In 1961, President Kennedy first coined the phrase “affirmative action.” In 1965, President Johnson signed an executive order making affirmative action the law of the land. Affirmative action has undertaken a variety of efforts intended to ensure roughly proportionate representation of groups historically disadvantaged by discrimination in business (contracts, employment), housing, and education. It extended first to blacks, soon to women, last to almost all minority groups, whether or not they had been thus disadvantaged. And it extended to any members of those groups, whether or not they had suffered from discrimination or not. Affirmative action based its efforts on race or gender alone.
Affirmative action operated differently between business and housing, and education. In business, it gave contracting preferences to minority- and woman-owned businesses and hiring preferences to minorities and women seeking employment. In housing, it gave various forms of direct and indirect financial assistance to minorities and women seeking houses. In all these cases, the minorities or members had to meet certain standards, though often lower ones, than others.
Now, half a century later, it should be possible to take stock and consider what good affirmative action has done in business and housing. Everyone, I think, must admit that it has done considerable good—probably less than its advocates hoped for, perhaps more than its opponents feared. On the one hand, it has lowered or eliminated legal barriers based on race and gender to opportunities in business and housing. On the other, it has provided assistance to those qualified by race and gender able to take advantage of its opportunities. On balance, despite complaints at the time, it has done its good without doing much harm in the business and housing domains.
Perversely, affirmative action has had greater adverse consequences for those which it intended to help, blacks more than women. It has done the most good for those blacks who were, or aspired to be, middle-class and who knew how to take advantage of the opportunities which affirmative action presented. Other blacks did not recognize, accept as realistic, or know how to realize these opportunities, or did not want to change. As a result, the black community has ruptured. Middle-class blacks moved into new fields or higher positions, relocated to suburban neighborhoods, and attended better colleges. The rest have remained un- or under-employed, ill-housed, and badly educated, with many dysfunctional behaviors and detrimental habits which detail their unremediated condition. Affirmative action has done, could have done, and can do, nothing for them, and it can do not more for anyone else.
Affirmative action in business and housing differs significantly from affirmative action in education, the most controversial domain of the three. The explanation of this difference indicates the limits of the effectiveness of affirmative action efforts in education. In all three domains, affirmative action has lowered or eliminated barriers for the qualified. Whereas it did not start business, get jobs, or build houses for blacks, it has tried to provide education in schools or courses from which blacks had been, or seemed to have been, excluded or in which they rarely enrolled. However, the affirmative action efforts to include black students with weak educational backgrounds in such schools or courses have had results in most cases mixed at best, bad at worst. They have hurt many promising but inadequately prepared students, and they have done little or nothing to eliminate disparities in evaluated outcomes. Blacks may not have been left out, but they have still been left behind. For affirmative action did not, because it could not, give blacks the adequate education which they needed for inclusion. That education they have to get by dint of hard work by themselves, with help from others.
This is a lesson lost or unknown to most rural or inner-city blacks and forgotten or ignored by affirmative action advocates. Middle-class blacks with an education, many of whom have separated themselves from lower-class blacks, are not a presence in the community and an example to others. So many lower-class black parents and black children have undervalued education, have not realized its importance to personal and societal improvement, and have not accepted or acted upon their responsibilities to get an education by their efforts or to insist upon their children’s efforts to get one.
Perversely, as affirmative action has taken the initiative in public education, so it has fostered a belief common among many blacks that schools are responsible for providing, not that students are responsible for acquiring, an education. Results include teacher frustration in the face of passive, reluctant, or sullen students. They also include political pressure to lower standards so that results in enrollments or attainments give the appearance of equality in education. Ironically, affirmative action in education has perpetuated, not eradicated or even reduced, educational disparities, revealed by standardized tests. Despite the leavening of improved performance of many middle-class blacks, disparities are roughly the same size as they were 50 years ago.
One common excuse among many excuses is the persistence of racism. Racism, like terrorism, is a name for the cluster of attitudes, beliefs, and conduct of people who believe in their racial superiority to others and justify abuse of others deemed inferior. For racists to adversely influence the education of blacks, however, they would have to involve themselves personally in it. But I know of no ways in which racists can affect black parents of black students in matters of education. Racists cannot make black parents let their black children to watch television instead of doing their homework. They cannot make black parents tell their black children to excel in sports, not their studies. Nor can racists affect school operations to the detriment of blacks. Racists cannot oblige school administrators or teachers to assign unqualified black students with mediocre grades to Advanced Placement or Honor classes. They cannot force educators to create standardized tests on which, on average, blacks students do not do as well as white students do. Racists are not responsible for the disparities in performance between whites and blacks.
