Race, Liberalism, and Affirmative Action

In our Winter issue, Paul Starr argued that because the Supreme Court, with its changed membership, is now likely to overturn earlier decisions upholding affirmative action, liberals need to find "a new road to equal opportunity in America." He urged a two-pronged approach: policies to expand opportunity and security for low- to middle-income Americans of all races; and a program of institution-building in minority communities, including a new National Endowment for Black America, initially to be financed with private funds.

Since views on this subject are so diverse and deeply held, we have invited responses from a number of writers representing different viewpoints. We asked them to address any or all of the following questions: (1) What do you see as the political future of affirmative action? (2) Are there other policies or approaches that you regard as feasible and as preferrable, acceptable, or necessary? (3) Does the United States owe black Americans distinctive obligations beyond those due other groups facing discrimination? What, specifically, do you think of reparations?

In addition to the responses below, we will be carrying contributions from Robert S. Browne, Jonathan Reider, Theda Skocpol, and Jim Sleeper in our Summer issue.

Yes and No by Randall Kennedy
I applaud certain aspects of Paul Starr's "Civil Reconstruction: What to Do Without Affirmative Action," and disagree with others.

First the applause.

Without soft-pedaling his own ideas, Starr shows respect for the ideas of those with whom he disagrees and invites them to engage in a vigorous, contentious, but disciplined dialogue with him. For far too long candid debate on racial policies within progressive circles has been stifled by undue touchiness and undue hesitancy to reconsider left-liberal conventional wisdom. Starr is attentive to these obstacles but deftly pushes past them in his effort to raise questions that are sorely in need of exploration.

The most important of these questions is what racial policies progressives should devise and advance beyond those currently in existence. This is an important subject to discuss regardless of one's views about affirmative action. In the first place, even proponents of affirmative action concede that it is not a panacea for all of the socioeconomic ills besetting the African American community. That being so, progressives need to think more deeply and imaginatively about new initiatives that need to be undertaken immediately regardless of the fate of affirmative action.

Much of the mental and emotional energy of those primarily interested in the cause of racial justice has been occupied over the past twenty years with safeguarding advances won in the 1960s and 1970s. Relatively little has been invested in a thoroughgoing evaluation of "the race issue" in light of the dramatic changes that have occurred in American society over the past twenty years -- demographic changes that have created a more ethnically and racially diverse society; political changes that have allowed the Republican Party to dominate the executive and judicial branches of the federal government; global changes that have redefined the status of the United States. This is understandable; reactionaries nurtured by the Reagan and Bush administrations have succeeded in putting progressives on the defensive.

Now, however, it is time -- past time -- for progressives to think anew and without inhibition about their goals and the best ways to achieve them. For instance, do we ultimately want to create a plural society in which racial groups such as African Americans have an official status (like native American tribes) as collectivities to which individuals belong, or do we want an integrated society in which an individual's race is of no legal significance? Assuming that we have the power to sustain or even expand affirmative action, do we want it as a transitional institution that will at some point wither away? Or do we want it as a permanent feature of our society that will accommodate competition between contending racial and ethnic groups?

The other reason that the exploration of alternatives that Starr invites is so urgently required is that, in reality, progressive backers of affirmative action cannot assume that they will have the power to sustain it. Opposition to affirmative action is strong and may grow. Therefore, it is important to create contingency plans in the event that affirmative action is eviscerated by the Reagan-Bush federal judiciary or it becomes altogether clear that the benefits of affirmative action are decisively outweighed by its costs. Whatever one's view of affirmative action, Starr's invitation to think of alternatives is simply prudent.

Starr writes that he would favor continued support of affirmative action "if, taking all its effects into account, it were positively beneficial." That is the correct approach to take to the subject. It is a pragmatic, empirical, non-absolutistic approach that does not answer the question "Are you in favor of affirmative action?" with a simple "Yes" or "No" but instead answers the question with a more complicated "It all depends." It all depends on the total mix of beneficial and detrimental consequences that arise from the working of affirmative action programs, and on the available alternatives. Starr implies, although he does not explicitly state, that in his estimation the costs of affirmative action now outstrip its benefits.


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Here is where we begin to disagree. Starr undervalues the good that affirmative action accomplishes and exaggerates the costs it imposes. He recognizes that "affirmative action has improved minority representation in the professions and at some corporations" and describes this fact as "a genuine positive benefit." In his view, however, this positive benefit is outweighed by the combination of two factors: (1) affirmative action's "ineffective[ness] as a strategy for reducing minority poverty" and (2) affirmative action's "big political toll: deep and continuing antagonism from whites, particularly in the working class."

