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Nixon's Ghost

Thursday, June 1, 1995

A generation has passed since the Nixon administration established racial quotas in hiring, promotion, college admissions, and government contracting. Affirmative-action policies, both public and private, have opened many economic and educational opportunities for Afri-can Americans, and have played an important role in one of the most encouraging developments of recent decades: the emergence of a large and growing black middle class. But supporters of government-mandated racial preferences have always been uncomfortable about policies that judge Americans by the color of their skin, not the content of their character—the opposite of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. Even if racial preferences have been justified on a temporary basis, they surely cannot be justified for more than a generation.

Citizens and politicians are beginning to roll quotas back. Senators Bob Dole and Phil Gramm both have promised that, if elected president, they would repeal President Nixon's executive order requiring all government contractors to submit detailed "goals and timetables" for the hiring and promotion of minorities and women. Governor Pete Wilson has abolished some racial hiring quotas established by California law. Even President Clinton is reviewing the issue.

Perhaps the most dramatic movement is the California Civil Rights Initiative, which will be on the ballot next year and enjoys overwhelming support in public-opinion polls. The brainchild of two scholars, Glynn Custred and Thomas Wood, the initiative is based on the color-blind language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: "Neither the State of California nor any of its political subdivisions or agents shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the State's system of public employment, public education or public contracting."

Gaining Ground

There are six reasons why the repeal of government-mandated racial quotas is gaining the support of the American people:

  • Racial preferences are discriminatory. It is just as wrong for the government to discriminate in favor of blacks and other minorities as it is to discriminate against them. Preferring one race to another is a violation of the Declaration of Independence, which holds that all men are created equal; of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all citizens the equal protection of the laws; and of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which explicitly forbids government-mandated reverse discrimination. This discrimination has real victims, such as the Asians denied admission to the University of California in spite of spectacular records, and would-be policemen and firemen who lose jobs to applicants who are substantially less qualified.
  • Racial preferences violate the principles of American citizenship. Americans come from all races, all religions, all nationalities. What unites us as a nation is not a common origin, but a common commitment to our political institutions: the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the Constitution; a self-governing republic. Martin Luther King Jr. brought Americans together—by speaking of what Americans have in common, by showing how the civil-rights movement fit into the American political tradition. Racial preferences do the opposite; they balkanize our country by emphasizing our differences.
  • Racial preferences foster dependency on government. Ronald Reagan used to say that "the success of welfare should be judged by how many of its recipients become independent of welfare." So, too, the success of affirmative action should be judged by how many businesses become independent of set-asides, by how many individuals become independent of quotas in promotion and hiring. Unfortunately, all too many businesses have become part of a permanent affirmative-action industry.
  • Racial preferences restrict freedom. Much of the creativity of a market economy comes from the freedom that individuals and businesses have to discover and use information. Bureaucratic, highly regulated affirmative-action policies endanger this creativity by denying businesses the freedom to hire and fire whomever they wish, and, in the case of employment tests that are forbidden because they have a disparate impact on races, by interfering with the free flow of information.
  • Racial preferences fail to address the central challenge facing black America today: integrating poor black males into the American mainstream. The number of black men in college has fallen behind even as affirmative-action preferences in college admissions have intensified: There are now only 540,000 African-American men in college, compared with 830,000 black women. The explosion of violent crime by young black men wasn't supposed to happen with affirmative action. Something drastically different must be done instead of racial preferences, or a generation of black men will be destroyed.
  • Most perniciously, racial preferences lower standards and expectations. When African Americans and Hispanics are held to a lower standard than members of other groups, the implicit message is patronizing, even racist. The signal sent by different treatment is that African Americans and Hispanics cannot compete on their own, unless they are given a special handicap. To make matters worse, the very idea of standards is devalued in the culture of affirmative action, where a test is considered discriminatory if blacks and Hispanics don't score well.

