Affirmative action: Has the endgame begun?

Preferential policies patronize blacks and poison race relations, says Shelby Steele

Published August 28, 1996 5:02PM (EDT)

"Mend it, don't end it," President Clinton said last year when affirmative action threatened to become a major wedge issue in national politics. Clinton advanced a series of mild changes making affirmative action considerations less important in the awarding of federal contracts. Since then, affirmative action has become something of a stealth issue -- nary a mention of it has been made at the Democratic convention in Chicago this week, and the Republicans haven't used it as aggressively as some thought they would.

Despite attempts to tamp down the controversy, there are moves in 13 states, notably California, to abolish it altogether, and the issue is quite likely to rear its head between now and November. At one point then-Sen. Bob Dole spearheaded an attempt to outlaw affirmative action on a national level. While that attempt has been dropped, Dole's running mate, Jack Kemp, forswearing his previous support for affirmative action, came out in favor of California's so-called Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot proposition that would end affirmative action in state business.

Earlier this summer, four reporters, including myself, talked with Shelby Steele, author of "The Content of Our Character" (1990) and one of affirmative action's most incisive critics. A senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Steele teaches English and African-American and African literature at San Jose State University. He recently co-founded the Center for New Black Leadership, and is working on a new book of essays which he says "will explore the loneliness of the black intellectual and black conservative in America."

Why has affirmative action become such a volatile issue? Until recently, Republicans have supported it as strongly as Democrats.

I think common people in America have just had it with affirmative action. There may not be very sophisticated and erudite reasons for their feelings but they think it's unfair. And it is unfair.

Is economic anxiety, the corporate downsizings, a factor in this feeling?

The economy is as good now as it has been in 25 years, and the sentiment is still against affirmative action. The courts now think it's unfair. It's very difficult in a society that just spent over 100 years getting rid of race as a differentiating factor to turn around and embrace it. Americans know it intuitively to be unfair. It can't survive in a democracy.

But hasn't affirmative action helped level the playing field for minorities in the work force and in higher education?

Affirmative action takes credit for underlying changes that were already in place in American life. And it continues to justify itself that way. The world changed after 1954 when segregation ended. Universities had to admit blacks and women and so forth. And where were all these new graduates going to go? Into the corporate world, where anybody goes with a college education. My guess is that blacks would be farther ahead today if it had not been for the patronization of affirmative action.
In my department at San Jose State, they've not hired one single black since the advent of affirmative action. They hired two of us (blacks) before affirmative action. No other ones have come along. The idea that this would not have happened without affirmative action? Bullshit.

So we just leave it to employers hiring people on what they perceive as merit? And we trust that is how they will make the hiring decision?

Merit is like any other ideal. It's far from perfect. But if we denounce merit, we denounce quality, we denounce the idea of excellence. Look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said "give me the damn SAT test, give me any kind of measure of merit, because that's my freedom, that's how I'm going to show my equality and earn my way in a free society." Why do black kids, even when they come from extremely well-to-do families with two doctors as parents and been to the best private schools in the country, still score 200 points below their white peers on SATs? Because they know they're going to get into Harvard anyway. Instead, the white kid knows he'd better get his ass to that SAT coach and study day and night to get a high score. And the Asian knows he's up against the most intense competition imaginable -- including other Asians. So if his score's not over 1400 he's out the door. Yet blacks can get into Berkeley with 900. Why would he develop merit? He'd be an idiot to develop merit. I wouldn't. If you get rid of affirmative action, my guess is that you'll see black SAT scores go up and you're going to see Asian ones come down.

The University of California has just thrown out affirmative action. Are you concerned at all about the future ethnic make-up at universities?

I'd want to make sure that campuses have admissions policies that aren't just test-score and grade-point-average focused. Universities have to devise criterion that are more sensitive than that, that look at personality, articulateness, writing skills, and so forth. Some people can write very well but not do well on SATs.

You're not using the word, but it seems like you're talking about diversity.

I am not talking about ethnic diversity. I'm talking human diversity. Just because I'm a member of an ethnic group doesn't tell you anything about me. You look at me and assume you get some meaning from my color. That's dangerous. That's racist. And I hate that. And I hate being treated, in the name of helping me, with this racism and paternalism.

In "The Content of Our Character," you call for tough enforcement of anti-discrimination laws rather than affirmative action as a solution to the nation's racial troubles.