With respect to the first of these factors two points need to be made. One is that the benefits of affirmative action have been diffused to a wider socioeconomic range of African Americans than is suggested by Starr and William Julius Wilson, the authority upon whom Starr relies most heavily. Affirmative action has not simply aided the upper reaches of the black middle class, those whom Starr describes as "best poised to take advantage of opportunities for higher education and the professions. It has also aided African Americans searching for stable, well-paying, but non-elite blue-collar or hard-hat positions -- for example, fire fighters, police officers, craft workers, low-level bureaucrats. Stephen Steinberg puts the point nicely in a recent issue of Reconstruction:

A significant number of the 1.3 million black government employees owe their jobs to affirmative action. In addition, most major corporations, including some of the nation's largest employers . . . have made significant progress in desegregating their workforces under affirmative action programs imposed on government contractors. . . It is precisely because the stakes are so high that affirmative action is so fiercely contested.

A second point about the claim of middle-class bias within racial affirmative action is that it was and remains perfectly appropriate for the black middle class to be offered special assistance as part of a strategy for overcoming the nation's legacy of racial oppression. People in the black middle class have been and continue to be victimized by that legacy. The specifically racial dimension of the problems facing the black middle class as well as the relative social propinquity of the black middle class to its counterparts further down on the African American social ladder is suggested by a useful fact that Starr himself notes:

[T]he black middle class is not at all comparable to the white middle class in wealth. Overall . . . black households have only one quarter the net worth and 1 percent of the net financial assets of white households. Astonishingly, white households with annual incomes between $7,500 and $15,000 have higher mean net worth and net financial assets than black households making $45,000 to $60,000. The lack of assets is not just an individual problem; the black community as a whole stands to inherit relatively little wealth from one generation to the next.

Addressing those who respond to the class-bias critique of affirmative action by stating that it was never intended to alleviate poverty among black Americans, Starr avers that "if there were no poverty among racial minorities, affirmative action would not have had much moral claim in the first place." In other words, Starr demands that affirmative action be judged by what it has done to eliminate poverty. Now it may be true that some proponents of affirmative action have evoked black poverty to mobilize indignation, guilt, and idealism on behalf of race-conscious remedies. But to the extent that such appeals were made, they were mainly either rhetorical gambits or reflections of naivete. It should have been clear from the outset -- and it was clear to left-liberal critics of affirmative action in the 1960s -- that the programs of race-conscious preferences that we are now debating would never by themselves eradicate poverty to any significant extent.

But for many, recognition of this does not and should not dampen support for affirmative action. That is because what primarily animates the drive for affirmative action is not an insistence upon eliminating poverty per se but rather a desire to open to African Americans and others opportunities from which they have historically been excluded. This desire would exist and should exist regardless of the state of poverty among African Americans. Even if black poverty were wholly eliminated, affirmative action would still be needed if the state of society were such that blacks, because of the legacy of past oppression, were largely excluded from the upper reaches of American political, social, and cultural life. Poverty is surely an evil to be overcome. But a distinct, though related, evil is racial inequality which is precisely the problem that affirmative action seeks, albeit imperfectly, to address. Starr conflates these two evils. Their separateness needs to be recognized.


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Let us turn now to the second factor that has persuaded Starr that affirmative action costs more than it is worth -- the white backlash that, in his words, has resulted in "more political support for the right, and less chance of enacting the kind of positive legislation that would especially benefit low- to middle-income Americans of all races." I do not doubt that affirmative action has played some role in creating and fanning the antagonism and resentment of some whites. But much of the white backlash that concerns Starr is not simply the consequence of affirmative action alone. It is the result as well of other things, including a deep-seated fear of and hostility toward the advancement of black Americans however this advancement is achieved. In other words, Starr exaggerates the cost of affirmative action by making it solely responsible for white reactionary backlash. Unfortunately, white racist resentments will exist as a force -- a strong force -- to be reckoned with even in the absence of affirmative action.

Starr proposes a new deal for racial justice. Under the terms of the deal, blacks would give up their claims to racial affirmative action in return for two things: (1) race-neutral redistributive policies aimed at helping the needy of all races and (2) a National Endowment for Black America that would "serve as a mechanism for receiving capital contributions and supporting a variety of social and cultural organizations in the black community."

