Saturday, December 11, 2004

Affirmative Action: An Alternative to Race-Based Preferences

One of the most stirring examples of oratory in our national heritage is Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream Speech'. It is a fact that the Democratic administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson championed the Civil Rights Act, but it is a myth that Republicans formed the opposition to its passage. A significantly higher percentage of Republicans in both the House and the Senate supported passage than their Democratic counterparts. In fact, not a single Democratic senator from the South supported the Act. Not exactly something you learn in school, is it?

The guiding principle behind conservative opposition to race-based preferences is in fact contained in MLK's great speech. "I have a dream that my four 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," said the great activist, and an inspirational dream it is. I have never understood how racial discrimination could be the solution to racial discrimination.

Does this imply a lack of concern for the less fortunate? I contend that it need not be so. A person's race is an accident of should be no more relevant to our nation's policies than eye color or height. (I'm not turning a blind eye to cultural differences between different races and nations, nor am I denying that real racism exists. However, because an ideal - in this case a colorblind society - doesn't exist, should we then fail to strive for it?) A more equitable solution to a permanent underclass would be to replace race with economic factors in our affirmative action programs.

The disadvantages of poverty are undeniable, for all races. The poorest half of the population provides only 10% of the students at our nation's top 146 universities. Richard Kahlenberg, author of 'The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action', suggests that universities could look at the following factors:
  • parental income;
  • parental occupation(s);
  • parental education;
  • family structure;
  • wealth or net worth;
  • neighborhood poverty rate;
  • school concentration of poverty.
He argues that all of these are quantifiable, but I would strike out parental occupation, education and family structure. This would leave four hard statistical categories: a parent's income and net wealth, the poverty rate of the applicant's neighborhood, and the concentration of poverty at the applicant's school. These factors provide a much more reliable indicator of a disadvantaged background than a person's skin color.

What about the workplace? What kind of quantification could exist there? Should affirmative action policies exist in this realm? I think not. I can't fathom how a person sitting on an interview board is supposed to have the knowledge and wisdom to determine which job applicant has the right economic background in comparison to the company as a whole, nor can I believe that that same person can rationally choose the right man or woman for the job if the need to meet a racial quota is stressed. The marketplace has a way of ensuring diversity, by punishing those companies with exclusionary policies by way of boycotts and negative publicity.

One added benefit, though not the primary one, is that economic affirmative action is popular. The aforementioned Richard Kahlenberg points out in the Chronicle of Higher Education that broad majorities in three seperate polls oppose race-based affirmative action, but support preferences based on economic disadvantage.

In Election 2008, the Republican Party should embrace true affirmative action to help all poor Americans, regardless of racial background. The time has come to bring Dr. King's dream to fruition.

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