Clearing up the facts on affirmative action

Last week, Willie Brown, the Speaker of the California State Assembly caused quite a ruckus when he said that those who are opposing affirmative action programs are engaging in racism. It is remarkable that Brown, a Democrat, is still Speaker in a predominately Republican Legislature. That he went in front of them and made a statement that borders on heresy could, depending on how one looks at it, be a sign of tremendous chutzpah or the ill-timed remarks of one bent on political suicide.

Brown's statements are just another volley in the intermittent tennis match that is the affirmative action debate. Has it outlived its usefulness? Is it reverse discrimination? Was it ever needed? Are unqualified minorities receiving preferential treatment? I certainly don't accept Brown's statement in full. But before these questions are answered, it is necessary to clarify what is affirmative action most people really don't know and how it differs from equal opportunity legislation.

Equal opportunity laws generally say that discrimination based on race, nationality, sometimes gender (that is why women's universities can still exclude men), etc. is unlawful. Institutions of higher learning that receive public money, as well as places of employment, public and private, are bound by these laws in some form or another and, as such, subject to penalties for violating them. This is where affirmative action comes in. Affirmative action programs aren't mandated unless the business or college has shown a clear pattern of malicious discrimination. Sort of like making a grand larcenist pay the victims back, even if he/she has bought a family home with all the stolen assets. Some, of course, have stayed one step ahead of the government, implementing programs of their own volition. Race-specific set-asides, or "quotas," don't exist in higher education. Obviously, they would conflict with the equal opportunity laws. The Supreme Court outlawed them 17 years ago, in the Bakke vs. Board of Regents case, declaring them unconstitutional. In the private sector, however, a company that knows it has discriminated in the past can create ameliorative programs that have race specific guidelines on it's own. This is not to be confused with affirmative action. Affirmative action programs cannot use any semblance of set-asides. In short, affirmative action programs are federally imposed on entities only proven to discriminate.

It's not the mere challenge to the validity of the programs themselves that is troubling; this is a democracy, and no one loves debate more than myself. (There are some programs, like the government contracting ones, that are questionable.) It's the false premises, ironies, red herrings, and incomplete pictures that are fueling the debate.

One false premise is the reverse discrimination argument. The Congress and various state legislatures created these guidelines. Since there has never in this nation's history been a Congress or legislature, or State or U.S. Supreme Court that has been less than 70 percent white male, there must be an enormous amount of self-hatred going on here. But, honestly, the employment figures bear out the ridiculousness of this argument. Whites have the lowest unemployment figures to this day.

This brings me to an irony. Notice how I said "whites," and not "white males"? That is because the tendency by all opponents of these programs is to look upon them as benefiting only smaller "minority" groups. The most populous group in America, white females, have also been the greatest beneficiaries of these programs.

Incomplete pictures abound in this debate, such as the one painted by Linda Chavez in the Feb. 14 USA Today. In her column, she states that last year, UC Berkeley rejected 2,800 white applicants with 4.0 GPAs, while half of the blacks and Hispanics admitted had sub-3.6 GPAs. What she didn't say is that there were also white students admitted with similar numbers. The problem with her analysis is that she didn't take into account that more administrators, as employers, are realizing that numbers don't tell the whole story of someone's preparedness. I mean, who would you want in your finance program? A 4.0 math whiz who aced a high school economics class, or someone with a 3.5 who started her own detailing business and won an award as an intern at Merrill Lynch? CBS News reported Monday that to employers, grades are secondary.

Some charge that affirmative action was meant to be temporary, and has dragged on too long. They are half right. The programs are meant to be temporary, on an individual basis. When these programs were implemented, they weren't with the naive idea that all companies would change immediately. Some had to get caught violating the law. In addition, isn't it in keeping with conservative thought that a company that wants to fix itself be allowed to?

We need to proceed with caution when attacking any program, and see the entire picture. This debate shouldn't be a vehicle for politicians to turn into victims those in the majority who are simply devoid of skill or any sense of purpose.

Tyrone Henry is a political science senior.

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