The best path to diversity

January 31, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - It amuses me to hear the hyperventilated news reports about how Census figures are revealing that Hispanics now "officially" outnumber blacks in America.

Oh? Say, what about black Hispanics? What about - just for starters - Cuban, Mexican, Dominican and Puerto Rican blacks? Can they outnumber themselves? And what about blacks who are also some other race? Do they count?

In fact, the latest Census figures show that, as of July 2001, Hispanics or Latinos of any race now outnumber those of us who call ourselves simply "black" or "African American" by 37 million to 36.2 million. But if you add blacks who list at least one other race or ethnic group on their U.S. Census form, the number jumps back to the lead at 37.7 million.

But the "one-drop rule" that defined blacks as anyone with one drop of black blood is slowly falling out of fashion. The end of hard racial boundaries is good news, if it also means the end of racism. Unfortunately, it's too early to celebrate.

As the current fuss over the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, now before the Supreme Court, shows, America's old black-white argument has changed. Programs that try to boost black, Hispanic and American Indian college enrollment for the sake of "diversity," as Michigan's does, are denounced in some quarters for "discriminating" against whites and Asian-Americans.

Yet if the debate were that simple, it would have been settled long ago. Even President Bush decided against calling all considerations of race or ethnicity in college admissions unconstitutional. Instead, he chose to defend the virtue of "diversity" as a goal while denouncing Michigan's method for achieving it.

Instead, the White House argued in its legal brief filed on behalf of the rejected white applicants who were suing Michigan that there were other "race-neutral" ways to achieve diversity.

For example? The administration praised the percentage-programs implemented in Texas while Mr. Bush was governor, in Florida while his brother Jeb Bush has been governor, as well as in California. Those plans grant preference in each state's top universities to a particular percentage of top achievers in each of the state's high schools.

Percentage plans have much broader support than race-based plans because they seek racial diversity through geography. Only in a society as segregated by geography as ours can such a scheme work.

Unfortunately, it does not always achieve numbers as high as those reached by the more straightforward approach that Michigan takes, which is to award extra points to members of underrepresented groups.

Now a new reason has emerged in defense of Michigan's approach: It's good for business. Citing the benefits that a diverse work force brings in global markets, about four dozen blue-chip American companies reportedly have announced friend-of-the-court arguments in defense of the Michigan program.

Major corporations support affirmative action for a number of bottom-line reasons. Creating a diversity-friendly workplace helps them recruit from a rapidly diversifying talent pool. It helps them reach out to broader markets. It also helps reduce turnover and other labor costs, which tend to be the biggest expenses in most businesses.

But the so-called race-neutral programs won't work for the business world, many CEOs note. In fact, in using seemingly color-blind criteria, like one's home geography, to produce a specific racial result, percentage plans seek the sort of "disparate impact" that results in low numbers of women or minorities. Some companies have been sued over this.

Many companies fear their exposure to "disparate impact" lawsuits could only get worse, along with their labor costs, if they have a smaller pool of qualified black and Hispanic college graduates from which to hire and promote.

In this way, the affirmative action debate once again forces Americans to take a closer look at how fairly we make opportunities available, particularly now as we perch on the brink of America's most multiracial, multicultural century.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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