Clearly understanding the affirmative action debate

Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action and American Values by
Christopher Edley Jr. Farra, Straus and Giroux, 1996 New York 294 pages
Hardback: $25.00

Increasingly, affirmative action has become a commanding issue in
our nation’s political life. In the early months of the recent
presidential campaign, Republican candidates, looking to boost their
campaigns by tapping into supposed voter dissatisfaction with such
policies, loudly opposed affirmative action programs. Yet both
California Governor Pete Wilson and U.S. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas,
leading the loudest attacks on affirmative action, failed to draw any
national momentum from the issue, and their presidential candidacies
quickly died.

While such political opportunism failed to boost anti-affirmative
action presidential candidates, the success in last fall’s elections of
California Proposition 209, which bans racial and gender preferences in
state government, has brought forth a more profound and significant
challenge to affirmative action policies.

Passage of the referendum has drawn the opposition of civil rights
groups, which convinced a federal judge in California to block
implementation of the new law after he declared that it was probably
unconstitutional. However, the judge was overturned by a three-judge
panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco which
ruled the proposition constitutional. Civil rights groups have asked
the court to allow the order to block implementation of the proposal to
remain in place while the case is appealed, and the U.S. Department of
justice has announced that it will join efforts to block Proposition
209’s implementation to prevent it from undermining federal civil
rights policy.

As affirmative action continues to make headlines in 1997, some
analysts and thinkers hope the debate will help the American people to
consider the hard choices about race within our national policies and
private practices. When complicated disputes arise — as demonstrated
by the struggle between California and the federal government —
citizens ought to have a clear understanding of the laws, policies and
values at stake. But helping citizens to gain clear understanding of
issues is not something anyone should expect from politicians in the
midst of a political fight.

In his book, Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action and
American Values, Harvard University law school professor Christopher
Edley Jr. sets his sights on helping readers “better understand why the
affirmative action, and racial justice debates generally, are so
difficult.”

The professor wants readers to grasp the fundamental values that
underlie the affirmative action debate. For example, the age-old
tension between the ideal of limited government and the vision of
activist government represents part of the values struggle inherent to
the affirmative action debate, according to the author.

Few individuals bring as much academic and government experience to
the task of appraising affirmative action as Edley. A veteran of two
national presidential campaigns and former political appointee in the
Carter and Clinton administrations, Edley knows the political realities
accompanying the current battles over affirmative action better than
most. Having a sensible debate about affirmative action is what Edley
believes will lead to the most appropriate policies. He draws upon his
experience in government to guide us through that debate.

“People intensely concerned about affirmative action … whether
for or against … rarely work hard to understand the arguments on both
sides and to figure out how to persuade others,” declares Edley, who
labors to help the readers understand arguments on both sides by
carefully evaluating each position early on in his book.

His six-month appointment in 1995 as Special Counsel to the
President to manage a White House review on affirmative action forms
the basis for the book. He has described the process of writing the
book as similar to briefing President Bill Clinton during the White
House review.

Clinton, who ordered the White House review, defended affirmative
action before a national television audience with the “Mend it, don’t
end it” speech on July 19, 1995 at the National Archives in Washington,
D.C. Edley, who takes a certain pride in Clinton’s defense, sees the
speech as an achievement for the White House review on affirmative
action.

Edley advises, “The first order of business is not to pick a side
and mobilize arguments in support of it, but rather to investigate why
an important policy debate has the structure that it does and why the
choice is hard.”

He outlines three contemporary perspectives on affirmative action
which include: the color-blind vision; the
opportunity/anti-discrimination vision; and the remediation plus
inclusion vision.

The race-neutral, color-blind vision objects to affirmative action
policies that use race-conscious decision-making except in very narrow
remedial circumstances. In other words, the color-blind vision would
prohibit affirmative action programs that used race as a criteria in
decision-making to award opportunity. In situations where
discrimination was proven to have an impact on a specific victim or
group of victims, the color-blind vision would then permit
race-conscious remedial action. Its supporters advocate that
race-neutral opportunity programs replace race-conscious measures.

According to Edley, conservatives have begun to promote class-based
and geography-based opportunity programs as an alternative to
affirmative action policies with racial and gender preferences.
However, he says one of the shortcomings of the conservative approach
to the color-blind vision is when conservatives “say that
race-conscious measures should be abandoned in favor of race-neutral
social welfare measures, and in the very same breath they attack those
same measures for being ineffective and undeserving of fiscal support,
if not indeed contrary to some set of principles about the proper role
of government.”

The opportunity/anti-discrimination vision described by Edley
advances the notion that race-conscious decision-making is justified to
remedy past discrimination. Policies resulting from this vision allows
that “race may be one among several factors used flexibly to remedy
discrimination and to promote equal opportunity where past or societal
discrimination has diminished opportunity.”

The vision of remediation plus inclusion goes somewhat further than
opportunity/anti-discrimination by saying that race-conscious
decision-making not only should remedy past discrimination but it
should boost diversity and inclusion in institutions where racial
exclusion may not have resulted from past discrimination. Edley cites
President Clinton’s 1992 pledge to make his Cabinet “look like America”
as an example of the remediation plus inclusion vision.

According to Edley, inclusion is thus viewed as a means to improve
the performance of an organization, government agency or business.
Inclusion or diversity means an urban police force would hire minority
officers to become more representative of the community it serves, and
thus more effective. It also means that an institution brings in
minorities or women to benefit from their input and diverse
perspectives.

Overall, Edley has written a useful book in helping us to
understand why the affirmative action debate is a critical and highly
complex one. Readers will find Not All Black and White particularly
valuable because it provides an informed view of the struggle over
affirmative action, and how it relates to the gap between the races in
America.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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