Florida and Michigan may see similar proposals in the coming year.

But even with the growing consensus that race should play little if no role in government decision-making, some remain troubled over the transition to a truly "color-blind" society. They ask, Is it enough to remove race or gender as a factor in government decision-making? Will this not lead to a resegregation of society, where the best educational and employment opportunities in America remain the preserve of white males?

For example, when a 1996 federal court decision barred the use of race in University of Texas Law School admissions, the state legislature devised an alternative way of ensuring black and Hispanic enrollment at state colleges. It required that public universities accept the top 10% of each high school’s graduating class. Gov. George W. Bush called it "affirmative access." Washington school officials are considering a similar plan, while California shoots for the top 4% of graduating classes.

School officials in these and other states argue that in the absence of affirmative action, greater efforts must be made to identify qualified minorities through "outreach" and college prep programs. No doubt college administrators feel the pressure of campus protests alleging the creation of an "unwelcome environment" for minorities where racial preferences are no longer used. A recent study of admissions at California medical schools from 1990-1998 echoed this sentiment. It concluded that the decline in "underrepresented minority" applications and enrollments reflected a perception in minorities of a "less hospitable environment."

Apparently it did not occur to the researchers that blacks and Hispanics may simply be doing what their white and Asian peers have always done: enroll at colleges best suited to their level of scholastic achievement. True, last year over half of California’s "underrepresented minorities" who went to medical school enrolled out of state. So some may have decided simply to apply to schools where affirmative action was still in place.

Either way, minorities have taken their cues from the medical schools’ admissions policies. If students of whatever stripe think they cannot make the cut scholastically–as indicated by entering class mean scores and GPAs–they choose a school more suited to their academic preparation. What’s key is that any student who seeks an education to prepare for the workforce needs appropriate signals from the nation’s colleges and universities. When considering colleges without affirmative action, minority applicants weigh more seriously their ability to succeed–and choose schools, accordingly.

As Shelby Steele pointed out in A Dream Deferred, colleges have been more interested in enrolling the right number of minorities than in getting the right fit between the college’s educational rigors and the applicant’s ability to meet them. Steele argues that affirmative action, as a product of "post-sixties racial reform," always "asks less of blacks and exempts them from the expectations, standards, principles, and challenges that are considered demanding but necessary for the development of competence and character in others."

Which is why targeted recruitment of minorities may be a mixed blessing over the long haul. It still reflects the flawed premise of President Clinton’s view of affirmative action, "Mend it, don’t end it." Under this approach, government should seek out certain citizens it deems capable of succeeding at school or the job site, and provide special assistance. The protection of each citizen’s equal rights to pursue their happiness, whether through higher education or employment opportunity, takes a back seat to government assignment of privileges according to color or gender.

For those trumpeting the demise of affirmative action, the rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Until Americans of all hues and shapes reclaim their common humanity as the basis of their equal rights, one must sum up the present state of our racial-mindedness as follows: "Affirmative action is dead. Long live affirmative action!"

Lucas Morel is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an assistant professor of Political Science and History at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.