Farewell, affirmative action

THE retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall and nomination of Clarence Thomas portend the virtual demise of affirmative action as a strategy to promote racial justice and economic uplift. Some would say good riddance.

"Affirmative action" began in 1961 when President Kennedy signed an executive order requiring government contractors to take affirmative steps to overcome patterns of discrimination. Settlements of cases of flagrant discrimination filed under the subsequent 1964 Civil Rights Act sometimes required employers to set minority hiring goals. These remedies passed muster with the Supreme Court as long as they were not rigid quotas -- but lately by only a 5-4 margin.


Clarence Thomas, as the ultra-conservative chairman of Ronald Reagan's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, made his reputation as a civil-rights official opposed to preferential hiring or promotion based on numbers, even as recompense for past discrimination. If Thomas is confirmed, he will tip the balance and become the decisive vote on the high court against anything that smacks, even faintly, of a race-conscious remedy.

As it happens, the court had already been moving to the right on this issue, in tandem with the latest "white backlash." In Congress, the Democrats have sponsored legislation intended to overturn recent Supreme Court decisions that place an impossible burden of proof on plaintiffs claiming discrimination. But Democrats were so traumatized by the race-baiting in the Jesse Helms-Harvey Gantt North Carolina Senate contest that they added a ban on racial quotas -- and they still lack the votes to override President Bush's threatened veto.


Meanwhile, arch-conservative Dinesh D'Souza's best-selling book, "Illiberal Education," has won grudging praise even from some liberals. D'Souza claims that ugly racial separatism at universities is the direct result of accepting too many unqualified students and teachers solely for the sake of racial balance. According to D'Souza, unprepared and frustrated minorities withdraw into embittered isolation, while many whites find confirmation of their racist assumptions when some minority classmates and teachers turn out to be less able.

I have heard numerous white college professors of supposedly liberal conviction endorse D'Souza's picture and recount horror stories about unqualified black colleagues. In cases such as these, affirmative action by quota, paradoxically, had reinforced racism.

Does all of this mean that white society should simply turn its back on the aspirations and claims of blacks? I hope not.

Before throwing out baby with bathwater, we should review some history. At the time affirmative action was invented, blacks and other minorities were excluded wholesale from entire career categories. They were routinely shunted into lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs, no matter what their skills, so that the better jobs were reserved for white males.

Even after job discrimination was explicitly outlawed by Congress in 1964, racist (and sexist) hiring lived on, by using informal job referral networks and tests that did not measure likelihood of job success.

Without affirmative action, Clarence Thomas might not have been admitted to Yale Law School.

Even today, if you pay attention, you will notice that jobs with high pay relative to their skill levels are often suspiciously lily-white. Take a good look for integrated staffs in elite hotels and restaurants; or on construction crews; or on corporate boards. The bitter truth is that, without affirmative action and without collective remedies, patterns of job discrimination would have persisted for decades, if not centuries.

That said, there have indeed been cases of quota hires that awarded jobs on the basis of race rather than merit. Liberals -- black and white -- would be wise to move beyond racially specific measures to help the downtrodden. For one thing, the courts will no longer uphold them. For another, whenever a less qualified minority individual is given preference for a job, another crack emerges in the coalition of working people who need to have a common political agenda.


Non-racial strategies of economic uplift include: full employment; full funding of school budgets; compensatory training; national health insurance; and other non-racial means of economic uplift. Nothing promotes racial friction like high unemployment, or shabby schools, or overwhelmed hospitals, or dependent poor families draining working taxpayers. Progress on all fronts is desperately needed.

By 1960, fair employment laws were a century overdue. And we still need true affirmative action to overcome patterns of prejudice. But liberals blundered when they relied excessively on racial remedies that alienated white working-class voters, rather than emphasizing broad economic justice for black and white alike. They should reclaim that agenda today -- for it is the only one that leads both to a viable politics and a colorblind society.

Robert Kuttner is an economist based in Massachusetts.