Revisiting 'Affirmative Action'

Sen. Trent Lott (R.-Miss.), in an ultimately failed effort to salvage his career as incoming Senate majority leader, appeared on Black Entertainment Television (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 state interest.”

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 qualified.

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% got their diplomas after six years, compared to 61% of white students and 74% 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 of blacks?

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 BET, 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.”