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The Death of Affirmative Action

It is now clear that affirmative action will be the wedge issue of the 1996 Presidential campaign. It will be divisive. It will be bad. When it is all over, affirmative action will be dead! And that is the best you can say about it. This article won't get into a serious discussion of all the pros and cons because there is an awful lot of material available and much more will be written in coming months. Instead, I'd like to recognize that, for me, affirmative action is an emotional issue, a personal issue. I'll tell you my story and follow up by giving you my perspective on the issue.

One of the benefits of a project like Meanderings is meeting people who provide interesting points of view on issues of substance. One such person is Tom Storer whose "letter to the editor" helped suggest this the value of writing about this issue. His letter is printed in the letters section of this issue.

I'm an affirmative action baby. I would not be where I am today except for affirmative action. My story probably goes back to my racially integrated grammar school. I was a good student and my grades were always at or near the top of the class. But I was also black and, apparently, being black and smart didn't sit well with some of my mostly white and Jewish teachers. When I was in the sixth or seventh grade, my teacher selected a group of students to work on a special science project and appear on the local educational radio station. Despite having the best science grades in the class, I wasn't chosen to participate, and didn't even know about the special project. Dr. Warren, the school principal, recognizing an injustice in the making, selected me for the project even though my teacher left me out.

This pattern was repeated in high school. For example, when I was about to complete the four year college prep math program in three years as a result of taking a class during summer school, Mr. Pollack, the chairman of the Math Department approached me one day, put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Son, what math course are you taking next year?"

I responded, with more than a little glee, "None. I'm finished with the math requirement."

Mr. Pollack responded, "No, you're not finished. You're taking calculus next year!" And so I did.

Later, when I scored well on the PSAT and National Merit Scholarship tests, a different kind of affirmative action took hold. Although I finished a little below the level required to become a Merit Scholarship finalist, I had checked the "minority student" box when I took the test.[1] As a result of that identification and my relatively high score, I started receiving promotional material and applications from colleges all over the country. The first such package came from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. I was so proud of myself that I took the letter to school so my guidance counselor, Mrs. McLauglin, could see it. She seemed pleased too, and started telling me how much I'd like St. Lawrence.

In a short while, I had received similar letters from at least 50 or 60 schools. So many that the thrill of receiving the original letter from St. Lawrence quickly wore off. Despite the interest expressed in me, I selected colleges to apply to based on my own criteria, including schools like Brown, Princeton, Rutgers, and the Universities of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Eventually I settled on the University of Chicago as my first choice, and began the process of applying to them all.

About this time, the affirmative action angel stepped in once again. Mike Hall, otherwise known to me as "Beetle," lived two houses away and was four years older than me. We were friends but not that close given our age difference. His mother told him about all the college letters I was getting when he came home for Thanksgiving. He stopped by my house and told me about his school, Williams College, said it was the best school in the country and that, given my SAT scores and grades, I should consider applying. I had never even heard of the school, but he handed me the college bulletin and application. After some reading, I added it to my list of schools and began working on my application quickly since the deadline was, by then, only a month away.

Mrs. McLaughlin asked me where I was applying and I told her. She wanted to know why I wasn't applying to St. Lawrence University. I explained that St. Lawrence was too far north, too cold, and that I preferred these other schools. She shook her head and said that those schools were not right for me, that I'd never get in. I remember telling her that I was sure I'd get in somewhere and that there wasn't any harm in trying. She didn't crack a smile.

I visited Williams in the Spring, a few weeks after the black students had taken over the administration building to demand, among other things, more black faculty and that more black students be admitted. While there, I also attended the best party I'd ever been to, with some of the finest sisters I'd ever seen. After that, well, Williams was it! Besides, it was out in the sticks (but not as far out as St. Lawrence!) so I'd have nothing to do other than study during the week, but it was also only three hours from home so I could get outta the sticks when necessary. And Redbook Magazine ranked it the hardest school in the country. I could have fun and get a great education too! Mrs. McLaughlin remained mad at me for not applying to St. Lawrence, and thought Williams was a big mistake.

Of course, without affirmative action, I wouldn't have gotten into Williams or the other schools I applied to. My grades were good enough, although not the best by their standards. And my SAT scores were clearly good enough. But those schools were mostly white. If there had been no pressure to admit black students, I wouldn't have been there.

As an aside, I almost flunked out after my first semester. I ended it with a D+, a D, and a D-, and dropped my fourth course because I was about to flunk it! Despite that inauspicious start, I recovered to make dean's list the next semester, and did fine after that. Wonder what that says about affirmative action? And I wonder about the non-affirmative action students who did flunk out, including those who came in with better grades and higher SAT scores? So much for the predictive power of test scores and grade point averages! Believe me, this is not science.

While a senior at Williams, I had worked as an intern in the office of a New York State Assemblyman. Each week, my friend and I would drive over to Albany and spend two days doing legislative research, writing bill memoranda, drafting legislation and similar activities. The internship existed because of the black Assistant Dean and political science instructor who was looking out for us. And, a few years later when it was time to find my first real job, my experience as an intern and the contacts I made were instrumental. In particular, the recommendation of the Assemblyman I had interned for was critical in helping me land a job as an analyst. Fortunately for me, the timing was right. A few months before I began looking for employment, the Democrats gained control of the State Assembly for the first time in years, and they were beefing up the staff. Not only was I well qualified, but the black and Puerto Rican members of the Assembly, who were crucial to Democratic control, insisted that the staff include qualified blacks and Puerto Ricans at all levels and in all areas. Again, thank God for affirmative action!

