FROM Nicholas Lemann, writing in the New...


FROM Nicholas Lemann, writing in the New York Times Magazine, June 11:

As we begin the process of thinking about the bulk of affirmative action programs, it's important to keep in mind three core principles.

First, because the country is so segregated, the natural default position for white people is to have no contact at all with blacks. It's healthy to have some way of pushing people, as they make hiring and contracting and admissions decisions, to go far enough beyond the bounds of their ordinary realm of contacts to find black candidates. Even the opponents say they want this, but it won't happen if it's not required because the black-white social gulf is so great.

Second, lawsuits and regulations are not the ideal venue for affirmative action. Liberal victories won there tend to be Pyrrhic: They generate enormous public resentment that leads to their eventual demise and gives the whole cause of trying to improve race relations a bad name. A legislative-based affirmative action would perforce be one that was spiritedly debated publicly. Liberals would have to make their case in a way that would convince people, and the result would be compromised-over programs with sustainable public support.

Third, we should recognize that the meritocracy is structured in such a way that one criterion, educational performance, is overweighted and has become too much the sole path to good jobs and leadership positions. It shows how far we've gone in this direction, how much we accept the present order of things, that affirmative-action plans governing school admissions and entry-level hiring for 22-year-olds are so often criticized as constituting "equality of result." Rationally, a first job or a place in a school is an opportunity; it's only because we sort people out so early that it looks like a result. There is a real difference between affirmative-action plans that seek to divide up the spoils and plans that seek to get African-Americans into a position where they have a chance to prove themselves through individual performance.

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