Overview of the New Report on Affirmative Action

No white politician could have gotten the question George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked Sen. Barack Obama. “You said . . . that affluent African-Americans, like your daughters, should probably be treated as pretty advantaged when they apply to college,” he began. “How specifically would you recommend changing affirmative action policies so that affluent African-Americans are not given advantages and poor, less affluent whites are?”

The Democratic presidential nominee, speaking during a primary election debate in April, said his daughters’ advantages should weigh more than their skin color. “You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve had a pretty good deal.”

But a white applicant who has overcome big odds to pursue an education should have those circumstances taken into account, Obama said. “I still believe in affirmative action as a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination,” Obama said, “but I think that it can’t be a quota system and it can’t be something that is simply applied without looking at the whole person, whether that person is black, or white or Hispanic, male or female.”

Supporting affirmative action on the one hand, objecting to quotas on the other – Obama seemed to know he was threading his way through a minefield. Decades after it began, affirmative action is seen by many whites as nothing but a fancy term for racial quotas designed to give minorities an unfair break. Majority black opinion remains strongly pro-affirmative action, on the grounds that the legacy of racial discrimination lives on. Whites and blacks are 30 percentage points apart on the issue, according to a 2007 national survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Now, with the candidacy of Columbia University and Harvard Law School graduate Obama turning up the volume on the debate, voters in two states will be deciding in November whether preferences should remain in effect in hiring and college admissions.

Originally, conflict over affirmative action focused on hiring. But during the past two decades, the debate has shifted to whether preference should be given in admissions to top-tier state schools, such as the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) based on race, gender or ethnic background. Graduating from such schools is seen as an affordable ticket to the good life, but there aren’t enough places at these schools for all applicants, so many qualified applicants are rejected.

Resentment over the notion that some applicants got an advantage because of their ancestry led California voters in 1996 to ban affirmative action in college admissions. Four years later, the Florida legislature, at the urging of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, effectively eliminated using race as an admission standard for colleges and universities. And initiatives similar to the California referendum were later passed in Washington state and then in Michigan, in 2006.

Race is central to the affirmative action debate because the doctrine grew out of the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, ethnicity or gender. The loosely defined term generally is used as a synonym for advantages – “preferences” – that employers and schools extend to members of a particular race, national origin or gender.

“The time has come to pull the plug on race-based decision-making,” says Ward Connerly, a Sacramento, Calif.-based businessman who is the lead organizer of the Colorado and Nebraska ballot initiative campaigns, as well as earlier ones elsewhere. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 talks about treating people equally without regard to race, color or national origin. When you talk about civil rights, they don’t just belong to black people.”

Connerly, who is black, supports extending preferences of some kind to low-income applicants for jobs – as long as the beneficiaries aren’t classified by race or gender.

But affirmative action supporters say that approach ignores reality. “If there are any preferences in operation in our society, they’re preferences given to people with white skin and who are men and who have financial and other advantages that come with that,” says Nicole Kief, New York-based state strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program, which is opposing the Connerly-organized ballot initiative campaigns.

Yet, of the 38 million Americans classified as poor, whites make up the biggest share: 17 million people. Blacks account for slightly more than 9 million and Hispanics slightly less. Some 576,000 Native Americans are considered poor. Looking beyond the simple numbers, however, reveals that far greater percentages of African-Americans and Hispanics are likely to be poor: 25 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Hispanics live below the poverty line, but only 10 percent of whites are poor.

In 2000, according to statistics compiled by Chronicle of Higher Education Deputy Editor Peter Schmidt, the average white elementary school student attended a school that was 78 percent white, 9 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and 30 percent poor. Black or Hispanic children attended a school in which 57 percent of the student body shared their race or ethnicity and about two-thirds of the students were poor.

These conditions directly affect college admissions, according to The Century Foundation. The liberal think tank reported in 2003 that white students account for 77 percent of the students at high schools in which the greatest majority of students go on to college. Black students account for only 11 percent of the population at these schools, and Hispanics 7 percent.

A comprehensive 2004 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, found that only about half of black and Hispanic high school students graduate, compared to 75 and 77 percent, respectively, of whites and Asians.

Politically conservative affirmative action critics cite these statistics to argue that focusing on college admissions and hiring practices rather than school reform was a big mistake. The critics get some support from liberals who want to keep affirmative action – as long as it’s based on socioeconomic status instead of race. “Affirmative action based on race was always kind of a cheap and quick fix that bypassed the hard work of trying to develop the talents of low-income minority students generally,” says Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

Basing affirmative action on class instead of race wouldn’t exclude racial and ethnic minorities, Kahlenberg argues, because race and class are so closely intertwined.

President Lyndon B. Johnson noted that connection in a major speech that laid the philosophical foundations for affirmative action programs. These weren’t set up for another five years, a reflection of how big a change they represented in traditional hiring and promotion practices, where affirmative action began. “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair,” Johnson said in “To Fulfill These Rights,” his 1965 commencement speech at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the country’s top historically black institutions.

By the late 1970s, a long string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions began setting boundaries on affirmative action, partly in response to white job and school applicants who sued over “reverse discrimination.” The court’s bottom line: Schools and employers could take race into account, but not as a sole criterion. Setting quotas based on race, ethnicity or gender was prohibited. (The prohibition of gender discrimination effectively ended the chances for passage of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment [ERA], which feminist organizations had been promoting since 1923. The Civil Rights Act, along with other legislation and court decisions, made many supporters of women’s rights “lukewarm” about the proposed amendment, Roberta W. Francis, then chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations’ ERA task force, wrote in 2001).

The high court’s support for affirmative action has been weakening through the years. Since 1991 the court has included Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone black member and a bitter foe of affirmative action. In his 2007 autobiography, Thomas wrote that his Yale Law School degree set him up for rejection by major law firm interviewers. “Many asked pointed questions unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated,” he wrote. “Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth when it bore the taint of racial preference.”

Some of Thomas’ black classmates dispute his view of a Yale diploma’s worth. “Had he not gone to a school like Yale, he would not be sitting on the Supreme Court,” said William Coleman III, a Philadelphia attorney who was general counsel to the U.S. Army in the Clinton administration.

But that argument does not seem to impress Thomas, who was in a 5-4 minority in the high court’s most recent affirmative action ruling, in which the justices upheld the use of race in law-school admissions at the University of Michigan. But even Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the majority opinion, signaled unease with her position. In 25 years, she wrote, affirmative action would “no longer be necessary.”

Paradoxically, an Obama victory on Nov. 4 might be the most effective anti-affirmative action event of all.

“The primary rationale for affirmative action is that America is institutionally racist and institutionally sexist,” Connerly, an Obama foe, told The Associated Press. “That rationale is undercut in a major way when you look at the success of Sen. [Hillary Rodham] Clinton and Sen. Obama.”

Asked to respond to Connerly’s remarks, Obama appeared to draw some limits of his own on affirmative action. “Affirmative action is not going to be the long-term solution to the problems of race in America,” he told a July convention of minority journalists, “because, frankly, if you’ve got 50 percent of African-American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn’t really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action; those kids are not getting into college.”

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