Affirmative Action Special Report
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Affirmative Action's Limits ...

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, April 11, 1995; Page A22

Affirmative action is a program defended in the name of equality whose actual purpose is to redistribute inequality. Affirmative action does not seek a general expansion of incomes or opportunities. Rather, it tries to achieve a different apportionment of existing opportunities. It's the classic zero sum game.

Affirmative action does not reduce the disparities between those at the top and everyone else. It effectively accepts those disparities and looks instead at whether the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of the people who hold coveted positions fairly reflects the makeup of society.

Affirmative action is different from traditional redistributive programs, most of which involve spending sums of money. With the old-fashioned programs, you can split differences with relative ease. If we're arguing about how much money to spend to help the handicapped, the unemployed, the elderly or the very poor, you and I might propose different amounts. It's not so hard to agree on a number in between, or to compromise on how the taxes to pay for such programs should be apportioned.

But you can't split differences so easily with affirmative action, because by definition it's applied to each individual job or college spot. Either you get it, or the other guy (or woman) gets it.

Finally, the older redistributive programs defined groups not in terms of who they were (African Americans, women, Latinos), but rather by what their condition was (for example, orphans, the unemployed, the elderly, the sick, students in need of scholarships). Anyone – of either gender, of any color, of any ethnic group – might fall into the second set of categories. Programs for the poor or the unemployed may well set off fights between the lucky and the unlucky, the rich and the not-so-rich. But these are not fixed categories. Affirmative action, on the other hand, rests on fixed definitions of which group you belong to.

All of the above might be taken as an argument against affirmative action. If one's central concern is for a more equitable society, it would seem to make sense to direct government-backed efforts not toward entire racial or gender groups but toward all those, no matter what group they belong to, who need the most help. Surely, for example, it makes more sense to direct resources and preferences to impoverished inner-city kids and not to the sons and daughters of the well-off in the black community. And it doesn't seem to make sense to give, say, the daughter of the president of a steel company a preference over the son of a white janitor at the same steel company. Cases like that may not be typical, but they are relevant to the issue of whether affirmative action is always just.

But matters do not stop there. The reason this issue is so hard was summarized by the sociologist Steven Lukes in a brilliant adage. "Every way of seeing," he once wrote, "is also a way of not seeing." So, for example, if you focus only on the injustices of class, you might well miss the injustices of race or gender. It is perfectly reasonable for an African American, even an affluent African American, to argue that the burden of discrimination he or she faces is qualitatively different from what might be faced by the white janitor's son. After all, the United States has been firmly committed by law to racial equality for only 31 of the 208 years that have passed since the adoption of a Constitution that permitted slavery. There is, to put it mildly, a lot of catching up to do, and the country clearly has an interest in making sure that African Americans have a good chance of inclusion at all levels of society.

Nathan Glazer, a sociologist who has been one of the most articulate opponents of affirmative action, surprised many with an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal last week warning that simply wiping out affirmative action could have disastrous consequences. "I am concerned," he wrote, "that African-Americans will see the abandonment of affirmative action for them as a terrible rejection by an indifferent and hostile society." Would they be entirely wrong?

If the coming affirmative action debate is to be something other than demagogic, each side needs to honor the other's truths. Opponents of affirmative action need to recognize that the standard they espouse, "equality of opportunity," is not nearly as simple as it sounds. Guaranteeing equality of opportunity as between a very poor African American in the inner city and a well-off white suburbanite is a very big commitment involving all sorts of interventions (from prenatal care to adequate policing to decent schools). If you're for equality of opportunity, you have to be in favor of doing a lot more than is now being done to achieve it.

But supporters of affirmative action have to understand its limits. Affirmative action is doing very little to help those inner-city kids whose problems are now the largest cause of racial inequality. And supporters of affirmative action should not write off as racism or sexism the concerns that whites of modest means have over what affirmative action might do to their children's chances of advancement. Such concerns are rooted in rational worries about economic conditions that may make their kids' way harder than it would have been 30 years ago.

President Clinton is thinking about naming a blue-ribbon commission to study affirmative action. If the commission is going to hand out a moralistic report telling us all how to think, it shouldn't waste its time. But if it sees its job as broadening the affirmative action debate to a discussion of how to ensure something closer to equality of opportunity – for an inner- city child and that white janitor's son alike – it might do some good.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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