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Do African-Americans Really Want Racial Preferences?

By Stuart Taylor Jr., National Journal
National Journal Group Inc.
Friday, Dec. 20, 2002

Now that Trent Lott has suppressed his nostalgia for American apartheid, vowed support for affirmative action "across the board," and thus fed the notion that racial preferences are what African-Americans want and need, let's look at some countervailing evidence: In public opinion polls that are fairly worded, large majorities of African-Americans sometimes oppose -- and lopsided majorities of other Americans always oppose -- racial preferences in hiring, promotions, and college admissions.

Racial preferences pin a badge of inferiority on every black and every Hispanic student.
This points to two of the heaviest costs of what most policy analysts (although not most Americans) mean by "affirmative action." One is that this policy can only live on lies, because the oft-obscured reality of racial preferences offends the values of most Americans of all races. The other is that preferences foster pernicious assumptions that black (and Hispanic) people are and will long remain incapable of competing on a level playing field with whites and Asians. Both points will come into sharper focus during the coming months, as two cases now before the Supreme Court, involving the University of Michigan and its law school, shine a spotlight on the stunning magnitude of the racial double standards at our top universities.

As to public opinion, consider the responses to a question on the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University racial attitudes survey in spring 2001: "In order to give minorities more opportunity, do you believe race or ethnicity should be a factor when deciding who is hired, promoted, or admitted to college, or that hiring, promotions, and college admissions should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race or ethnicity?"

Of the 1,709 adults surveyed, 5 percent said "race or ethnicity should be a factor," 3 percent said "don't know," and 92 percent said "should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race/ethnicity."

More surprising, of the 323 African-American respondents, 12 percent said "race or ethnicity should be a factor," 2 percent said "don't know," and 86 percent said "should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race/ethnicity."

That's right: By a ratio of 7-to-1, black respondents in this poll rejected racial preferences. (The ratio was 12-to-1 among both Hispanic and Asian respondents.) To be sure, other poll results have been less dramatic; and the phrase "affirmative action" usually elicits a very positive response from black poll respondents and a mixed response from whites.

But despite its wide currency, "affirmative action" is a misleading phrase, because most Americans interpret it as including aggressive anti-discrimination measures, recruitment and outreach efforts, and preferences for poor people to promote genuine equality of opportunity -- policies that are in fact supported by almost all opponents of racial preferences. And all, or almost all, fairly worded polls show that between one-third and two-thirds of African-Americans -- and lopsided majorities of all Americans -- have long opposed racial preferences of the kind that are under attack from conservatives.

As professor Peter H. Schuck of Yale University Law School wrote earlier this year in the Yale Law & Policy Review, "Affirmative action has never had much public support.... The vast majority of Americans, including more than a third of blacks and more than 70 percent of Hispanics, oppose racial preferences in hiring and promotion, with the level of this opposition rising somewhat over time. Interestingly, the percentage of black high school dropouts who strongly oppose it was three times higher than among black college graduates."

Schuck also cites studies showing that opponents of all races "view preferences, rightly or wrongly, as inconsistent with the ideals of individualism and merit that almost all strongly endorse," and studies suggesting that "dislike of affirmative action fosters dislike of blacks" and foments anger that is "just as strong among whites on the political left as among those on the political right." He notes that many supporters feel obliged to justify preferences by "blaming racism" and by suggesting that merit and equal opportunity "can only be achieved through preferences."

Such sophistries are but two of the many ways in which the political unsustainability of any candid defense of racial preferences has led supporters to resort to systematic dishonesty about their nature and magnitude and to demagogic smearing of opponents as racist or "insensitive."

It must be admitted that abolishing racial preferences in admissions would impose heavy social costs. Most obviously, at least for a time it would mean either a dramatic and dispiriting decline in the number of black and Hispanic students at our top universities, or a scramble to evade a ban on preferences by disingenuous stratagems that could degrade academic standards even more. But would these effects be as bad as the unfairness and dishonesty inherent in our current double standard? As bad as the fundamentally racist assumptions that this double standard fosters?

When colleges systematically admit (among others) upper-middle-class blacks from the best high schools ahead of (among others) better-qualified whites and Asians from less-prosperous backgrounds, on account of their race -- as every elite college does -- what exactly are they saying about the supposed beneficiaries of these preferences? Aren't they saying that black and Hispanic students are not, and cannot hope to become, smart enough or diligent enough to be held to the same standard as white or Asian students? However benign their intentions, don't such policies pin a badge of inferiority on every black and every Hispanic student -- including the many bright and hard-working students who need no preferences -- while telling the students themselves that not much is expected of them academically? Isn't that message more likely to perpetuate than to dissolve the most intractable source of racial inequality in America today, which is the dismally small number of black students -- no matter how prosperous their families -- who strive to excel academically?

After three decades of preferences, the message of their most fervent advocates is that black and Hispanic high school graduates, and black and Hispanic college graduates applying to professional schools, are still so academically weak that eliminating the double standard would lead to pervasive resegregation. They are saying that the children of preferentially admitted students still need preferential admissions. Should we settle in for another generation or two or three of this? When will it be time to try something else?

Stuart Taylor Jr. is a senior writer for National Journal magazine, where "Opening Argument" appears.

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