No issue better reveals the American tension between principle and pragmatism than the debate over affirmative action. This week the Supreme Court is expected to enter the debate with a widely anticipated ruling on the University of Michigan's admissions policies, which favor black and other minority applicants. More important than the decision the court reaches will be the reasoning it uses.
As pragmatic public policy, it is easy to show that the benefits of affirmative action far outweigh its social or individual costs. It ensures the integration of our best universities and thereby promotes (if indirectly) a heterogeneous professional elite. In conjunction with anti-discrimination laws, it has directly fostered the growth of an African-American and Latino middle class.
Corporate America has also embraced the policy, mostly by choice. As a result, minorities make up a large part of the middle and top ranks at many of the country's most recognizable firms. On Fortune magazine's latest list of the 50 best companies for minorities, for example, 24 percent of officials and managers are minorities. Affirmative action has transformed the American military, making it the most ethnically varied at all levels of its organization of all the world's great forces. And, along with changing ethnic and racial attitudes, affirmative action has helped promote a powerful global popular culture, many areas of which are dominated by minorities.
Negative achievements—that is, what affirmative action has spared us—are hard to prove. But it is surely reasonable to attribute the relative infrequency of ethnic or racial riots in America to the presence of minority leadership in many of the nation's mainstream institutions.
All these gains have been achieved at very little cost to America's economic or political efficiency: our economy dominates the world; our army is history's most awesome; our great universities have few equals; our arts, science and scholarship are the envy of the world.
There are indeed costs at the individual level, borne by those whites who may not have gained places or jobs as a result of preferences for minorities. But nearly all research indicates that these costs are minuscule. Repeated surveys indicate that no more than 7 percent of Americans of European heritage claim to have been adversely affected by affirmative action programs, and it has been shown that affirmative action reduces the chances of whites getting into top colleges by only 1.5 percentage points.
For all its achievements, however, many critics fear that affirmative action violates fundamental principles that have guided this country. It is indeed difficult to reconcile affirmative action with the nation's manifest ideals of individualism and merit-based competition. But America's history is replete with just such pragmatic fudging of these ideals.
In foreign policy the United States has defended dictators, destabilized democracies and invaded other countries in the pragmatic promotion of the national interest. Domestically, Congress regularly passes laws that favor special interests—veterans, millionaire ranchers, farmers, oil-well owners, holders of patents about to expire, people with home mortgages—many with no economic justification, all costing billions of tax dollars.
Why, then, the obsession with the principle of colorblindness, especially among right-wing activists who otherwise exhibit little enthusiasm for the equality principle enshrined in the Declaration of Independence? It is hard to resist the conclusion that principles are invoked in public life to rationalize the control of the vulnerable. In relations among equals, meanwhile, pragmatism trumps virtue.
Yet these critics miss a more compelling, and more subtle, argument against affirmative action. In spite of its benefits, there are serious problems in the long run for its beneficiaries if affirmative action is not decisively modified.
First, while diversity is a goal that deserves to be pursued in its own right, it was a major strategic error for African-American leaders to have advocated it as the main justification for affirmative action. In doing so, they greatly expanded the number of groups entitled to preferences—including millions of immigrants whose claims on the nation pale in comparison to those who have been historically discriminated against. Such a development understandably alarmed many whites who were otherwise prepared to turn a pragmatic blind eye to their principled concerns about affirmative action.
Using diversity as a rationale for affirmative action also distorts the aims of affirmative action. The original, morally incontestable goal of the policy was the integration of African-Americans in all important areas of the public and private sectors from which they had been historically excluded. But if diversity is the goal, the purpose of affirmative action shifts from improving the condition of blacks to transforming America into a multicultural society. Thus the pursuit of inclusion is replaced by the celebration of separate identities.
In a more profound sense, the diversity rationale undermines a hopeful view of America. If the purpose of affirmative action is to redress past wrongs, then it requires both the minority and the majority to do the cultural work necessary to create what Martin Luther King Jr. called the "beloved community" of an integrated nation. Instead, many of its supporters see affirmative action as an entitlement, requiring little or no effort on the part of minorities.
Another consequence of this view is that it allows no recognition of the brute historical fact that the very patterns of social, educational and cultural adjustments that ensured survival, and even conferred nobility, under the extreme conditions of racist oppression no longer apply. In fact, now they may even be dysfunctional.
The gravest danger, however, and what perhaps alarms the majority most, is the tendency to view affirmative action as a permanent program for preferred minorities and, simultaneously, the refusal even to consider it a topic for public discourse. Indeed, among the black middle class, especially on the nation's campuses, blind support for affirmative action has become an essential signal of ethnic solidarity and commitment.
The nation needs this policy, but it must be modified. For starters, it should exclude all immigrants and be confined to African-Americans, Native Americans and most Latinos. It should include an economic means test. Only those who are poor or grew up in deprived neighborhoods should benefit. At the same time, poor whites from deprived neighborhoods should be phased into the program, a development that would counter the arguments of right-wing critics.
Finally, affirmative action should be severed from the goal of diversity—which, as the legal scholar Peter Schuck has argued, is best left to the private sector. Middle-class blacks and Latinos would continue to benefit from such voluntary programs, properly understood as a sharing of diverse experiences and perspectives rather than a withdrawal into ethnic glorification. There is every reason to believe the nation's corporations and universities will continue to find such a policy to be in their own best interests, and the nation's.
Americans have always recognized that high ideals, however desirable, inevitably clash with reality, and that good public policy requires compromise. But only through the struggle of affirmative action are they coming to realize that such compromises, wisely pursued, can actually serve a higher principle: the supreme virtue of being fair to those who have been most unfairly treated.