How the affirmative action debate could have gone better

Sam Smith, 2012 – News that the Supreme Court will be examining the constitutionality of affirmative action seems eerily similar to Rick Santorum questioning the wisdom of contraception. They were two issues I thought we had, legally at least, taken care of.

But these are times when the concerns of the present are taking a back seat to the arguments of the past, largely because a disintegrating GOP is getting an inordinate amount of space for its debates. It’s sort of like a months long Thanksgiving dinner where family members repeatedly bring up hurts one thought were well forgotten.

For my part, while I viewed safe sex as a good idea, I did think the way affirmative action was handled was a classic case of bad politics hurting good purpose. Key to its continuing controversy, I still believe, is that it was a policy created by a liberal community beginning to depart from its roots, which had previously emphasized economic improvements over social change. The two don’t need to be in conflict, but they will be, almost certainly, if some feel that their economic needs remain unanswered.

In the excerpts from articles below, I dicussed some of the other ways the issue of affirmative action might have caused less political trouble.

Sam Smith, 1991 – When was the decision made that affirmative action was the sine qua non of civil rights? I don’t recall that debate. As with so many aspects of the current liberal canon, it just happened.

In its first decade or so affirmative action worked very well, what with bi-partisan support and only tolerable controversy. But black student enrollment in college, as a percentage of all students, peaked in 1977 and thereafter started to decline.

There are several things to note about this. First, affirmative action, at colleges at least, apparently stopped working. Secondly, the decline began under the same laws that spurred affirmative action’s growth. Thirdly, this change appears to have commenced even before the Reagan administration.

Of course, when Reagan came in and began a systematic assault on civil rights, affirmative action took repeated additional beatings. And the real blow was Reagan economics. Affirmative action, which had done so well in an expanding economy, became a dramatically new issue (and one easy to demagogue) when it was played out in a contracting job market.

But by this time, affirmative action had become, to many liberals, not merely another tactic in the civil rights struggle (or a temporary expedient as LBJ saw it) but a basic right. Thus the liberal’s duty was not only to defend this right but to expand it. That the changing economic circumstances and empirical factors might suggest changing tactics, that the very success of early affirmative action would almost inevitably lead to questions of specific fairness, did not occur to the liberal leadership.

Of course, it is argued, as with abortion, that it was not liberals who made affirmative action an issue. But the evidence suggests that liberals and civil rights activists were just as happy as the rightwing to use affirmative action as a major battleground. At the very least it saved the trouble of coming up with a new approach.

Rather than altering the focus of the civil rights struggle — while holding on to affirmative action gains already made — the liberals cheerfully played the right’s game: affirmative action became civil rights just as abortion became feminism.

And what has happened — if not as a result, then at least more than coincidentally? Incredible success by the right, defeats by minorities, the most reactionary Supreme Court in half a century, and a stunning loss of moral direction by the civil rights movement:

The problem with pushing affirmative action during a tight job market was simply that the issue had become one of competing equities. One could not make the argument for it without implicitly appearing to say it is all right for some white males not to get jobs.

A similar tension of competing equities surrounded school bussing: integration of schools vs. maintenance of neighborhood. Here again, liberals and civil rights activists wanted to speak only of one equity and refused to give even token recognition to parents’ well-founded attachment to their neighborhoods and community schools.

Opposition, they felt, could come from only one source: racism. The dilemma was never given credence and intense bitterness developed without, it now appears, compensatory results.

In one striking exception to the national school bussing furor, DC civil rights leader Julius Hobson — a statistician by trade and a Marxist by inclination — sued the local school system in the sixties not on the basis of race but on the basis of economic inequity. The result was a court ruling ordering equal per-student spending among the city’s schools, a law that stands to this day. Bussing never became an issue, except for a voluntary city-suburb bussing program that was cancelled by the majority black DC school board as degrading. Now, over 20 years later, equal-spending is seen as fair and non-controversial while bussing programs are still in the courts.

When I mentioned my reservations about the emphasis given abortion and affirmative action the other day to a national activist, prominent in both civil rights and women’s issues, she nodded and said, “The problem is that they are not healing issues.” Here was the crux: such issues have a high potential to divide and exacerbate, and create a fertile field for the demagogue. And, just as important, their emphasis has not been politically successful.

