Affirmative action is arguably the single most divisive racial issue in American politics today. Blacks (and not merely the self-serving) see it as an indisputable necessity for translating racial equality from empty theory to fact. Whites (and not just the followers of Jesse Helms) see it as just another name for racial quotas, an abrogation of the idea of equal opportunity.
And yet, the argument between us, recently underscored by President Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 (which he persisted in calling a "quota bill"), may have more to do with how the issue is stated than with what we believe.
Ask us whether we favor affirmative action, and blacks are overwhelmingly likely to answer yes. We simply don't trust whites, who make most of the critical decisions as to hiring and promotion, to be fair about it in the absence of any requirement that they take into account the actual results of their decisions: numbers.
But put the question differently. Ask blacks to establish reasonable criteria for a job and then ask us whether we believe that a minority or a woman should be hired in preference to a white man who better meets those criteria, and the answer is likely to be a resounding no.
Only those who imagine that affirmative action and race preference are the same thing would see the responses as contradictory. They aren't. They are both calls for racial fairness. The first insists that fairness have real consequences, the second that qualifications matter.
The debate, really, is over the validity of qualifications which too often find merit in attributes that tell too little of what we need to know about an applicant and that tend to favor those who already enjoy race-based advantage.
Take, for instance, the case of two applicants for law school: one the black son of a husbandless cleaning woman, a graduate of a dreadful inner-city high school and an open-enrollment state college; the other the child of two white professionals and the graduate of an elite academy and an Ivy League University. If the first scored 32 (out of a possible 48) on the Law School Admission Tests and the second scored 34 -- and the two were dead even on other admissions criteria -- who would get the single available seat in your law school?
In point of fact, the parents of the white applicant would likely have sufficient pull to get their child into a decent law school, perhaps their own alma mater, even with lower test scores. But taking the scores alone, hardly any admissions officer would count it "reverse discrimination" to favor the black applicant. The purpose of the test is to predict law school success, and the charwoman's son, having overcome handicaps that might have derailed a less determined youngster, would be rated a "can't miss."
I don't know people who would refuse to apply a little judicious affirmative action in such a case, or in the case of any applicant whose record disclosed both the minimum academic qualifications and extraordinary success in overcoming disadvantage.
I don't know people who wouldn't want some assurance that racially skewed hiring or promotion numbers are the result of something other than discrimination: the more skewed the numbers, the greater the insistence that they be justified.
I don't know people who don't believe that employers have a duty both to assemble a competent work force and to take pains to be racially fair about it.
And I don't know people who wouldn't be troubled by the experience of a young colleague of mine who was all but offered a job by the editor of a Midwestern newspaper, only to be told that the paper had a hiring freeze when it was learned that my colleague was white.
The paper may have needed a black reporter for any number of reasons, ranging from a lawsuit settlement to a wish to improve its coverage of minorities to a need to repair relations with its black readership. But the way the situation was handled raises the specter of the sort of affirmative action that makes decent people uneasy. It doesn't seem fair.
And since fairness is the most effective claim blacks (or any other disadvantaged minority) have on the society, it is in our interest to insist on fairness. There won't always be agreement as to what is fair, but it makes sense to avoid policies that magnify the appearance of unfairness.
Affirmative action to ensure nondiscrimination, or to equalize opportunity, will nearly always seem fair. Affirmative action to make up for past societal unfairness is trickier. Affirmative action that benefits well-off blacks at the expense of poor whites, or that gives lesser qualified blacks preference over better qualified whites, or that merely replaces white pigs at the public trough with black ones, will hardly ever seem fair -- even to those who advocate it.