It is no accident that the two institutions in which blacks have advanced the most rapidly in America, the military and athletics, are meritocracies with clear performance standards. Colin Powell did not become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of the outstanding generals in American history by receiving special treatment in his performance reviews. The military, it is frequently said, is the only institution in America in whichblacks regularly give orders to whites. This is because blackss in the armed forces have been given standards to aspire to, and the opportunity to achieve them.

By contrast, public schools in America set tragically low academic expectations for poor children, especially for blacks and Hispanics. The culture of affirmative action reinforces these low expectations, with a defeatist message that minorities can't make the grade, and that standards don't even really matter. The sad fact is that on average blacks and Hispanics do score poorly on standardized academic tests. But that isn't an indictment of the tests; it's an indictment of the school system and surrounding culture that discourage kids from achieving.

The literature of education is filled with stories of rapid academic advances by blacks and Hispanics in the face of higher expectations. Over the objections of fellow teachers and guidance counselors who said "these kids can't learn," Jaime Escalante turned Garfield High School, located in a working-class Mexican-American neighborhood of East Los Angeles, into one of the country's top advanced-placement calculus schools. Black and Hispanic freshmen in Georgia Tech's engineering program outperform whites, thanks to a rigorous orientation program based on immersion in math and chemistry.

In New York City, the number of black ninth-graders passing the New York State Regents' science exam doubled from 6,000 in 1994 to nearly 13,000 in 1995, while the number of Hispanics passing the test tripled from 3,000 to over 10,000. The difference? In 1995, at the insistence of New York City School Chancellor Ramon Cortines, black and Hispanic students were expected to take Regents-level science courses and succeed in them. Prior to that, they were expected to fail.

Expectations make all the difference for modest levels of achievement as well. During the early 1980s, Florida established a functional literacy test as a criterion of high-school graduation. Florida schools now give diplomas only to students who pass a test measuring whether they can fill out basic job application forms, do basic kinds of comparison shopping, balance check books, and otherwise participate in a modern society. At first, 80 to 90 percent of black 12th-graders failed. The test was challenged in court by the Legal Services Corp. on the grounds that it was discriminatory. But Florida gives students five chances to sit for the exam, and 90 percent of black 12th-graders now get passing scores. Those graduates are much better off for being forced to achieve a minimum level of competency.

The Best Affirmative Action

The best affirmative action offers opportunities to outsiders without lowering standards and expectations. This means holding the members of all races to the same high standard and, if necessary, giving people the extra training they need to make the grade. It means not reserving particular jobs for blacks. It means making a genuine effort to find African Americans—and other Americans of all races—who might be overlooked but who have the capacity to excel. This is frequently a judgment call, for the capacity to excel is determined by leadership ability, strength of character, intellectual creativity, and other attributes that can't be easily measured by standardized tests. Precisely because it is a judgment call, it does not lend itself to bureaucratic oversight in the form of quotas, goals, or timetables.

The nomination of Clarence Thomas as associate justice of the Supreme Court is a wonderful example of this judgment. President Bush and his advisers sensed that Thomas, though he did not yet have much judicial experience, had the constitutional understanding, the moral courage, and the intellect to become a distinguished judge—and also to become a national hero among conservative blacks in the way that Justice Thurgood Marshall was a national hero among liberals. As a result of Thomas's race, President Bush may have looked at his qualities more closely than he otherwise would have at that stage in the judge's career. But it was Thomas's qualities, not his race, that led to the nomination. There was no lowering of standards. On the contrary, the Thomas nomination is now seen, at least by conservatives, as Bush's most significant enduring domestic-policy achievement.

Americans of all races can take pride in the growing leadership of African Americans in political, economic, and cultural life. It is one of the great success stories of American history, rivaling the stories of the pioneers, of immigrants, of inventors and entrepreneurs. It is a quintessential American story of determined people overcoming hardship to make the most of our blessings of liberty.

Government-imposed racial preferences played an important part in this story, by smashing through the institutional barriers to black advancement that were the legacy of centuries of discrimination. But reverse discrimination was always a questionable remedy to earlier prejudice. By failing now to offer opportunity to poor black males, racial preferences have outlived whatever usefulness they may have had. It is time for them to go.

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