The first prong of this proposal has been suggested by a long line of social democrats haunted by the ugly reality of racial divisions within the poorer socioeconomic classes. A central difficulty is the practical one of delivering the goods promised by the deal. Even if proponents of racial affirmative action were willing to trade, it is not at all clear that Starr and the political forces for which he speaks could deliver the enlarged race-neutral redistributive programs they envision. Conservatism might well stymie them. If this actually happened, blacks would have given up a concrete benefit for a mere unfulfilled promise. Starr will have to say far more than he has thus far in order to allay this realistic fear. As for the national endowment for black America, neither the federal government nor private parties nor both combined would invest adequate resources in it to make Starr's proposed deal sufficiently sweet to embrace.

For one thing, untold squabbling would engulf the endowment. What would happen to requests for funds by Minister Louis Farrakhan or Professor Leonard Jeffries? Starr denies that the endowment would be subject to the same criticisms and white opposition that have diminished the popularity and efficacy of affirmative action. But here, too, he is wrong. He believes that the response to the endowment would be different because it would "provide resources to institutions rather than individuals and thereby sidestep charges that compensatory programs undermine meritocratic standards."

Here Starr lets slip the obsession with meritocratic standards that grips so many academics (including me). What actually powers opposition to affirmative action in most areas of society is not a commitment to an abstract notion of individual desert but rather a raw and largely accurate calculation that when resources are channelled to blacks, resources are less available to others. If a huge amount of funds was to be pumped into the endowment that Starr proposes, one can confidently predict that such an initiative would be met with heavy opposition: Why blacks instead of Indians? Why should a project -- let's call it the Bill Cosby Project -- mainly useful to black middle-class children, receive the benefit of public and private dollars while the white children of the Appalachian poor are forced simply to make do with what they receive from regular, race-neutral sources of social welfare?

I respect Paul Starr's fervent desire to further the cause of equal opportunity. In the current situation, that commitment is precious. Let's remember that as we articulate our various disagreements about how best to reach our shared aspirations.

Equality and Identity by Cornel West
The fundamental crisis in black America is twofold: too much poverty and too little self-love. The urgent problem of black poverty is primarily due to the distribution of wealth, power, and income -- a distribution influenced by the racial caste system that denied opportunities to most "qualified" black people until two decades ago.

The historic role of American progressives is to promote redistributive measures that enhance the standard of living and quality of life for the have-nots and have-too-littles. Affirmative action was one such redistributive measure that surfaced in the heat of battle in the 1960s among those fighting for racial equality. Like earlier de facto affirmative action measures in the American past -- contracts, jobs, and loans to select immigrants granted by political machines; subsidies to certain farmers; FHA mortgage loans to specific home buyers; or GI Bill benefits to particular courageous Americans -- recent efforts to broaden access to America's prosperity have been based upon preferential policies. Unfortunately, these policies always benefit middle-class Americans disproportionately. The political power of big business in big government circumscribes redistributive measures and thereby tilts these measures away from the have-nots and have-too-littles.

Every redistributive measure is a compromise with and concession from the caretakers of American prosperity -- that is, big business and big government. Affirmative action was one such compromise and concession achieved after the protracted struggle of American progressives and liberals in the courts and in the streets. Visionary progressives always push for substantive redistributive measures that make opportunities available to the have-nots and have-too-littles, such as more federal support to small fanners, or more FHA mortgage loans to urban dwellers as well as suburban home buyers. Yet in the American political system, where the powers that be turn a skeptical eye toward any program aimed at economic redistribution, progressives must secure whatever redistributive measures they can, ensure their enforcement, then extend their benefits if possible.

If I had been old enough to join the fight for racial equality in the courts, the legislatures, and the board rooms in the 1960s (I was old enough to be in the streets), I would have favored -- as I do now -- a class-based affirmative action in principle. Yet in the heat of battle in American politics, a redistributive measure in principle with no power and pressure behind it means no redistributive measure at all. The prevailing discriminatory practices during the sixties, whose targets were working people, women, and people of color, were atrocious. Thus, an enforceable race-based -- and later gender-based -- affirmative action policy was the best possible compromise and concession.

Progressives should view affirmative action as neither a major solution to poverty nor a sufficient means to equality. We should see it primarily playing a negative role -- namely, to insure that discriminatory practices against women and people of color are abated. Given the history of this country, it is a virtual certainty that without affirmative action racial and sexual discrimination will return with a vengeance. Even if affirmative action fails significantly to reduce black poverty or contributes to the persistence of racism in the workplace, without affirmative action black access to America's prosperity would be even more difficult and racism in the workplace would persist anyway.

