Affirmative action: What are the alternatives? Mobility: Can America afford an inescapable underclass?

THE ARGUMENT

July 28, 1996|By David Kairys | David Kairys,Special to the Sun

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, just saying the words - affirmative action - evokes a gut, physical reaction. Anyone who pays even slight attention to the media these days knows how extreme things got back in the 1960s.

Imagine the gall, the irresponsibility, the inability to see that we were being unfair, even ... racist. No one should be surprised by the spate of recent books with nothing affirmative to say about it.

The idea was pretty simple. The courts had finally - a hundred years after the Civil War amendments - declared most forms of governmental discrimination unconstitutional. Congress passed the equal employment and public accommodations laws in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

But habits and stereotypes die hard. Even well-meaning gatekeepers to opportunities seldom diversify without a nudge - an affirmative action. We defined it as Webster's dictionary still does: "an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women."

The need for an active effort had been the experience of other minorities, who were integrated by affirmative action - though it didn't have that or any other name.

Preferential hiring and promotion in many of our large cities led to police, fire and other municipal departments that were almost all of Irish, German or Italian ancestry. Preferential hiring and nepotism in crafts, unions and industrial and financial companies was also common rather than an exception.

After experiencing often vicious discrimination, the Irish and Italians, Catholics, Mormons, Jews and many other groups got footholds in existing public and private institutions or formed their own. Then they hired their own.

African-Americans suffered oppression and discrimination surely worse than any of the immigrant groups - none other was enslaved, and it was never a crime to teach an Irish Catholic or a Russian Jew to read.

Integration is and always has been the issue. Over the course of one or two decades, from the mid-1950s to the mid- 1970s, the United States saw the first substantial entry in our history of African-Americans into the economy and social and political life of the nation. Some jobs and schools integrated; others didn't, or did on a token level.

As economist Barbara Bergmann details in "In Defense of Affirmative Action" (Basic Books, 213 pages, $23), many entry-level positions are still quite segregated, and racial and gender tracking and wide salary gaps are rampant. Some professions and crafts are still almost all white, and studies regularly show that white applicants for menial and skilled jobs are favored over equally qualified blacks.

The question facing us now, underlying but seldom discussed in the debate, is whether the integration process will continue.

Oops, there I go again, back into that 1960s thinking. But the alternative is already quite apparent - in the increasing separation and segregation of American life, and the failure of conservative opponents of affirmative action to propose any alternative mechanism or vision that embraces integration. They seem content with what looks like a developing American apartheid, deluding themselves and the American people that we can somehow thrive - or survive - by abandoning minorities, poor people and our cities.

Many conservatives concede that some affirmative action was necessary, but they don't tell us why they think we did enough. Surely they can't be thinking about the concrete circumstances in which the mass of African-Americans live in the 1990s. Nor could they be thinking that centuries of slavery, lynchings, destruction of families and segregation could be overcome by a decade or two of attempts to move toward equality - attempts often successfully opposed by conservatives.

Misinformation deluge

A new book, "Dismantling Desegregation" by Gary Orfield and ** Susan Eaton (New Press 496 pages, $30), shows that the conservative Supreme Court has halted school desegregation, and there is now a trend toward increasing segregation. Since the mid-1970s, the most successful group making discrimination claims before the Supreme Court has been white men!

Despite the deluge of misinformation depicting blacks as favored and whites as victims, disparities in jobs and wages are not much better now than they were in the segregated early 1960s. There is a black middle class, but in many ways the plight of most African-Americans is now worse. And despite frequent claims otherwise, affirmative action to achieve integration still receives majority approval in polls that avoid polarizing code words.

I know, colorblindness and merit are now the key ideas and the backbone of recent conservative books. We all of the sudden got colorblind - after all the treachery and preferential treatment - when it's African-Americans' time for integration. Maybe it's a coincidence.

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