Affirmative Action in the Real World

I've now been working for 20 years, ten in the public sector, ten private. Affirmative action played a significant role in creating opportunities for me and removing obstacles, some of which had been intentionally placed in my path. By most accounts I've had a successful career thus far. I've been working long enough to know that the kind of helping hand I received early on is still necessary today. And, therefore, I remain committed to the concept and reality of affirmative action.

But, despite all the assistance I received, and despite supporting affirmative action, I've had a very ambivalent relationship to it during my actual work experience. While I believe I needed help getting those initial opportunities, I also had to work very hard to take advantage of them. The assistance I benefited from opened doors and gave me a shot, but it did not guarantee specific results or that I would be treated fairly. As a consequence, I've always wanted my talent and experience judged on the merits. For this reason, I've gone out of my way to avoid the perception that affirmative action is responsible for where I am.

I've proven myself in the same arenas, playing the same game as everyone else. I've avoided assignments I thought intended to use my race to advance some other agenda. In my current position, for example, I cover an industry where the clientele is 99 percent white and 95 percent male. I've followed this path because I felt the industry best matched my area of expertise and interest, but also because I don't want to be perceived as a "black" professional. Rather, I want to be recognized as a professional like any one else, white or black, a damn good one at that. Given the likelihood some of my would-be clients harbor prejudices, my stance may have actually resulted in me producing less business over the years than I otherwise might have.

I have also seen what I consider to be egregious wrongs done in the name of affirmative action, particularly in the area of government set-aside programs. Designed to ensure blacks, women and other groups have a fair shot at lucrative government contracts, there have been examples of minority firms serving as fronts for white firms, earning fees without responsibility for providing professional services. It is also true that the beneficiaries of these set-aside programs almost always seem to be well-to-do black folks, not the poor and unemployed who, many think, most need assistance.

The truth is government contracting has always been one of the spoils of our electoral system and even the worst examples of affirmative action programs are not significantly different from corrupt dealings under white political administrations throughout our history. But corruption is still corruption, and my ambivalence remains.

For all the talk of incompetent minorities taking their jobs, I must confess that most of the less-than-competent employees I've seen during my career have, in fact, been white men. In part, that's because there have been many more white men, and very few blacks, women or other minorities, employed in the organizations I have worked in or observed. But it is also true because there are more than a few white men who, plain and simple, could not successfully compete if the playing field were truly level. And it's a fact that most of the jobs that affirmative action has taken from white men have been given to white women, not minorities of either sex. There are fundamental reasons for that development, notably the need for both parents to work in more households than in the past, and the increase in single parent households. White women are not going to stay home so white men can keep their jobs. Blacks and other minorities won't stay home either!

Nevertheless, the principle complaint one hears about affirmative action is that blacks are taking jobs unfairly, and that white men are suffering as a result. And as Senator Robert Dole said recently, "there is a reason 64 percent of white men voted Republican last November."

Despite all the jobs white men are losing unfairly, it is foolish to presume that our economy is meritocratic in it's hiring practices. While it may be true in a macroeconomic sense, real world employment doesn't really work that way. It is, in fact, highly subjective, with many other factors having nothing to do with merit coming into play, including race and gender, not to mention sexual orientation. Furthermore, while Charles Murray's The Bell Curve provides some intellectual cover, poll data from recent years show that a significant majority of whites believe blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. And there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that such racist beliefs are manifest in the workplace on a regular basis.

One anomaly I'm still trying to figure out is why there are virtually no black traders or black underwriters working on the desks of the major Wall Street firms. These very lucrative jobs are generally filled with college graduates, frequently on the basis of personal recommendations, etc. There have been virtually no black men, and very few women of any persuasion. Maybe no one ever applied, right? Or, to paraphrase Al Campanis, blacks and women may not have "the necessities" for such jobs. The real explanation is likely to be the tendency of traders and underwriters to hire people who they feel comfortable with. People like themselves.

It's All True

I'd suggest that everything you've ever heard about affirmative action programs, pro and con, is true:

And on and on. All true, and inherently contradictory.

There's really no way around the contradictions, which is why doing anything or doing nothing threatens racial harmony. And consider the fact that affirmative action is the perfect wedge issue for Republican politicians. In this sense, affirmative action represents the third part of a three pronged attack against minority interests, with the first two prongs being the attack on crime and welfare, both of which have a black face.

So what's next? There are enough votes in Congress to severely restrict if not eliminate affirmative action. Despite protestations to the contrary, President Clinton cannot really be counted on to save the day. The California Civil Rights Initiative, which will eviscerate affirmative action and similar programs in that state, is expected to be approved by over two-thirds of voters next year, and will force affirmative action into the Presidential campaign. For all these reasons, it is clear that affirmative action will soon be dead, for all practical purposes, legally and otherwise.

Given the polarities in the affirmative action argument, it is obvious that eliminating it will not solve the problem. As long as one pole or the other is being chosen, there will be no progress, no solution, no healing. Wedge politicians aren't looking for progress; they're merely looking for votes. And Democratic politicians are merely looking for cover. Against that reality, the real question, the only question, is what do we erect in its place?

[1] This was only the second time I had confronted racial identification on a form or application that I was filling out. The first time I had to fill in my race, years earlier, I hadn't know what was intended, and wrote "American" on the appropriate line. I was never corrected.

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Meanderings 2.02 -- February 1995