This claim is not based on any cynicism toward my white fellow citizens; rather, it rests upon America's historically weak will toward racial justice and substantive redistributive measures. This is why an attack on affirmative action is an attack on redistributive efforts by progressives unless there is a real possibility of enacting and enforcing a more wide-reaching affirmative action policy.

In American politics, progressives must not only cling to redistributive ideals, but also fight for those policies that -- out of compromise and concession -- imperfectly conform to those ideals. Liberals who give only lip-service to these ideals, trash the policies in the name of realpolitik, or reject the policies as they perceive a shift in the racial bellwether, give up precious ground too easily. And they do so even as the sand is disappearing under our feet on such issues as regressive taxation, layoffs or take-backs from workers, and cutbacks in health and child care.

Affirmative action is not the most important issue for black progress in America, but it is part of a redistributive chain that must be strengthened if we are to confront and eliminate black poverty. If there were social democratic redistributive measures that wiped out black poverty, and if racial and sexual discrimination could be abated through the good will and meritorious judgments of those in power, affirmative action would be unnecessary. Although many of my liberal and progressive comrades view affirmative action as a redistributive measure whose time is over or whose life is no longer worth preserving, I question their view because of the persistence of black social misery, and the warranted suspicion that good will and fair judgment among the powerful does not loom as large toward women and people of color.


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If the elimination of black poverty is a necessary condition of substantive black programs, then the affirmation of black humanity, especially among black people themselves, is a sufficient condition of such progress. Such affirmation speaks to the existential issues of what it means to be a degraded African (man, woman, gay, lesbian, child) in a racist society. How does one affirm oneself without reenacting negative black stereotypes or overreacting to white supremacist ideals?

The difficult and delicate quest for black identity is integral to any talk about racial equality. Yet it is not solely a political or economic matter. The quest for black identity involves self-respect and self-regard, realms inseparable from yet not identical to political power and economic status. The flagrant self-loathing among black middle-class professionals bears witness to this painful process. Unfortunately, black conservatives focus on the issue of self-respect as if it is the one key that opens all doors to black progress. They illustrate the fallacy of trying to open all doors with one key: They wind up closing their eyes to all doors except the one the key fits.

Progressives, for our part, must take seriously the quest for self-respect, even as we train our eye on the institutional causes of black social misery. The issues of black identity -- both black self-love and self-contempt -- sit alongside black poverty as realities to confront and transform. The uncritical acceptance of self-degrading ideals, that call into question black intelligence, possibility, and beauty not only compounds black social misery; it also paralyzes black middle-class efforts to defend broad redistributive measures.

This paralysis takes two forms: black bourgeois preoccupation with white peer approval and black nationalist obsession with white racism.

The first form of paralysis tends to yield a navel-gazing posture that conflates the identity crisis of the black middle class with the state of siege raging in black working-poor and very poor communities. That unidi-mensional view obscures the need for redistributive measures that significantly affect the majority of blacks, who are working people on the edge of poverty.

The second form of paralysis precludes any meaningful coalition with white progressives because of an undeniable white racist legacy of the modern West. The anger this truth engenders impedes any effective way of responding to the crisis in black America. Broad redistributive measures require principled coalitions, including multiracial alliances. Without such measures, black America's sufferings deepen. White racism indeed contributes to this suffering. Yet an obsession with white racism often comes at the expense of more broadly based alliances to affect social change, and borders on a tribal mentality. The more xenophobic versions of this viewpoint simply mirror the white supremacist ideals we are opposing and preclude any movement toward redistributive goals.

How one defines oneself influences what analytical weight one gives to black poverty. Any progressive discussion about the future of racial equality must speak to black poverty and black identity. My views on the necessity and limits of affirmative action in the present moment are informed by how substantive redistributive measures and human affirmative efforts can be best defended and expanded.

Racial Politics by Ronald Brownstein
When Paul Starr writes that liberals will soon "have no alternative but to find a new road to equal opportunity in America" he says publicly what many Democratic politicians will still say only in private.

The problem facing racial revisionists such as Starr is straightforward. On both political and policy grounds, many liberal leaders share Starr's hunger for new ways to bridge the gaps between white and black America. But that urge is blunted by the fear that civil rights leaders will view any call for a new vehicle as an abandonment of the quest for racial justice. Few white politicians are so confident of their standing in the black community to risk such condemnation. As a result, change in the way liberals confront racial issues is coming very slowly -- although it is undeniably, and inexorably, coming.

