The Corner

Fifty Years of Affirmative Action Is Enough

This week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, and if there’s one thing that the Left hates, it’s pointing out that the practice of giving preferences on the basis of race — a.k.a. affirmative action — is quite at odds with Dr. King’s dream that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And so, of course, I have to do that.

They also hate it when it is pointed out that perhaps it is time to reconsider the justification and need for racial preferences, when the nation has an African-American president. And the leader of the other major political party has been an African-American for the last couple of years. And there are no WASPs on the Supreme Court. And Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and Marco Rubio and, well, you get the idea.

And, speaking of the president, his family also includes Asians, and his wife has both slave and slaveowner ancestors, and American Indian ancestors to boot, and the family of his predecessor, George W. Bush, includes Hispanics. Hispanics, indeed, now outnumber African Americans, and Asians are likewise a rapidly growing group. So this is an amazingly variegated nation, from the top down. (Speaking of which, university admission preferences now typically favor, not just blacks over whites, but Latinos over Asians. Where is the historical justification for that?)

At the same time, thank God, the efforts of Dr. King and other heroes of the civil-rights movement have resulted in the illegalization of school segregation and indeed, of racial discrimination in just about any other public transaction as well — in employment, housing, voting, education, public accommodations, lending, contracting, you name it.

Except, of course, that such discrimination is often tolerated when it is labeled affirmative action.

Given that discrimination is at odds with the ideals of the civil-rights movement, and given the transformation of American society just briefly outlined above, isn’t it time to end all racial and ethnic discrimination?

Here’s another reason why doing so would be especially fitting this year: March 6, 2011, will mark the 50th anniversary of the first time the phrase “affirmative action” was used in a civil-rights context, in an executive order signed by President Kennedy.

Ironically, it is clear that the phrase then meant taking positive steps, proactive measures — affirmative action, get it? — to make sure that racial discrimination did not occur, that individuals were treated “without regard” to race. But it did not take activists, bureaucrats, and judges long to turn the principle of nondiscrimination on its head.

In a country that it increasingly multiethnic and multiracial — where individual Americans, like our president, are more and more likely to be multiethnic and multiracial — it is simply untenable to have a legal regime that sorts people by skin color and what country their ancestors came from, and treats some better and others worse depending on which silly little box they check. To say nothing of the fact that an announced policy of racial double standards — we don’t expect as much from blacks and Latinos as we do from whites and Asians — can only feed the hoariest and most insulting and divisive of racial stereotypes.

So, yes, sorry about that, liberals: This is a very good time to call for an end to affirmative action, and to ask that all Americans be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Voters in California, Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, and Arizona have acted to end preferences on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sex. What will the new Congress do?

— Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

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