David L. Chappell: Is There an Alternative to Affirmative Action?

Roundup: Historians' Take

David L. Chappell, author of A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, in the NYT (May 9, 2004):

The 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision this month is a well-deserved feel-good moment for civil rights strategists, but it is only a temporary distraction from the deep conflicts that remain.

Many people earnestly believe that aggressive remedies like affirmative action are still necessary to eliminate the inequality at which Brown made only a glancing blow. Even the most ardent supporters of affirmative action are frustrated, however, because of its persistent unpopularity and its very limited success in closing the academic and economic gaps between black and white Americans.

The Supreme Court's decision last year involving the University of Michigan Law School, though it defended a form of affirmative action, appears to put a 25-year limit on the court's tolerance of even the most scrupulously moderate considerations of race. In the companion decision on Michigan's undergraduate program, the court banned broader forms of affirmative action altogether.

So what now?

Of the shelfload of new books that try to answer that question, "The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action" by Terry H. Anderson (Oxford University Press) is a good place to get your bearings. Following the political scientist John David Skrentny and the historian Hugh Davis Graham, Mr. Anderson emphasizes the "ironies of affirmative action," the policies' logical contradictions and perverse effects. Mr. Anderson, a history professor at Texas A&M, defends many of the policies from simplistic attack. But he makes clear that the best defense of affirmative action has always been that the alternatives to it are even worse.

Mr. Anderson will surprise many with his reminder that the federal government did not commit itself to affirmative action until the Republican administration of Richard M. Nixon. Racial hiring preferences had been declared illegal after President Lyndon B. Johnson's brief experiment with them. Nixon revived them, Mr. Anderson says, partly from political calculations. Democratic liberals would be forced to defend and expand Nixon's affirmative action policy. Black hiring preferences would supersede white workers' hard-won seniority rights, thus driving a wedge between union members and black voters. Nixon was able to capitalize on the division by the end of his first term, turning against his own initiatives and other strong remedies, like court-ordered busing. As Nixon hoped, white rank-and-filers abandoned the Democrats in droves.

Opposition to affirmative action persisted, partly because racists resented black success. But people who were not racists also found it hard to justify violating the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause to serve its deeper purpose. And when affirmative action worked at all, it tended to aid those who least needed aid: black students who had already qualified for university admission or come very close. That increasingly meant affluent black students with college-trained parents. Affirmative action offered little to those who suffered most from racism, the poor....

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