Most Democrats view racial issues through a framework defined by the civil rights leadership in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At least since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement has attempted to advance minority interests less through mass biracial political mobilization than through legal strategies constructed on the differences between the interests of blacks and whites. For most of the past twenty years, that approach has meant that the social obligations of whites to blacks have been principally defined in the courts, not in Congress.

That strategy allowed civil rights leaders to build an imposing legal edifice that helped expand the black middle class through programs such as affirmative action and minority set-asides. But, as Starr correctly observes, it always contained a dangerous flaw: Whites cast the vast majority of votes in this country, and they have never accepted programs that give preference to minorities, even when they are presented as recompense for past discrimination. In one recent Gallup survey, for example, whites, by a resounding margin of 84 to 8 percent, opposed preferential treatment in hiring and college admissions designed "to make up for past discrimination."

Those sentiments could not be forever segregated from political debate. The partisan politics of affirmative action did not immediately emerge, since the Nixon administration instituted many of the initial programs. But as the depth of white resistance to such programs became apparent, Republicans moved into opposition, and affirmative action joined busing, welfare, and crime on the list of issues the GOP has used to insinuate to whites that Democrats favor minorities.

In that way, the affirmative action strategy has seeded its own frustration. The perception that Democrats favor minorities has helped the GOP control the White House for most of the past twenty-five years. With their control of the White House, Republicans have used their appointment power to shift the federal judiciary dramatically to the right, effectively closing the courthouse door to civil rights advocates. Today, the courts are more likely to roll back gains won during the 1970s than to expand legal rights or preferences for minorities.

No longer able to rely on the courts, advocates of the traditional civil rights strategy now face a conundrum. Confronted with conservative judges committed to undoing the gains of the 1970s, the civil rights groups have turned to Congress for legislation overruling the courts and restoring affirmative action. But Starr and like-minded critics are correct to see this rear-guard fight as a self-defeating strategy, for the enormous public focus that it places on the Democrats as defenders of special programs for minorities only makes it more difficult for the party to recapture the White House and reshape the judiciary.


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To a growing number of Democratic political strategists, that argument eloquently frames the case for a new approach. During the long legislative fight over the civil rights bill George Bush finally signed into law last fall, many congressional Democrats felt the political cost of defending affirmative action greatly exceeded the benefits such programs would actually bring to the minority community. During the protracted struggle, some legislators spoke of the civil rights leadership in the tones soldiers use to describe generals who send them to take a meaningless hill at great cost. "I am saying what William Raspberry is saying," Oklahoma Congressman Dave McCurdy, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a leader of younger congressional Democrats told me during the debate. "We're building this [civil rights bill] up to be [a] championship bout, but this is not a championship bout. It is a fight that should be made, but it should not be elevated to the degree it has been...We're dealing with legalisms when we better be concerned about feeding children, and the deterioration of the family structure, and the lack of opportunity."

Eventually, of course, Congress reached a compromise on the bill with an administration sensitive to the accusation that its denunciations of quotas had created an environment in which former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke could thrive. But few observers are optimistic that the Reagan-Bush courts will refrain from further curtailment of existing affirmative action programs. The GOP, in turn, is likely to seize on the inevitable Democratic efforts to overturn those decisions in Congress as an opportunity to further stamp the Democrats as the party of minorities. With those divisive prospects looming, it should be no surprise that liberal thinkers such as Starr and William Julius Wilson are searching for another path to greater racial equality.

Signs of this rethinking are still much more evident in the intellectual community than among politicians. No leading Democratic politician has gone as far as Shelby Steele in saying that the party should walk away from affirmative action; even privately few feel such a drastic step is necessary. All of the announced presidential candidates, for example, supported the civil rights bill. But all of the Democratic contenders have broadly echoed the political strategy long advanced by Wilson and echoed here by Starr: that affirmative action should be downplayed in favor of broadly structured economic and social programs that dispense benefits without regard to race.

Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton has most aggressively followed that advice. Clinton has searched for a program that reaches out to working- and middle-class white voters who have abandoned the Democrats without abandoning the party's commitment to blacks. No one would suggest he has found a perfect balance. Many civil rights leaders -- including Jesse Jackson -- were angry at Clinton last spring when the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization he chaired at the time, passed a resolution condemning racial hiring quotas. But as a candidate, Clinton has found a more measured tone. Much like Wilson, he has avoided criticizing affirmative action, even while advancing what amounts to a successor agenda. Clinton's economic program is built around initiatives such as apprenticeships and universal access to college loans that could offer substantial benefits to minorities, but are equally attractive to middle-class whites. At every opportunity, he criticizes the President for attempting to divide the nation by race, and says the Democrats must construct programs that unite blacks and whites in common purpose.

