The argument over affirmative action has often been cast simplistically as an issue of self-help versus special preferences. Now a new report by the Population Reference Bureau calls into question the very terms of the traditional debate. Its new study, "African Americans in the 1990s," documents a growing gap between affluent blacks and those left behind. Since the late 1960s, the study found, there has been a nearly four-fold increase in the former; yet 30 percent of blacks remain mired in poverty.
These are among America's most disadvantaged citizens, trapped in deteriorating inner cities where they are subject to the myriad scourges of crime, underfunded schools, dysfunctional families and poor health. Yet the paradox is that affirmative action, meant to level the playing field, in practice often has the least impact on those most burdened by discrimination -- because those at the bottom are simply so ill-prepared to take advantage of any opportunities affirmative action might present.
This is not an argument against affirmative action. There is no question that for those lucky enough to extricate themselves from the morass of poverty and despair of the inner city, the assurance of equal opportunity in employment, education and housing is a powerful instrument of upward mobility. The rapid expansion of the black middle class over the past 20 years would have been impossible without such guarantees. But the backlash over affirmative action, that it is "unfair" to whites, has had the perverse effect of obscuring the more basic question of "fairness" for the nearly one-third of blacks who are still suffering the worst effects of past and present racial discrimination. Instead of endlessly urging people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, a more humane society must first ensure that all its citizens have boots.