If affirmative action and pro-choice were the only arrows in the liberal quiver, their priority might be understandable, but consider just a few of the issues that have gotten short shrift at the same time:

– The de facto segregation of Congress.

– Housing segregation that has still left 30% of black Americans living in almost complete racial isolation.

– America’s massive failure in pre-natal and infant care.

– Pay equity issues for women.

– Working conditions for both women and minorities. Where is affirmative action on sweat shops and in the farm fields?

– The substantial anti-minority and anti-women effects of zoning and city planning.

– A mass of federal and local laws that create unreasonable barriers to minorities and women starting new businesses or running them at reasonable cost.

– De facto transportation segregation at both the national and local level. Nationally, air transportation is favored while rail and bus transit are allowed to languish. Locally, mass transit is tilted towards the needs of white suburbanites and is a major although consistently ignored factor in the hardening of urban ghettos.

Some of these issues lack pizzazz, some are extremely complex, but in such issues will be found real solutions, healing solutions, to the nation’s problems of discrimination and inequity.

For example, is it possible to envision an America functioning with ethnic decency, while still accepting the isolation that zoning, real estate practices and transportation promote?

Is it possible to create a fair and equitable society and leave untouched the traditional urban structure that was designed for men to go to work and women to stay home?

What good will affirmative action do for the center city black or hispanic who has no way of getting to the job in the first place?

Is abortion our best answer to the poor woman who can’t afford to raise a child?

Is freedom of choice really more important than freedom from disease, injury, death in the workplace?

As it stands, the unspoken assumption is that those who oppose policies like affirmative action are racists. And even when it’s not assumed, it is often what is felt by those not in the liberal camp.

If liberals listened, they might find ways to recast affirmative action so that “the sons of Jamaican physicians or wealthy Cuban businessmen” (to quote one critic) did not get a free ride out of it. They might hear the inner monologue of much of the criticism — help those who actually need help but not because of some genetic factor such as race or sex. They might be more sympathetic to the pressures felt by lower-class white Americans. They might note that nearly every successful social program in this country has been applied either universally, as with social security, or based on real economic status, such as Head Start. These are the programs that Americans support, even when — as in the case of Head start — over two-thirds of the beneficiaries are minorities.

Yes, there is paranoia about affirmative action; yes, there is exaggeration based on anecdotal evidence; and, yes, people ascribe the wrong causes to their social and economic suffering. But the fear, hyperbole and faulty understanding can not be erased — nor the cause they hinder advanced — by treating them as some sort of silly psychosomatic illness that is best ignored or impugned as just short of a hate crime. The fears may be wrong-headed, but they are just as real as if they were based on fact. . .

Not only does the current liberal establishment skew its priorities, it actively avoids the sort of issues that once made liberalism a powerful force.

The most dramatic example is national health insurance. Even the American public is ahead of the liberals on this one. There are national politicians willing to push it (or “a single payer system” as they gingerly prefer to call it) — including to varying degrees, Senators Bob Kerrey and Wellstone. But to date they have gotten little prodding from traditional liberal activists, the drive coming from health-oriented progressives of a more grass roots variety.

Similarly, the liberal establishment has been consistently AWOL in the War on Drugs. The most mean-spirited, corrupt, unconstitutional, anti-minority, dangerous and stupid domestic policy of recent times has been broadly condoned if not actively supported by this establishment. The liberal participation in this war has been at best a display of gross cowardice and at worst borders on ideological treason.

The liberal establishment has cooperated with, winked at or hidden from, repeated assaults of the Reagan and Bush administration on the Constitution and democratic principles.

Sam Smith, 1995 – When talking about affirmative action it is important to keep in mind which version of affirmative action we are addressing. There are a number of affirmative action programs within the government, such as those for women and minorities, those for small business (through the SBA), those for defense contractors (through the Pentagon), those for veterans (through veterans programs) those for homeowners (through mortgage interest deductions) and so forth.

If, however, one limits the topic to the controversial forms of affirmative action, that is to say those benefiting minorities and women, we are then left with the question of whether we are really arguing about goals or about the route taken to reach them. For example, conservatives have offered a detailed critique of what is wrong with the processes of affirmative action, but have shown little inclination to improve upon them. This leads one to the suspicion that their concern is more with the results of affirmation action than its methods.

