End Affirmative Action As We Know It

Affirmative action is a hot issue in the Presidential race. The major Republican candidates are all firmly opposed to it, while President Clinton recently came out with a stirring defense. But it may not be too late to head off a divisive contest--if both parties will support affirmative-action programs that enable people from all backgrounds to compete effectively for better-paying jobs.

Polls show that a clear majority of Americans, including many from minority groups, are opposed to policies that impose quotas and set-asides. Yet they remain committed to civil rights legislation that reduces discrimination against minorities in schooling, training, and employment.

Even effective antidiscrimination laws cannot do much to address the main cause of unequal opportunities among adults: differences in childhood experiences. Some children, many of them not from minority groups, grow up in unstable families and vicious neighborhoods and receive low-quality education and training. The right kind of affirmative-action programs would raise their human capital so that they could gain the skills needed to compete.

CRIME DOESN'T PAY. Many types of human-capital investments could help such children do well as adults. For example, kids from poor families should be given tuition vouchers that they can use to get a decent education rather than having to attend inadequate local public schools. The welfare system should be reformed in ways that keep poor families intact. The crackdown on crime should continue, since it will eventually convince children growing up in slum neighborhoods that crime really does not pay. Programs that provide good diets and medical care for disadvantaged children, which have large payoffs in the long run, should be strengthened rather than weakened.

To be effective, programs for the disadvantaged must begin when children are very young, since their handicaps worsen with age. Public retraining and other programs for unemployed adults often have little effect, because they cannot offset the cumulative impact of bad habits and inferior schooling. Even the best affirmative-action schemes do not bring unprepared minorities up to the level of the students and workers who gain their positions on merit alone.

Universities provide clear evidence of these effects. Data published in The New York Times on June 4 show that, on average, because of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students entering the University of California at Berkeley--the most prestigious part of the California system--had, much lower high school grade-point averages and scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test than whites and Asians. Black and Hispanic students admitted through special set-asides do much worse, too. The data indicate that the six-year graduation rate is only 59% for blacks and 64% for Hispanics, compared with 84% for whites and 88% for Asians.

RESENTMENT. The below-average records of blacks and Hispanics at Berkeley and other top universities caused by special admission standards undermines their confidence. It helps to perpetuate the worst stereotypes about minorities and feeds the resentment felt by whites and Asians who were not admitted because of minority set-asides.

But the inadequate performance of minorities in affirmative-action programs has nothing to do with the so-called Bell Curve or any other explanation based on the inferior mental capacities of minorities. White males also perform below average when they are admitted to universities and jobs with qualifications below those of others.

When I was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, black, female, Jewish, or other minority doctors, lawyers, and business executives were presumed to be better than average. Only the best candidates were accepted under the limited quotas available to them. Affirmative-action programs have reversed such judgments about qualifications. The average minority professional or businesswoman is often presumed to be of lower quality than the average white male in a comparable position. This attitude has caused considerable resentment among successful members of minority groups who have overcome obstacles to get where they are. Perhaps this is why a black businessman, Ward Connerly, proposed that California abolish affirmative-action programs for minority admissions at public universities.

It is surely time for quotas and set-asides to go. But Americans should support devoting even greater public effort to improving the opportunities of minority and other children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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