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What Actions Are Affirmative?

By William Raspberry
Monday, August 21, 1995; Page A21

opinion
Advocates of affirmative action ought to pay careful attention to the recent "teens and race" poll conducted by USA Weekend Magazine. They might find themselves rethinking the concept, or at least their strategies for promoting it.

The survey of nearly a quarter of a million teenagers, grades six through 12, found a group of youngsters broadly reflective of the American mainstream: personally decent, racially progressive and somewhat pessimistic on the matter of race. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed (and 91 percent of the high schoolers) believe their peers harbor some racial prejudice, even if they won't admit it, and 86 percent fear that racial tensions will always exist.

Still, 72 percent say they have a close friend of another race, though they say they are pressured by family and friends not to mix with other races; and 71 percent say they would date a person of another race, even though 51 percent say their parents would disapprove of such a relationship.

There's more: Nearly half of the respondents, embracing all racial groups, say they have experienced prejudice in the last year. Seventy-seven percent say television is full of racial stereotypes that contribute to racial prejudice.

In short, they sound less like youthful ideologues than ordinary youngsters who have got their heads on fairly straight.

But listen: Despite their surprisingly progressive view of America's racial situation, nine out of ten of the 248,000 teenagers surveyed say they oppose affirmative action in hiring and college admissions to make up for past discrimination.

What does this mean for the advocates of affirmative action, a concept already under attack by Congress, the courts and a broad swath of American adults?

It means, at the very least, that they have not made the case for their favored remedy.

Have they failed to prove that racial (and sex) discrimination exists? Have they been unable to convince nine-tenths of America's youth that affirmative action is not merely reverse discrimination – as morally suspect as the practice it seeks to redress? Have opponents succeeded in painting affirmative action as a device for replacing competent white men with less-competent minorities and women?

It seems likely to me that the failure has been on all these fronts and on two others as well – in defining terms and in identifying targets.

Advocates may talk glibly about what they expect the policy to accomplish: to open up the ranks of privilege, to transform policy platitudes into concrete progress and to help make up for past disadvantage. But what precisely is the policy they have in mind? Taking specific steps to increase workplace diversity? Measuring results against available pools of eligibles? Giving the nod to minorities and women in all close cases? Awarding bonus points for membership in a historically disadvantaged group? Setting enforceable goals and timetables? Setting aside a certain percentage of government contracts for women and minorities?

And just who is supposed to benefit from the application of the policy? Those minorities who have been most damaged by racism – the urban underclass, for example? Those who are doing reasonably well already but who could do even better with a race-based boost? Individual victims of discrimination or the groups to which they belong?

The failure to define and target puts affirmative action advocates in the position of defending almost anything that can be defined as affirmative action: the FCC's racial preference program that permitted ex-Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt to acquire a TV station, which he then sold at a huge personal profit; the awarding of a contract to a Hispanic company when a white firm had submitted the low bid; the admission of black college applicants whose paper credentials are inferior to rejected white applicants – even blatant pro-black favoritism.

I don't suggest the youngsters who participated in the USA Weekend survey spent much time thinking about definitions and targets, only that the debate over affirmative action has left Americans with an impression of what the concept involves. For too many of them – including our next-in-line political leadership – it is an impression of unfairness. Those of us who care about the threat to affirmative action had better get clear on what it is we wish to save, and why.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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