These, of course, are the same people who believe — as the Peace & Freedom Foundation recently put it so elegantly — that “he that does not work, neither shall he eat,” which presumably would mean, say, replacing the 6% unemployment rate with a 6% starvation rate. To take advice from such individuals is a little like getting directions to Wall Street from someone who really wishes you would go back to Watts.

On the other hand, liberal supporters of affirmative action have badly mingled goals and methodology, granting to mere tactics the sanctity of principles and investing boiler-plate legalisms with the virtue of basic rights.

In fact, affirmative action has been ineffective in many ways. It has failed inner city residents. It has favored middle-class women over poorer ones. Its effects on minority participation on college campuses peaked some years ago. It has been abused and manipulated by unneedy members of minorities and by white business firms. And, like other aspects of liberal politics and race relations, it has been preempted by lawyers whose policies too often lead to the courthouse rather than to resolution. Affirmative action needs to be restudied and reframed by its friends before it is destroyed by its enemies. For starters, here are some ways its goals, rather than merely its chosen tactics, might be furthered:

– Tell people who’s really taking their jobs: As with the anti-immigration hysteria, the attack on affirmative action is fed by real fears caused by job loss. In fact, neither minority hiring nor immigration is a major factor in this job loss. The real cause is white guys. The white guys who run multinational corporations that have taken jobs overseas. The white guys who came up with GATT and NAFTA. The white guys who are downsizing Fortunate 500 companies. The white guys who are automating. And the white economists who say that high unemployment is necessary for the health of the country and so you folks out there will just have to decide among yourselves who’s going to suffer it.

Absent a politics that clearly identifies the real sources of economic pain — the stateless corporation, automation, the corporatist policies of both parties, and the legal emigration of business rather than the illegal immigration of persons — many will continue to place the blame on other victims rather than where it belongs. The Democratic Party — even its liberal wing — has been unwilling to do this. They would be criticizing too many of their contributors.

– Include affirmative action by zip-code, census tract, economic status or some other way that adds the factor of class to those of race and gender. Every really successful social program in this country has either been universal or strongly cross-cultural — including needy whites. Failing to follow this basic rule of American politics has hurt affirmative action badly.

Opposition to affirmative action might have been much less had the programs been based on zip code as well as on race and sex. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in 1964 that “the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education.”

– Settle more cases by mediation. Affirmative action, like other ethnic and gender issues, begs for dispute resolution rather than litigation. Unfortunately, the rules have been drawn up by litigators and not by peacemakers.

– Give protection to those hurt by affirmative action. Part of the political problem of affirmative action has been the insensitivity of its supporters to the pain it has caused in specific instances. One way to mitigate this is to provide protection for an employee who loses out in order to make room for someone else. For example, imagine a white police sergeant who qualifies for lieutenant but is not chosen in the interest of better integration at headquarters. That sergeant should automatically go to the top of the list for the next hiring round. He has already done his part for affirmative action.

– Provide incentives rather than just regulations. For example, firms that lead the pack in improving their hiring practices or in overall diversity of employment could be given a federal seal they could use in advertising. Such an icon could have increasing value as minority markets expand.

– Provide wiggle room, especially for smaller businesses. A big problem for small businesses is that government regulations are too complex and unforgiving. What if we offered these smaller firms some leeway in how they help America become a better place? For example, what if, for such businesses, we lumped affirmative action, energy conservation and recycling together in such a way that a laggard in minority hiring could partially compensate by excelling in reduced energy use or vice versa? Such a program would be based on the principle that while we all have our faults, we all can do something right as well.

– Take on the discrimination we’ve been ducking: The two big areas are housing and transportation. We have failed to confront these forms of discrimination, preferring to deal only with their results — often ineffectively — through such means as school bussing and affirmative action. We would not need to rely so much on affirmative action if we finally faced these issues.

· Shorten the work-week and move towards full employment. Nothing would so ease the tensions surrounding affirmative action as jobs for everyone. As long as we fail at this, there are going to be too many people wanting too few jobs. Someone is going to lose. And be mad about it.

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