Letter to the Editor: Affirmative Action Article Misconstrued Information

Stanley C. Brubaker

Dear Editor,

Crozer Connor misses a couple of beats – historical as well as conceptual – in his article, “UCLA Professor Discusses Affirmative Action’s Effects on Minorities.” He writes, “In an effort to fight inequality and foster racial interaction, our government declared in the 1960s and 70s that race, ethnicity, religious background, gender and other such characteristics could not affect the treatment of an individual in this country. As a result, employers and competitive schools became compelled to hire or admit minority individuals, implimenting [sic] policies that altered admissions decisions. Sander, however, finds increasing evidence suggesting that affirmative action is actually harming, not helping, American minorities.”

Whoa! These three sentences encourage the utter misimpression that laws fighting racial discrimination are the targets of Professor Sander’s concern. The case is quite to the contrary. Perhaps, Mr. Connor’s confusion derives from an ambiguity in the use of the term, “affirmative action,” so it might be useful to take an elementary walk through the relevant history with more measured steps.

First, there’s the long, shameful era of Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination. Second, there’s the era of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and allied measures to which Mr. Connor refers, banning the use of race in hiring, promotion and college admissions (and more). “Affirmative action” in its original usage during this time meant not being passive, but reaching out, taking affirmative action to ensure that minorities were brought into the pool of candidates but then deciding on the merits without regard to race.

Then, we reach the third era when several factors combined to encourage the adoption of race conscious programs: concern that covert discrimination was still taking place, impatience with the progress of racial integration and a belief that past discrimination against minorities required compensatory discrimination in their favor (ideally, to help place them in the position they would have occupied had it not been for discrimination).

But, unlike during the first era, the race-conscious programs worked in favor of minorities. Such practice went by several names: quotas, compensatory treatment, reverse discrimination or race preference programs. But when described with any of these terms, the practice is unpopular (witness the success of referenda and such, banning the practices).

Hence, as a sort of euphemism, “affirmative action” was called into service, cloaking the unpopular practice with a term that had widespread support. Another term used to describe the practice, of course, is “diversity,” which exploded into popularity when the Supreme Court indicated, in Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978), that race conscious admissions programs would be constitutional if they were used for this purpose, much like the tie-breaking decision that Harvard might give a spot to a kid from Wyoming versus one from Massachusetts.

Professor Sander’s concern clearly is not with race blind practices that brought minorities into the universities and work force, as Mr. Connor’s language suggests. His concern lies with the use of “affirmative action” when that term refers to “race preferences;” and to be more precise, he’s not worried about the use of race for “tie-breaking decisions.”

His concern is what happens when these race preferences become large, as at the University of Michigan Law School, where race alone would give one more than a fifth of qualifications required for admission. “Large racial preferences” – that’s his target, those preferences of such scale that they create a “mismatch” between the student’s qualifications and preparedness and that of the schools’ average.

That’s where affirmative action/race preferences, by Sander’s analysis, hurt rather than help. And it’s critical to note that Sander does not propose abolishing race preferences altogether, only to moderate them, for instance, by requiring universities to give no greater preference to race than they do to socioeconomic status, or by requiring transparency, so that the admitted student knows just where he or she stands in relation to the average student at the university.

Also, it would have been nice if the article could have spoken to the critique offered by Prof. Rhonda Levine of the sociology department as well as Sander’s rejoinder.