'Affirmative action' revisited
12/27/2002 12:00:00 AM - Larry Elder
Senator Trent Lott, in an ultimately failed effort to salvage
his career as incoming Senate majority leader, appeared on BET and announced
his support for "affirmative action." Not only, said the senator, does he
support affirmative action, but he also "practices it" by hiring minorities.
Lott's ill-advised remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party
place the administration in an awkward position. The University of Michigan,
in a case currently before the Supreme Court and about which the
administration has yet to take a position, argues that its affirmative
action program accomplishes "diversity," in and of itself a "compelling
Few argue against "outreach," casting a wide net to ensure
awareness of and opportunities for the qualified. But preferences, the kind
of affirmative action practiced by the University of Michigan, lowers
standards to achieve racial diversity, thus discriminating against the more
The Detroit News found that the racial preferences policies of
seven Michigan colleges and universities resulted in a disturbing pattern.
Many minority students dropped out at a much higher rate, presumably because
of lowered standards for admission. "Among black students," said the Detroit
News, "who were freshmen in 1994, just 40 percent got their diplomas after
six years, compared to 61 percent of white students and 74 percent of
Asians. . . . The state's universities have special programs aimed at
helping black students meet financial, social and academic challenges, but
graduation rates for blacks haven't improved consistently over the past
decade, the News found. . . . Universities knowingly admit students who have
a high chance of failing."
Secretary of State Colin Powell distinguished preferences from
affirmative action in his autobiography. "Equal rights and equal opportunity
. . . mean just that," said Powell. "They do not mean preferential
treatment. Preferences, no matter how well intended, ultimately breed
resentment among the nonpreferred. And preferential treatment demeans the
achievements that minority Americans win by their own efforts. The present
debate over affirmative action has a lot to do with definitions. If
affirmative action means programs that provide equal opportunity, then I am
all for it. If it leads to preferential treatment or helps those who no
longer need help, I am opposed."
But haven't preferences played a key role in the economic growth
In "America in Black and White," Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom
demonstrated that the black middle class grew well before affirmative
action. Nor did affirmative action accelerate the pace of the black middle
class. "The growth of the black middle class long predates the adoption of
race-conscious social policies," said the Thernstroms. "In some ways,
indeed, the black middle class was expanding more rapidly before 1970 than
after. . . . Many of the advances black Americans have made since the Great
Depression occurred before anything that can be termed 'affirmative action'
existed. . . . In the years since affirmative action (the black middle
class) has continued to grow but not at a more rapid pace than in the
preceding three decades, despite a common impression to the contrary."
Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television,
recently became the first minority to own a majority stake in a major sports
franchise. "I wouldn't want to go into a league saying I got my franchise
because I'm a minority," said Johnson, "or because I got a discount to what
the next guy paid.
. . . The last thing you want to do is be in the room because you got a
set-aside. There's no way that I am looking for a guaranteed outcome just
because of my minority status."
Hard work wins. This is precisely how blacks achieved their
success. With an economy of half a trillion a year, the black GDP, were it a
separate country, would place in the top 15 nations in the world.
In 1901, three decades after the emancipation, Booker T.
Washington said, "When a Negro girl learns to cook, to wash dishes, to sew,
to write a book, or a Negro boy learns to groom horses, or to grow sweet
potatoes, or to produce butter, or to build a house, or to be able to
practise (sic) medicine, as well or better than some one else, they will be
rewarded regardless of race or colour (sic). In the long run, the world is
going to have the best, and any difference in race, religion, or previous
history will not long keep the world from what it wants.
"I think that the whole future of my race hinges on the
question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value
that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our
presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community. No
man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral
well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper
reward. This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified."