Affirming affirmative action

June 24, 1996|By Tom Teepen

ATLANTA -- Affirmative action is accomplishing for this country -- yes, for all of it -- exactly the good ends that were hoped for when the policy was eased into place a generation ago. If we quit it now, as many would have us do, we will do so in quite conscious knowledge of the damage we would be doing to ourselves.

A slew of recent studies reports good news. Take education.

African Americans are earning college and graduate degrees in record numbers. (Ditto Hispanics and Asian Americans.) Yes, black students remain under-represented in colleges and universities and have higher dropout rates. Black men trail black women in gains. Still, blacks logged 1,287 Ph.D.s last year, a record. Black college enrollment was up another 2.5 percent. Between 1990 and '94, it increased 16 percent.

Over all, minorities in the '90s have increased their number of associate degrees by 8.6 percent, bachelor degrees by 9.3 percent, masters by 10.4 percent and professional degrees (medicine, law, dentistry) by 13.9 percent.

In 1970, there were five times more school dropouts than college grads in the black work force. By 1990, it was about even. In the same period, the percentage of blacks age 25-44 who had attended college for any time rose from 14.2 to 44.2. The payoffs are an abler work force and an upgraded economy for everyone.

Credit, first, the ability, grit and ambition of the students themselves, but credit affirmative action as well for creating the opportunities. It has opened routes clotted at one end by the habits and calculations of racism and at the other by a fatalism born of the failure of the common cause-and-effect formulas to deliver for black America: Hard work didn't usually -- didn't even very often -- get you places. Why try?

Black expectations

One of the triumphs of affirmative action -- quiet and unquantifiable but in the long run potentially the most telling -- has been the revolution it has wrought in black expectations. Ambition finally makes sense. These gains, however, are fragile, and they are under assault on several fronts.

Political: Opposition to affirmative action has become the current Republican version of Richard Nixon's hateful ''Southern strategy.'' The GOP can't stop dealing the race card.

Legal: A federal appeals court in Texas has held that race may not animate a college's interest in a student; it is the sole excluded factor. Another federal appellate court has barred publicly funded race-specific scholarships, though other, privately targeted scholarships (for Italian Americans, caddies, you name it) are OK.

And financial: Congress is, in the trendy word, defunding affirmative action. This year it killed the Patricia Harris fellowships that were providing $20 million in aid to about 1,200 minority graduate scholars.

Where affirmative action creates specific white victims, the injustice must be redressed, but the policy deserves to be judged on its broad success, not by its rare missteps. White louts have gone back to burning black churches. This is no time for the rest of us to be burning bridges, too.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for the Atlanta Constitution.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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