The affirmative action regime of the past three decades will enter a crisis this presidential season. And not a moment too soon. Though the desire to treat blacks, women, and minorities fairly opened up American institutions and made us all more sensitive to injustices in some ways, it did so at a high price: the cost of equal treatment under the law for everyone. All that is now about to change.
California will have an affirmative action referendum on the ballot this fall, and voters there are passionately opposed to continuing preferences in hiring, education, and promotions. President Clinton probably cannot win a second term without California, so the stage is set for an epoch-making turn in our nation. Clinton cannot alienate the true believers among the Democrats, but he cannot appear to favor the status quo if he wants the California vote. This dilemma—and the stark media attention it will attract—may tax even Clinton’s demonstrated skill in appearing to support both sides of controversial issues.
Dole, of course, will make affirmative action a defining campaign issue. Perhaps political expediency may even lead him to do something about affirmative action should he ever enter the White House.
Whatever squirming it causes politicians, however, the people are convinced that affirmative action has to go. At first, affirmative action seemed harmless, a way to remedy past injustice, particularly against blacks. But it metastasized when it got into the bloodstream of government and private institutions. We have grown so accustomed to counting by race and ethnicity that we hardly even notice what it’s done to our once-impartial institutions. It’s a good thing, for example, that more minorities serve on juries, but what does it mean when in the O. J. Simpson trial, the most notorious murder case this century, not a single white male served on the jury?
Anomalies like this occur all over the country. While you cannot draw conclusions from any one instance, the net effect has made the American people fed up with the whole thing.
Affirmative action was also intended to make the country more diverse, but the attempt has paradoxically led to a kind of sameness-in-diversity. Look at what’s happened to colleges and universities. Since the federal mandate imposes one model on all institutions, they have all become diverse—in exactly the same way. There may be good reasons why some institutions, say, should no longer be all male, but should none remain so? Can we justify all-female or historically black colleges and universities without at the same time permitting military, denominational, and special curriculum institutions somewhere in the American landscape?
But juries and institutions of higher learning are only the tip of the iceberg, concealing a much larger problem for the American people. Friction still exists among the races—between blacks and Asians, blacks and Hispanics, often as much as between blacks and whites. Yet affirmative action preferences in schools, businesses, and government offices has not done much to improve race relations. In fact, it seems the opposite is the case.
Quite simply, most Americans have come to believe that affirmative action is just not fair. Whatever the injustices committed against some groups in the past, asking people alive today—who may or may not have done anything wrong—to provide restitution to other people whose ancestors were wronged is an odd tack for any system of justice to take. It smacks of group guilt, something that began to wane in our culture as early as the Old Testament.
Furthermore, many groups in America have been discriminated against in the past, Catholics among them. Pro-abortion groups know they can employ coded language to tap into continuing anti-Catholic prejudice as a means of increasing support for “choice” against Catholic values.
The only way to avoid immense, complex, and incoherent government intrusion into every nook and cranny of society to address real and imagined prejudices is simply to treat all people equally under the law. Where prejudice is discovered, it is an injustice and remedies may be sought. But we have to resist the temptation to right one wrong by perpetrating another. That is why in several places in the Pentateuch, God warns the Israelites even about compassion. He desires mercy toward the poor and helpless, but in Leviticus he warns the chosen people: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (19:15). It may seem strange to us that even our compassion may become a temptation, but the one who knows human hearts says it may become so.