It isn' t surprising to hear such notes from Clinton, who emerged from the ranks of those criticizing traditional liberal approaches. It may be more revealing of the party's shifting center that Iowa Senator Tom Harkin -- who structured his campaign as a defense of precisely such approaches -- advanced similar arguments.


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Signs of change within the party on racially tinged issues are appearing on other fronts. Perhaps the most notable new theme in national Democratic politics this year is the stress on "personal responsibility" in social programs. Clinton has most vigorously advanced that idea in the presidential race, endorsing tougher child support collection and stiffened work requirements for welfare recipients. But Clinton isn't alone in the party: West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller adopted a similar approach in the recent National Commission on Children report, and New Jersey Governor James J. Florio recently signed a bill that denies additional welfare benefits to unwed mothers who have additional children while on Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

That particular measure is controversial, as are many of the other ideas now gaining ground in the states under the personal responsibility banner. But the broader trend is clear: For the first time since Daniel Patrick Moynihan was denounced as a racist for his 1965 report on the black family, some Democrats are losing their fear of publicly acknowledging that individual moral decisions can complicate the problems of the poor.

To its critics, this search for programs that are race-neutral and encourage "personal responsibility" represent nothing more than pandering to white resentments. But clearly more than that is involved. Former Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas, who has generally defended liberal social positions as ardently as he has criticized liberal economics, crisply summarized the new thinking when he told me last year that "this gravitation toward more responsibility for your actions is a natural course of history and to somehow suggest that that is racist misses the point. It comes out of a sense of frustration over what has not worked, as opposed to racism."

For that reason, welfare reform has won support from a few influential black politicians such as New Jersey State Assemblyman Wayne Bryant, who originally drafted the bill limiting benefits. Likewise, Clinton's call for compelling all welfare recipients to take public service jobs after two years on the rolls -- though alienating to some supporters of Jesse Jackson -- hasn't prevented him from attracting more endorsements from black elected officials than any of his competitors.

Moreover, political calculation doesn't always translate into craven capitulation. In this case, it also represents an attempt to construct sustainable programs that help minorities within a moral framework acceptable to the majority of voters. Programs built on the ideas of race-neutrality and personal responsibility are likely to have a more stable political base of support than those built on the ideas of open-ended entitlement and racial preference.

It would be naive to think that even if all welfare programs were redesigned to demand greater personal responsibility and all racial preferences in hiring and admissions were eliminated that racial hostility would be expunged from politics. The nation's racial divisions are too deep -- and too central to the Republican strategy in national elections -- to permit a truly colorblind politics. But Starr and his colleagues in the post-affirmative-action left are framing the right question: Is it sufficient to decry those divisions, or is it incumbent on liberals to find new ways to bridge them?

The Liberals' Loss of Nerve by Kenneth S. Tollett
Paul Starr's "Civil Reconstruction: What to do without Affirmative Action" is one of the most sensitive, constructive, yet flawed articles on civil rights and the special plight of blacks I have read in the popular media. Its sensitivity and constructiveness flow from its effort to move Americans in the direction of "the reconstruction of civil society in minority communities and toward the promotion of broad policies for economic opportunity and security that benefit low-and middle-income Americans, black and white alike." The flaw in the article is its inadequate defense of affirmative action as a concept, which flows from its pessimistic presumption about the future of affirmative action in the United States Supreme Court because of the addition of Justice Clarence Thomas. This presumption is questionable and, more important, it reveals a loss of nerve among too many so-called liberal friends of affirmative action and blacks.

Starr would do well to heed the words of Deborah A. Stone's article "Race, Gender, and the Supreme Court" in the same issue. Stone writes that plenty of room exists for race-conscious remedies when race-neutral selection procedures either deliberately or inadvertently perpetuate the effects of prior discrimination.

Before articulating the rationale for affirmative action the importance of Starr's call for the reconstruction of civil society in many minority communities should be underscored. William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged indicates that the concentration of the black poor, and their social and psychological isolation, are the major reasons for the creation of a black underclass in the United States, with all of its pathological manifestations. Thus, what is needed is the socioeconomic reintegration of the black community into the larger society, which should be the result of reconstructing such communities.