This excuse is a further indictment of affirmative action, which has presented itself the means to reduce or eliminate educational disparities. So their persistence despite affirmative action efforts requires an explanation. Two possible explanations assume that affirmative action can do and does what it intends to do. One, affirmative action would work except for racist interventions. Crying “race” is a necessity of those who cannot account for the persistence of disparities despite all the public efforts of affirmative action to reduce of eliminate them. The other, affirmative action would work if blacks were capable of realizing its opportunities. The unstated fear is that the old canard about the innate intellectual inferiority of blacks is true.
Both explanations are wrong. The more likely explanation is that affirmative action assumed the conditions and addressed the capabilities of blacks who are middle-class; it did not assume those of lower-class blacks. Until educators, do-gooders, and politicians realize that middle-class solutions are unfit for lower-class blacks, and until they develop efforts to address the conditions and capabilities of lower-class blacks, no efforts, affirmative action or others, can or will succeed in doing more than wasting resources, preserving constituencies, or making the well-intentioned feel good about themselves. (In a future discussion, I shall explain that “Common Core Standards” will lead to little or no educational improvement in middle-class students and to nothing but more of the same, if not worse, in lower-class students.)
In K-12 grades of public education, affirmative action in education, whatever it has done for some in the past, is a present failure for all others. It rests on a faulty, because culturally and socio-economically biased, premise. It cannot give people an education; they have to get an education by their efforts. Middle-class students can avail themselves of its efforts; lower-class students cannot. The best that the schools can do now is develop educationally sound, value-adding curriculums; make extra assistance or remediation available to those who want it; and then insist on the race-neutral mastery of the subject matter according to its inherent demands.
When it comes to college admissions, affirmative action is implicitly racist and covertly perpetuates racism. The main rationale for taking race into account in admissions is diversity as defined by skin color. The assumption is that blacks provide some important differences from whites simply because they are black. Yet middle-class blacks and whites are more alike than middle- and lower-class blacks are alike. Worse, lower-class blacks who are not adequately prepared for college not only struggle against the odds and frequently fail, but also, in their struggles and failures, appear to many to justify the canard of black intellectual inferiority.
Perhaps worse still, their example stigmatizes even those blacks who, benefitting from affirmative action admissions policies, are nevertheless the academic equals or betters of their white classmates. This pain of this stigma explains Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s anger and embitterment. His opposition to affirmative action arises, not from some mean desire to deny others the benefits which he has had, but from his awareness of the costs of this stigma and his unwillingness to support its causes. The hostility in the black community toward Thomas is also an unintended consequence of affirmative action. By assuming its proponents and supporters benign, it assumes its opponents and detractors malign—another manifestation of racism: all blacks must think alike or the few who dissent must be demonized.
The future of affirmative action should be its phase-out. For good or bad reasons, most colleges want and have racially diverse student bodies. The days when the better colleges especially had few American blacks enrolled as undergraduates are over and not likely to return. The days when they had to admit un- or under-prepared minorities to colleges, programs, or classes are nearly, but not quite, over. The dubious benefits of affirmative-action inclusiveness or diversity no longer outweigh the deleterious costs on academics. Persistent unfairness disproportionately promotes resentment and discredits the goal of equality as a game rigged by racial preferences, thus the denial of equality.
In the past two generations, affirmative action has caused changes which had to be made and produced results which had to be achieved. Whether other means and another schedule were possible is neither here nor there. My guess is that surer, steadier, but slower means would, like “all deliberate speed,” have encouraged obstruction and delayed any good results. The price of any improvement was the pain of injustice transferred from blacks to whites.
Today, minority inclusion is a fact of life in public education at the college level. If more must be done, it needs no program doing more harm than good to do it. If blacks want to be included or included in greater numbers, they need to do the same work as everyone else, meet the same standards of relevant achievement as everyone else, and not depend on their race. Otherwise, ironically and perversely, the underlying racism of affirmative action will live on because minorities perpetuate it to benefit from it.