Affirmative Action: End of the Line?

It may approach blasphemy at this point, but it is probably safe to say that we are all -- right now -- witnessing the death of affirmative action. And an excruciatingly slow death it is.

Whether you believe that affirmative action has been necessary to eradicate the inequities caused by racial discrimination, or you believe that it unfairly penalizes one group to benefit another, affirmative action is dying with the pace of overwrought Greek tragedy. Surely and mercifully, the audience concludes, the curtain will close on this program one day.


Recently, we were witness to another act in the drama when a Georgetown University Law School student ventured to argue that there was something different about the standards applied to black students when compared with their white counterparts at the school. He suggested this state of affairs was unfair.

The ensuing outcry from the school's administration, faculty and student body not only has thoroughly quieted the young critic, it has slammed the door shut on any reasonable dialogue about the subject.


And that lack of dialogue, so thoroughly pervasive when it comes to matters of race in this culture, is the most unsettling aspect in the current melodrama over affirmative action. Why shouldn't we openly discuss the pros and cons of pursuing this program of social engineering or letting it die?

There are some good reasons for ending affirmative action. The best would be that it was no longer necessary.

In fact, as we have moved closer to an equitable society, it has become harder to argue in favor of programs that are meant to redress past discrimination. Twenty years ago, redress was the most cogent argument for affirmative action, but today it lacks impact and is rarely mentioned.

A case in point is revealed through two friends of mine, both of whom had applied to graduate school and both of whom were accepted.

During the acceptance process, however, the friend who was black was granted early admission. The white friend, who, as it turns out, scored higher on the admissions exam, had to wait; with, I might add, some ensuing anxiety.

While both friends are accomplished, there are reasons beyond race that one applicant might have been accepted before the other.

But those things were never discussed among my friends. In fact, their collective silence not only cemented the notion that my black friend's early acceptance pivoted on race but also fueled resentment between the two.

As one Georgetown University student was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, subjects of race and affirmative action have become the "dirty little secret" of our society. We all think about them, but none of us wants to discuss them openly.


It may be that affirmative action -- designed to remedy institutionalized race and sex discrimination -- has begun to obfuscate its purpose. In the resulting murkiness, as discrimination has lessened, questions are being raised but getting harder to answer about the wisdom of continuing the effort.

I say: Ask the questions. Perhaps a re-examination of affirmative action is in order.

And what we all should ask ourselves first is: At what point do we want affirmative action to end?

Should it end now, when a third of all black Americans and nearly half of all black children live in poverty, the result of which is inferior education, housing and health service? Do we really believe that this situation is equitable or that the fact that such poverty afflicts blacks in disproportionate numbers has nothing to do with past discrimination?

And has a society that exhibits such a skewed disparity really exorcised itself of its racial psychosis?

I say no to each question and, for me, those answers alone are enough to justify letting affirmative action live.


But I, lacking collective wisdom, may be wrong.

Certainly, one could argue that my black friend entering graduate school was already accomplished and no longer in need of affirmative action.

But then where do we draw the line? How arbitrary shall we be?

Do we draw it with the black child who is admitted into a prestigious private school because he shows a keen intellect but whose family is unable to pay the cost of admissions? Or do we draw it with the young undergraduate who becomes the object of courting by a Fortune 500 company eager to fulfill its hiring goals?

All have accomplished something. Is it enough to warrant abandoning affirmative action in those instances?

Again, I say no. I believe in a celebration of diversity at all levels. Affirmative action at its best is medicinal and should be welcomed.


But even I confess some reservation when arguments over affirmative action turn to how to administer the remedy. Should it be accomplished with numerical goals, quotas or wishful thinking? Should it be voluntary or court ordered?

Many blacks -- and women, too, I venture to guess -- would say that affirmative action of any kind is a less than perfect method of improving the lot of a group of people. Above all, it can create resentment among the group that ultimately feels excluded.

That resentment is pervasive already. We are all watchful of the situation where an employee is being given unfair preferential treatment, be he white or black.

If he's white, its considered the normal course of affairs. If he's black, its affirmative action.

And there's a flip side to the resentment scenario. Many blacks I know argue among themselves about affirmative action goals. Why stop at three black employees? Why not eight? And why is that position being reserved for a black or woman and not the other position?

Blacks and women have long suspected that there was an artificial limit applied to what they would be allowed to achieve in the work force. It's called the glass ceiling, the implication being that you can see the top but never reach it.


I, too, once was told that a position I coveted was, in the best of all worlds, being reserved for a woman. Having swallowed hard in the face of that affirmative action effort, I was hard pressed to say anything since I, myself, am black.

And then there is the situation where a black employee hired with the best of intentions and to foster diversity within the corporation is left floundering or is never told when his work isn't up to par.

A white employee might be told as soon as the deficiencies are realized. That person is given a chance to improve. A black employee might be told the day he was being fired.

It's a killing-them-with-kindness approach. Isn't the black person just as entitled to know that his work isn't up to snuff as the white person?

Some would argue that trying to answer these questions would open a Pandora's box that is best left alone. Those who tilt to the political left, in particular, too often fall silent on the subject either because they feel talking about it would jeopardize the effort or because they too have doubts about its wisdom.

Meanwhile George Bush, bolstered by a series of conservative successes designed to whittle away at affirmative action, appears to be positioning himself to run a re-election campaign with affirmative action as its linchpin.


In the wake of muteness on the left, the right may well be victorious again by raising the most pitiful of all arguments against affirmative action; that we have already achieved a color blind society.

Those who believe that have only mistaken silence for blindness.

Kevin Thomas is a reporter for The Evening Sun.