Racial discrimination should be criminalized. If you're convicted you don't get just to pay a fine, you do jail time. I think that's where we should've gone originally, beginning in 1964. I mean, if you can steal a stereo out of my car and go to jail for it, you ought to go to jail if you stop my career because of discrimination, or if you stop me from living somewhere I want to live because of my race. I think the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) ought to be quadrupled, it ought to be one of the biggest agencies in American government because the problem is just that serious.

But it shouldn't use affirmative action as an enforcement tool?

Unless I feel, as a minority, comfortable that my government is going to protect me against discrimination, by law or by sanction, then I'm going to give in to this politics of victimization. I'm going to be asking for preferences. I'm going to not want to be a part of the common culture. We must move from social engineering to the enforcement of the law, of the democracy. Social engineering, which is what racial preferences are, has done very little to mitigate discrimination, which is the evil. And I think we ought to go after the evil itself.

What affirmative action does is exploit the evil and use it as an excuse to give people preferences. You'll notice that in black politics today, many blacks become orgasmic when they find discrimination. They become delighted because there's more power, more justification for my preference. So we have this deep investment in racism, and in sexism, and in all of this sort of thing. Over time it's evolved into naked patronage politics, where we've all got our little groups that keep screaming racism, sexism, ethnicity and ethnic discrimination, not to get rid of those things, but to justify the privilege.

But you still have this whole generation coming up that's not prepared. What do you do with them?

Nothing. They languish. The public school system has been abandoned. Public school kids have been completely ignored, given over to every kind of social pathology which nobody has any concern about.
I taught four different Great Society programs, I know how this evolved. What we said was that if we hold these kids to really tough academic standards, their self-esteem could be hurt. We're going to expose these poor victims to yet another experience of failure. That's the way we saw it. So this is how we taught black kids: number one, lower the standards; number two, give them "culture talk" to bolster their racial pride. It became a way to abandon any attempt to seriously educate poor minorities. And of course those same ideas extended to the larger public school system: We don't insist on algebra, we don't insist on spelling. We say they should learn about Africa and that we should not expect that much from them. We have this paternalism which constitutes oppression. You couldn't devise a better system for keeping black people down.

So what should the government be doing now?

We don't need Great Society programs to make the school system work. Why not just teach them? Why don't the police go into those communities and literally stop the drug traffic? Stop the gang violence? In other words, protect the peace? In every other community, Beverly Hills, you protect the peace. But in South Central L.A., you don't protect the peace. We're told we can't go in there because we'd disproportionately arrest too many blacks. Well, are they committing a crime? Wouldn't the people in the community feel better if drugs were not on every corner and kids were not being caught up in it? But what America is saying is that for sake of appearances, we're not going to enforce the peace in the black community. Sharon Pratt Kelly, the former mayor of D.C., asked Bill Clinton to send in federal troops because of the drug problem in the capital. He said no. But I bet you if there was a riot in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and Chevy Chase asked him to send in the troops, he would have. Clinton believes in expediency.

So where does the impetus for the changes you seek come from?

It won't come from government. If you're waiting for President Clinton or some vote to make it happen, it's not going to happen. And this is my message: You can make it happen tomorrow. You don't have to change the politics of America or wait until next millennium. But you have to stop thinking that your history of victimization is going to somehow deliver you from this agony that you're in.
And when the government starts to social engineer in this area, they're stigmatizing people. "Every black under 50 years of age got to where they did because of affirmative action." That's the stigma.
Instead, raise the standards. Minorities will perform. They'll come up to standards. Have some faith.

Quote of the day

The heart of the matter

"Like no leader in memory, President Clinton is defined more by what he isn't than by what he is. He isn't an old-fashioned liberal Democrat. He isn't Newt Gingrich... He isn't even the same Bill
Clinton who ruled the country in 1993 and 1994. This isn't-ism isn't necessarily a bad thing. Mr. Clinton is a president who understands his times, and he's accurately reflecting the American mood today. Voters have a much clearer fix on what they don't want from government than what they do want... Yet the backhanded way Mr. Clinton has carved his identity leaves his re-election campaign with something of a hollow feeling...His challenge in his acceptance speech Thursday night is to fill in that hollowness."

--(From "Defining Clinton: A Man Framed By Who He Isn't," by Gerald F. Seib, in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal)

By Marcia Stepanek

Marcia Stepanek is a national affairs correspondent for Hearst Newspapers. She previously interviewed the White House technology chief about "Internet 2" for Salon.

MORE FROM Marcia Stepanek

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