December 22, 2006

Knocking Down Affirmative Action — What It Means for America

By Brian Shott
New America Media


Editor’s Note: Michigan voters recently approved by a large margin an initiative to end public affirmative action programs. Now, former UC Regent Ward Connerly — author of Prop. 209, which banned race and gender from consideration in public hiring, contracting and school admissions in California — says he’ll take the fight against affirmative action to nine new states. Brian Shot interviews Ellis Cose, a contributing editor with Newsweek magazine and author of the report “Killing Affirmative Action: Would Ending It Really Result in a Better, More Perfect, Union?” published by the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.

Is there something about Michigan’s politics or demographics that explains why voters there moved to eliminate affirmative action?

Ellis Cose: Michigan, outside of certain areas, is overwhelmingly a white state. We now have three states where essentially the same initiatives against affirmative action have been put before voters: First in California with Prop. 209 in 1996, then in Washington state two years later, and now in Michigan. In every case the measure has passed. In every case, the vast majority of whites, and certainly of white males, has supported the measure.

Certainly you have a fairly small Latino population in Michigan, so that makes it different from California — Latinos did not support the measure in California. There are demographic differences, but what’s come through fairly clearly, at least so far, is that when this has been put before white voters, the vast majority has decided to vote for it.

Michigan also re-elected a Democratic governor and senator.

There had been the assumption by some of the pollsters that the initiative was linked very much to the two political parties. And it really wasn’t, because as you point out, the Democrats did quite well.

Do opponents of affirmative action like Ward Con-nerly argue that the cure is worse than the disease — that such programs increase discrimination and racial tensions — or do they think that society has achieved equal opportunity?

I don’t think that Ward Connerly would say that society has achieved equal opportunity. What he and his allies argue is that we as a nation have decided to stop making legal distinctions based on race, and that affirmative action worsens race relations. I think that’s a neutral way of summing up their argument.

Without a doubt, there are lots of people who just don’t like the fact that people of color are getting what they consider advantages. Which is why they vote for these measures. Clearly there are lots of people who are angry at what they perceive is the injustice that affirmative action has done to whites. That’s why they vote for these measures. Clearly there are lots of people who would prefer to pretend that America’s vast history of slavery and segregation and in equality never happened. And they also are inclined to vote for these measures.

Is Prop. 209 really behind the drop in enrollment of blacks to California’s public universities? The percentage of African-American freshmen at UC’s 10 campuses was low before Prop. 209, and eight years later it was down by only 1 percent.

Prop. 209 did drive down enrollment to some extent. But the sharper critique is that it’s created a bipartite system within the UC system. If you consider UC Berkeley and UCLA the flagship universities, you’ve seen a dramatic drop in enrollment of African-Americans there. That’s totally attributable to Prop. 209.

There’s a reason so many parents want to get their kids into the elite schools. One is conferred an advantage from going to these kinds of schools. To say that any UC school is equivalent is to argue against the decisions that hundreds and thousands of parents and students are making when they try to get into one school instead of another.

What about the argument that affirmative action programs can serve to hide or perpetuate inequalities? Couldn’t the drop-off in black enrollment at UC’s top schools focus attention on, say, the quality and funding of inner-city schools?

That’s been the argument that opponents of affirmative action have used. It would be a more coherent argument if they could point to examples where knocking down affirmative action resulted in increased attention paid to the poor quality of education in many of these minority and poor communities. But it just doesn’t seem to track. The same guys who are fighting so hard to end affirmative action are missing in action when it comes to the debate over K through 12 education and preschool education.

Prop. 209 also ended affirmative action in public contracting. What has been the effect?

On an anecdotal basis, I’ve spoken to many black and Latino contractors, and they’ll tell you that it’s incredibly rough out there. That just can’t get the kind of business they used to get anymore. There’s no incentive for the large contractors to affiliate with them.

There’s been no definitive study of 209’s effects, but several studies have examined pieces of it. A recent one looked at CALTRANS (the state’s transportation department) and those minority-owned firms that were getting contracts with it. The majority of them are no longer even in business now.

Is our society becoming more segregated?

Well, we’re certainly seeing the resegregation of schools. That’s been happening since the 1980s, according to the research by the Harvard Civil Rights project. And if these voluntary desegregation plans — such as those efforts in Louisville and Seattle which are now before the Supreme Court — can be knocked out, we’re clearly going to see more segregation. That says unfortunate things about the choices we’ve made as a society and about our willingness to actually become a greater society.

What’s the future of affirmative action?

It’s not going to be what it once was, certainly as practiced by state universities and state governments. There is increasing pressure on these bodies to adopt some kind of race-blind strategy to achieve the goal of diversity, integration, economic uplift. And I think that’s going to continue. There’s going to be a search for ways to close these gaps and meet these targets that don’t explicitly use race as a criteria.

The reality of the American picture is that people have been disadvantaged for any number of reasons. You could certainly bring class more into play. It won’t get you to the same place that affirmative action programs will because the class profile of different races looks very different for lots of different reasons. Class and race are related, but they are different variables.

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