The Common Good
July-August 1998

Is Affirmative Action Obsolete?

by Jim Wallis | July-August 1998

Or just in need of repair?

The debate over affirmative action can get confusing because it quickly degenerates into complicated legal battles that most people don’t understand. In the midst of the confusion, the moral issues of this debate are the most important.

Let’s start with the most basic social fact: The United States is not a level racial playing field. Equal opportunity regardless of race has yet to be achieved in our country. We have made substantial progress, but middle-class blacks, Latinos, and Asians can still tell current stories of discrimination based solely on skin color. And for millions of people of color trapped in segregated underclass neighborhoods, hope has faded away of ever escaping poverty and violence. Most Americans, and even most white people if pressed, would probably admit that we don’t yet have a society whose rewards and benefits are "colorblind."

Affirmative action has always existed in America—for white men from affluent classes, in particular. Does anyone really want to argue that all the privileges that accrue to white people of means and their children are earned? Privilege perpetuates itself, in part by maintaining the social, economic, and political structures and habits that assist and assure its perpetuation. It is not whether anyone should get affirmative action, but rather whether anyone other than white men should get it. The question is what kind and how it will be implemented.

Diversity is not an option for America, it is our reality. The issue about diversity as we prepare to enter a new century is whether we will see it as a strength to embrace or a problem to be solved.

For several decades we have experimented with various forms of affirmative action. In that social experiment, we have learned some things. Most people—on both sides of the debate—agree that rigid "quotas" and racial "set-asides" are not always the best ways to racial justice and reconciliation. Such methods can become crude and coercive, and may create new unfairness for individuals that are excluded from institutions by racial categories despite their own credentials and character.

We also are beginning to take the issues of class more seriously. Few today would argue that Colin Powell’s children should get affirmative action while the son of an unemployed white coal miner from West Virginia does not. Because race continues to be an independent factor for discrimination, moving to a strictly class-based form of affirmative action wouldn’t be adequate. But some mix of race and class could shape new forms of affirmative action.

LEFT TO THEIR OWN HABITS, cultures, and prejudices, institutions find it much easier to maintain their racial identity than to expand it. Therefore without "affirmative action" in outreach, assistance, and support, universities rooted in white middle-class constituencies, for example, are unlikely to transform themselves into more diverse centers of learning.

Some suggest that only an individual’s personal qualifications for a school or job should be pertinent to their application. Many opponents of affirmative action now quote Martin Luther King Jr. when he said he wanted his children someday to be "judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Others claim that diversity itself is a value that can be legitimately reflected in hiring and admissions. After all, wanting your institutions to "look like America" is a positive desire that an integrationist like King surely would have supported.

Perhaps the most creative solutions are those that don’t limit the notion of "qualifications" to grades, test scores, or previous job records. One’s cultural heritage and experience create other "credentials" that can be as valuable to an academic environment or a workplace as someone’s SAT scores. The experience of coming from a poor background or being part of a people who have experienced racial discrimination sometimes creates much greater sensitivity and compassion for others, as well as very practical expertise in helping to create more inclusive institutions. Similarly, when co-workers or classmates interact across ethnic and racial lines, it can be an exchange that widens everyone’s knowledge of both our national history and the human condition and helps prepare us for our inevitable multicultural future.

It may be that our old forms of affirmative action have gotten too passive. More aggressive steps are needed if genuine equality is ever to be achieved. We need active efforts to recruit, train, and empower those who have been shut out, while creating an honest interactive environment where inevitable cultural conflicts can be resolved. That takes work and persistence, and not just politically correct policies.

Some of the best results are occurring, ironically, in the military and business worlds. Those business efforts now need to be strengthened to include the boardroom as well as the sales department. And even critics of the military, like myself, must honestly recognize the armed forces’ success in giving some of the kids in neighborhoods like mine the fairest chance they’ve ever had for vocational advancement.

Rapidly changing population demographics and gospel imperatives will keep racial justice on our agenda. To embrace diversity in the institutions of American life will certainly take concerted and "affirmative" action on all our parts. If we could stop arguing long enough about the legal details, we might instead ask what each of us and our institutions can do to foster genuine opportunity and diversity. Because, in the end, we will only find common ground by moving to higher ground.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.

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