during the darkest days of the Cold War, the Italian writer Ignazio Silone
predicted the final struggle of that conflict would be between the communist believers and the ex-believers. A similar conflict seems to be shaping up among civil rights
activists, as affirmative action undergoes its last death throes.
Last month, Jesse Jackson chose the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous 1963 march on Washington to lead a march across the Golden Gate Bridge against California's Proposition 209, passed last year, which prohibits race-based hiring and recruiting in government jobs and state colleges. The symbolism was clear: Opposition to Prop. 209 is
the latest front in the civil rights struggle.
The trouble is, the architect and principal spokesman for Prop. 209, businessman Ward Connerly, is also a veteran of King's movement. And it is no accident (as we leftist radicals used to say) that the anti-affirmative action measure is called "The California Civil Rights Initiative," or that its text is carefully constructed to conform to both the
letter and spirit of the landmark Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1965.
The split in the ranks is not about ending racism. It is, rather, over conflicting memories of the past and differing strategies for the future. How much racial progress has been made since the federal government embraced the civil rights agenda? What is the best way to overcome the racial inequalities that still persist?
For the anti-209 marchers, little has changed. Whatever gains blacks have
made have been forced upon a recalcitrant white populace. Without remedial effort, existing inequalities will morph into new injustices. Making the government race-neutral would encourage historic prejudice to reassert itself in all its malevolence. To eliminate affirmative action, both Jesse Jackson and President Clinton have warned, is to invite the "resegregation" of American life.
Yet consider these unruly facts:
- In 1940, 87 percent of American blacks lived below the poverty line. By 1960, five years before the Civil Rights acts and 10 years before the first affirmative action policies, the figure was down to 47 percent. That was a
greater and more rapid decline than took place over the next 35 years, when the black poverty rate came down to 26 percent.
- In 1940, only 5 percent of black men and 6.4 percent of black women were in middle-class occupations. By 1970, the figures were 22 percent for black men and 36 percent for black women -- larger again than the increases that took place in the 20 years after affirmative action was put in place, when the
figures reached 32 percent and 59 percent respectively.
These figures come from a massive new scholarly work, "America in Black and White,"
by two civil rights veterans, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, who have
reconstructed the history of racial progress and conflict in the postwar
era and examined the impact of affirmative action solutions.
Black poverty, the Thernstroms show, has little to do
with race, and its solution will not be affected by affirmative
action set-asides. Such policies, they assert, have had the net effect not
of employing greater numbers of blacks or raising their living standards,
but of shifting black employment from small businesses to large
corporations and to government. A far more effective anti-poverty program would
be to promote black marriages. Currently, for example, 85 percent of poor
black children live in fatherless families; the poverty
rate for black children without fathers is nearly five times that for black
children with two parents.
In higher education, the rate of gain for blacks in college
enrollments was greater between 1960 and 1970 (when enrollments
increased from 4 percent to 7 percent of the total college population) than it was in the decades after affirmative action was implemented. Enrollments rose from 7 percent to 9.9 percent between 1970 and 1980, and to 10.7 percent between 1980 and 1994. In 1965 -- before affirmative action -- blacks were only
about half as likely to actually graduate college as whites. In 1995, the figure was exactly the same.
In 1995, only 1,764 black students nationwide (1.7 percent of all blacks who took the test) scored as high as 600 on the verbal SATs; the math scores were even worse. By comparison, 64,950 white students (9.6 percent of all whites who took the test) scored 600 or higher on the verbal SATs. But under affirmative-action guidelines, those black students have been
recruited by Berkeley, Harvard and similar elite schools, where the average
white student (and the average Asian) had scores at least 100 points higher. At Berkeley, the gap is nearly 300 points. Predictably, blacks drop out of Berkeley at
nearly three times the rate of whites.
This is but one of the unspoken nightmares of
affirmative action. Simply put, African-Americans are being put in college programs that far exceed their abilities and qualifications. As the Thernstroms ruefully observe, the college that comes closest to equality in actually graduating its students is Ole Miss, one of the last bastions of segregation in the South.
Integrated now, Ole Miss is resistant to the new racial duplicity in admissions standards. The result:
49 percent of freshmen whites graduate, and so do 48 percent of blacks.
On the basis of what actually has happened, increasing numbers of civil rights supporters are concluding that affirmative action is not only having little or no effect on the income and education gaps, but is actually destructive to the people it is supposed to help. It is creating black failure while stirring the resentment of other groups who see themselves displaced, on the basis of race, from
their hard-earned places of merit.
"Liberalism no longer curbs discrimination. It invites it. It does not expose racism; it recapitulates and, sometimes, reinvents it." Those are not the words of some Confederate flag-waving demagogue from below the Mason-Dixon line; they are the words of another veteran of the civil rights movement, Jim Sleeper, a columnist with the New York Daily News, and they are taken from his new book, "Liberal Racism," which examines the toxic effects of well-intended liberal programs like affirmative action.
So does the wheel of history turn. Old models and old beliefs are crumbling. It was the survivors and reformers of communism who dumped that unworkable ideology into the ash can of history. A similar process is taking place in the civil rights movement. And for the people who need it the most, that cannot come too soon.