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Affirmative-Action Rulings Are Reflecting Public Sentiment…OK For Just Plain Folks

Ambivalence Is Only Sure Thing

Affirmative-Action Rulings Are Reflecting Public Sentiment


June 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON - Even after decades in use, affirmative action occupies an uneasy place in national life. No one has answered the most vexing question posed by racial preferences -- how to move some people ahead without leaving others behind.

Far from offering the final word, the Supreme Court on Monday sanctioned affirmative action in one form, struck it down in another and raised expectations that lawsuits and creative university and corporate leaders will sort through the muddle.

Ambivalence over affirmative action has been as deep-seated as the wish to correct imbalances among the races and between the sexes.

Ask Americans if they support efforts to advance minorities and most will say yes. Ask them if they support doing everything possible even if it means giving minorities preferential treatment and they are much less sure. Ask whether employers or schools should use racial quotas to guarantee diversity and they say no.

In short, Americans appear to favor a focus on minority advancement as long as the tools of achieving that are not too explicit or rigid -- whether in the classroom, the boardroom, the housing development or the battlefield.

So the court's action Monday was in keeping with public sentiment, as unsettled as that is, and sufficiently nuanced to leave advocates on both sides claiming victory.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court upheld a general affirmative-action program at the University of Michigan's law school. In a 6-3 decision, it struck down a system used by the university's undergraduate school that awarded minority applicants one-fifth the points needed to get in, giving them a leg up on other students.

Some who support affirmative action said the rulings were, at best, a do-no-harm event that leaves the status quo largely in place. As the NAACP put it, the court endorsed a ''modest consideration of race'' in university education.

Even so, the decisions were the most significant on the subject since 1978, when the court set the pattern of ambiguity by outlawing racial quotas in education but allowing race to be considered.

Many of the inequities that drove policymakers to introduce racial preferences persist, despite marked progress. More than one-quarter of whites, but less than 17 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics, graduate from college.

In the workforce, the percentage of blacks who work as managers in professional fields has crept up to a little over 8 percent from 5.6 percent in two decades. Five percent of Hispanics hold those jobs, up from 2.6 percent.

In the armed forces, blacks -- 13 percent of the population -- make up 20 percent of the personnel but less than 4 percent of Special Forces, and they are underrepresented in the senior officers' ranks of every service.

With corporate America under pressure to employ a diverse workforce and sell to a multicultural marketplace, dozens of Fortune 500 companies supported the University of Michigan in the case.

''It makes all the business sense in the world,'' Edd Snyder, spokesman for General Motors, said. ''We sell vehicles in every corner of the globe'' and need workers who reflect those customers. ``Where do you get that employee base? From universities and colleges.''

Affirmative Action Is OK For Just Plain Folks

Marie Cocco.
Marie Cocco is a nationally syndicated columnist and member of Newsday's editorial board.

June 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Newsday. All rights reserved. 

There was never any discussion, at my average high school in an average working-class town, of affirmative action.

Those few of us with the audacity to think we might go to a prestigious college were too busy working, saving, borrowing and begging the money for tuition to ponder who else might be admitted, or how.

Not that race wasn't part of our worldview. Boston in the mid-1970s was a cauldron of racial resentment. It overflowed on the evening news as confrontations over public school integration grew snarling and violent. The ugly reality on TV exposed the reality of race and class in that place and time.

I did not know any black university students well until I moved onto the Tufts University campus as a sophomore and met my first roommate, an African-American woman who was, like me, a promising daughter of the working-class. That was about all we had in common.

I was a studious workaholic, driven hard by fear I would be found undeserving. She had a tendency to slack off. I worked after class, as required by the terms of my financial aid. She had no job and more scholarship money. Some weekends she went downtown to shop at upscale stores I'd never set foot in.

Did I resent it? You bet.

But no more than I resented the white son of a Westchester dentist, who lectured me on the outrage of government subsidies on my student loans. Or another student who asked if I'd commuted to campus freshman year because it was easier to gain admission that way. (No, it was just cheaper.)

My old roommate told me the other day that she took my resentment for outright animosity. "And you didn't even know me!" she said. Over a year's time we grew comfortable with each other, but not close.

A memorable moment came when Ted Landsmark, a black lawyer on his way to Boston's city hall, was beaten - with an American flag - by anti-busing protesters. Student activists reprinted the picture of the atrocity on fliers slipped under dorm room doors. When ours arrived, my roommate burst into tears. So did I.

Landsmark had two degrees from Yale, an affinity for Boston's high culture and wore a business suit. None of it shielded him from the reality of being black.

Eventually, both my roommate and I became friends with many of the foreign students on campus. It was a multicultural cornucopia that conservative commentators would now ridicule as engineered for political correctness. A different black woman - from Brooklyn - and an Argentine Jew whose family lived in Puerto Rico would become my dearest friends.

Did the opportunities given others somehow make me believe I was robbed of my own? No. As a member of the first generation of white students to be part of the affirmative action experiment - the Bakke case was decided the year we graduated from college - I didn't think opportunity gained by someone else was automatically my loss. I came to understand it was my gain, too.

The zero-sum mentality, though, characterizes the bitter debate over affirmative action. Empirical studies show race-conscious admissions involve a tiny fraction of college placements. The most prestigious 300 to 400 colleges in America redistribute 3 to 4 percent of their slots to minority applicants, according to Harry Holzer, an Urban Institute economist who has reviewed 200 studies on affirmative action.

With the actual displacement so small, why is the discourse over affirmative action so harsh? Holzer offers the ten-man theory. If 10 white men apply for one job, and that job goes to a minority or a woman, all 10 men feel aggrieved - even though only one of them would have gotten the position anyway.

Now the Supreme Court has upheld the essence of affirmative action and endorsed diversity as a societal goal. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion relied on pleadings from business and the military that they need a diverse workforce. The establishment has concluded that cultural diversity is good for the bottom line and good for waging war.

I only wish someone would say what I've experienced. It's good for ordinary people, too.

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