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Sadly, Starr repeats Wilson's questionable criticism of affirmative action for helping those members of minority groups best poised to take advantage of opportunities for higher education and the professions. Starr, following Wilson, implies that, as a result, affirmative action has not done much good for the poor and for that matter, society in general. The historical record refutes this criticism: Many, if not most, blacks who have taken advantage of affirmative action were poor, and moved into the middle class, higher education, and the professions as a result of it. However, such blacks had middle-class aspirations because they came from socio-economically integrated communities that provided them with visible and important, albeit exceptional, examples of middle-class, upwardly mobile blacks.

However, Starr's support for historically black colleges is important and commendable. Ironically and paradoxically, these institutions may have become more important today than they were twenty or thirty years ago for poor, underprivileged, and, even underclass blacks.

Historically or predominantly black colleges perform four unique functions in the educational experience of blacks. They provide young people with creditable models of success, psycho-socially congenial settings, transitional enclaves, and insurance against a declining interest in the education of blacks. In addition, they serve three other functions which are not unique to them, namely, providing economic and political resources for the communities in which they are located, adding diversity to the higher educational system by providing choice for both black and white students, and functioning as repositories of the black cultural heritage and experience.

Until the early 1970s black colleges educated the overwhelming majority of blacks who received post-secondary education. Even today, while they barely enroll one-fifth of blacks attending post-secondary institutions, they graduate approximately 40 percent of blacks who receive baccalaureate degrees. Thus, they are what I call "instruments of affirmative action." This leads to the great flaw in Starr's analysis.

Because black colleges are instruments of affirmative action, their preservation and enhancement require more than a race-neutral public policy. Indeed, Congress has recognized this by authorizing a one hundred million dollar set-aside for historically black institutions in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1986. This set-aside is an expansion of Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which was originally primarily for their benefit, although it spoke of "developing institutions."

The "one pervading purpose" or original intent of the Reconstruction Amendments (Xm, XIV, and XV) was to preserve and secure the liberty of freedmen or blacks. This was not a racially neutral purpose and the difficulty black colleges and affirmative action are in now stems from the fact that blacks as well as whites are not willing to assert aggressively and firmly the tilt of the Constitution in the favor of blacks as expressed in the Reconstruction Amendments. Ultimately, the future of these institutions, especially the public black institutions, and of affirmative action, depends upon a racially sensitive policy. That is what is at stake in Ayers v. Mabus, the current case in the United States Supreme Court from Mississippi. A racially neutral policy of funding actually perpetuates the material deprivations and capital under-funding of these institutions.

Starr cogently argues that fear and rejection of blacks are products of affirmative action on their behalf. This is residual racism pure and simple. In the past, the enactment of affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws came as the result of many whites' decency and commitment to principle. In recent years, however, the civil rights movement's successes have suffered a steady erosion stemming from the right's demagogic attacks and the liberal left s loss of nerve.

The rationale for affirmative action is simply the reversal of discrimination: to improve the status and situation of blacks and other oppressed and disadvantaged groups in the United States. It should especially be afforded to blacks because they have experienced nearly two and a half centuries of slavery and a century of American-style apartheid.


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Why should not blacks receive as much concern as, if not more than, Douglas Firs, snail darters, and spotted owls, to say nothing about S & L barracudas? Unfortunately, too many Americans fail to see blacks as worthy members of the political-social community. At best, the majority of Americans do not see blacks as suffering from discrimination or oppression and its vestiges. Thus, they feel exonerated and then neglect blacks further when neoconservative black pundits and liberal white writers say the fault inheres in blacks rather than in inadequate opportunity, encouragement, or support. Moreover, such reactionary or cowardly thinking perversely transforms race-specific remedies or affirmative action for past and present race-based wrongs into "reverse discrimination," as if the remedies are inflicting injuries upon whites comparable to what white discrimination inflicted upon blacks in the past. At worst, the majority of Americans do not see blacks as fully human or members of the political and social community, stereotypical ascribing to them genetically generated moral and mental deficiencies.

Of course, I am not attributing this latter position to Starr. However, Starr's apparent loss of nerve or unwillingness to characterize anti-affirmative action for what it is acquiesces to the rhetoric of Bush's Willie Hortonism, David Duke's white supremacy, and Patrick Buchanan's crypto-racism. Affirmative action has been positively beneficial not only to blacks, His-panics, and women in America, but also to society in general, for it has propelled many individuals who otherwise would not have moved forward socially, educationally, and economically into the mainstream.

