When should affirmative action in favor of a minority cease?

Glen DeRonde, who won a reverse discrimination case in January, has asked the California State Supreme Court whether the University of California's admission preference for some racial groups will "no longer be mandated when and if Caucasians become minorities within the state of California?" DeRonde's petition raises the question of whether the definition of a minority changes when the majority becomes the minority in a particular geographical unit.

Demographers predict, for instance, that Los Angeles will soon have a Hispanic majority. Will minority preference rules be shifted to favor whites when they become a minority there -- or in any city or state or in the nation at large? Or will the preference cease only when the minority proportion in designated institutions, professions or occupational levels equals or exceeds their proportion in the total population?

The District of Columbia provides a potential laboratory for consideration of these questions. D.C. affirmative action plans are presently applied in favor of blacks and Hispanics, although whites (as well as Hispanics) now constitute the minority population of the District. Although the District Council on March 26, 1979, rejected a motion to eliminate racial designations before the names of candidates for appointment to the District's boards and commissions and indicated its expectation that the D.C. Human Rights Commission would keep track of such designations for affirmative action purposes, it is still impossible to determine the exact racial composition of the D.C. government. The prevailing impression is that blacks are overrepresented even in terms of their majority status within the District.

Could black preference within the Distric be successfully challenged by members of the white minority? Will the courts rule that blacks will continue to remain the preferred minority in the District so long as they remain a minority within the Washington metropolitan region or in the nation as a whole? Or will the measure be one of proportional representation in particular levels of the bureaucracy or the professions? If affirmative action in favor of preferred minorites is reversed, does the reversal mean reversion to a color-blind system or to one in which positive preference is given to the newly defined preferred minorities? Court rulings have left undefined the temporal and spatial limitations of affirmative action.

On May 28, Iris Kern, the only fulltime white professor in the seven-member department of social welfare at the University of the District of Columbia, won a default judgment against the university in the U.S. District Court on the grounds that she had been passed over for promotion and pay increases because she is white. Although the Kern case did not come to grips directly with the temporal and spatial aspects of affirmative action, one can expect an increasing number of court cases that will deal with these aspects.

The Supreme Court sidestepped the DeFunis case in the 1960s on the ground that DeFunis succeeded nevertheless in obtaining the education he had claimed was denied him because of the application of unequal standards to different races in the admissions procedure he challenged. When the Supreme Court finally ruled on the Bakke case in 1978 and on the Weber case in 1979, it set legal standards for affirmative action programs, but offered ambiguous interpretations of the moral and ethical aspects of racial preference. Affirmative action programs have not quickly solved the problems they were meant to eliminate and have in some cases exacerbated racial tensions.

Since preferential treatment in a democracy is fraught with popular emotion and political hazard, as well as with logical inconsistencies, the answer to be given by the courts in future cases will not be easy, but must be quick. Further delay in defining the temporal and geographical dimensions of racially defined programs of preference can only lead to more divisiveness and bitterness.