Paul Starr responds
The problem remains: With Clarence Thomas replacing Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court now seems virtually certain to continue down the path it followed in Croson, overturning affirmative action policies in employment and education in public institutions and, quite possibly, in the private sector as well. In his first months on the Court, Justice Thomas has aligned himself with Justice Scalia in a series of decisions, putting himself to the right even of Justice Rehnquist in a key case involving prisoners' rights. In an earlier Court of Appeals decision released only after his confirmation, Thomas ruled against a federal affirmative action policy giving preference to women in awards of broadcast licenses. All signs suggest, as Laurence Tribe said recently, that Justice Thomas may be "further to the right than the Bush administration expected or hoped." It is unclear to me, therefore, why Professor Tollett sees my expectations of the Court as unduly pessimistic. Without Bren-nan and Marshall, the Court is unlikely to produce majorities for affirmative action, except in highly restricted conditions.

In his commentary, Randall Kennedy suggests that I proposed a deal that would have minority groups give up affirmative action in exchange for race-neutral progressive social policies and a National Endowment for Black America. But if, as I expect, the Court rules that racial preferences in the public sector are constitutionally impermissible, except as narrowly tailored remedies to demonstrated discrimination, there will be no opportunity to make a deal. Affirmative action will be sharply curtailed, and the question will be more forcefully posed than ever: What else can we do to achieve racial equality in America?

It is in this political context that we ought to view the drawbacks of affirmative action. I accept the argument of Kennedy, Cornel West, and Kenneth Toilet that affirmative action has done some good, but I object to confusing affirmative action with the entire achievement of the civil rights revolution. In any evaluation of affirmative action, the question is whether its marginal contribution to increased opportunity -- beyond other civil rights measures -- outweighs its marginal contribution to the perpetuation of racism by fanning white resentment and providing whites with a continued basis for believing that blacks cannot succeed on their own. Affirmative action is obviously not "solely responsible" for a racist backlash, but it contributes to it. Recognizing its perverse social and political effects, along with its limited impact on alleviating poverty, ought to encourage us to see a Supreme Court decision, not as the end of the road to equal opportunity, but as the chance to open a new path.


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As Ron Brownstein points out, whites today by overwhelming margins do not accept the legitimacy of affirmative action. Of course, we can accuse them of racism whenever they voice that opposition. That will intimidate some, but it will succeed in making permanent enemies of many more. Yet, if approached on the common ground of universal policies, these same white voters might be enlisted in a coalition. This is not a loss of nerve; it is the response that majoritarian, democratic politics forces upon us. It will be a sign of political maturity when those who defend affirmative action as morally justified distinguish between affirmative action, which is a means toward an end, and the true end of racial equality. It is not a failure of principle to look for alternative means that are more effective in achieving equality and sustaining political support. Anyone honestly facing the judicial and political realities ought to be doing that.

In addition to the emphasis on race-neutral policies that would benefit minorities on the basis of their economic position rather than race, I proposed explicit, capital reparations to black America -- initially, to be supported by private philanthropy -- as part of the overall strategy of "civil reconstruction." (The combined allusion to the Civil War and Reconstruction in the title was intentional.) Kennedy objects that whites will resist providing resources to blacks whatever the means. Some will. But to many whites, affirmative action is a hidden influence in decisions about jobs and admissions that they think may be depriving them of the opportunities of a lifetime. Whether rightly or not, such policies excite their suspicion, envy, and resentment far more than do other in-clusionary policies. The costs of minority institution-building would be more diffused, and the program itself is less threatening. Moreover, an emphasis on building up private institutions and civil society to foster community self-development will bring some conservative support. Again, here is a way to expand the coalition.

To be sure, this idea is certain to meet resistance; that is why I suggested private financing as a start. But a straightforward espousal of capital reparations to black America is a case that we ought to begin making, on its merits, for the day when America is prepared to recognize its historical obligations. Discharging those obligations through capital support to institutions, rather than intervention in individual careers, offers the possibility that such a policy will help provide a more permanent, institutional foundation for black advancement. (To suggest, as a writer in The Nation did, that my support for capital reparations for black institutions is equivalent to supporting South Afican-style apartheid is a bizarre misrepresentation.) In thinking about a Supreme Court decision overturning affirmative action, I was trying to look a few years ahead. In proposing reparations, I was trying to look ahead much further than that. In the face of a hostile Court, the advocates of racial equality who disagree with the approach I suggested will have to come up with their own ideas of what to do without affirmative action.

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