Jewish Journal

Rethinking Affirmative Action—-It’s About Time

by  David A. Lehrer

July 26, 2010 | 4:16 pm

Last night I appeared on Fox 11 News to participate in a debate segment prompted by Community Advocates’ recent op/ed in the Los Angeles Times about affirmative action and the University of California. My adversary was Prof. Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University (he heads the Center for the Study of Los Angeles).

Fernando’s position was essentially that the lawsuit that has been filed to declare Proposition 209 (which prohibits the state from discriminating against or giving preferences to anyone on the basis of “race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”) unconstitutional, is warranted. He argued that the UC is simply not doing enough to enroll minority students whose presence at the university ought to mirror the demographics of California’s high school graduating seniors (presumably,  independent of their individual qualifications.

The most current data available from the state (2005) reveals that some 36.5% of the high school graduates in California are Hispanic, 39.6% are white, 7.5% black and 10.2% Asian. Those compare with admission rates to the University of California for 2010 of Hispanic 23%, whites at 34%, blacks at 4.2% and Asians at 37.4%.

By Guerra’s logic, Asian Americans are over-represented by a factor of over 300% while Latinos, blacks and whites are under-represented. His argument seemed to be that the university must insure that its enrollees (not just its admits) should track the high school graduation data.  It then follows that there would be a lot of disappointed Asian Americans who would be told they can’t go to the UC were 209 to be repealed.

Clearly, if one thinks about the implications of such a policy—- the mere fact of graduation from high school says nothing about qualifications for admission to the UC—it would be terrible public policy were that ever to be the measure for admission.

What was most interesting about the debate on Fox 11, and in the wider discussion which continues about the role of affirmative action today, is the facile acceptance of the notion that the allocation of societal rewards via affirmative action should benefit “all people of color.” In California, Hispanics would be the big winner.

It has long been assumed that it would be political suicide to question the inclusion in affirmative action programs of recent immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa—-as most programs do. It became conventional wisdom shortly after affirmative action was enacted in the 1960’s (it was created with African-Americans in mind), that it should apply to all minorities of color no matter whether they had a history of suffering at the hands of the United States government and American society, as blacks did.

Last week, James Webb, a Democratic senator from Virginia, authored a provocative op/ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled,

Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege

. It may be the first shot across the bow to realign the decades-long debate over affirmative action.

Webb questions the basic assumption as to who affirmative action’s beneficiaries should be and why. He then proceeds to puncture the myth of “white America” as a monolith out of whose hide benefits should be taken as if they were collectively and individually the beneficiaries of a skewed system. The ripple effects of a Democratic senator writing a piece such as this are just beginning to be felt. It is worth a read.

It’s a discussion that has been a long-time in coming and which deserves attention


Which brings me back to the Fox 11 debate, 5 minutes just wasn’t enough time to explore the myriad issues that are stake in the debate over affirmative action in 2010 America.

The implications of the state allocating resources and benefits along racial and ethnic lines and determining who the winners and losers will be are profound. The assumptions that underpin affirmative action programs have been taken for granted for too long with little thought or introspection accompanying them—-it’s time to ask some tough questions. 

The voters of California took the state of California out of the business of discrimination for or against anyone on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, color or national origin—-a very wise decision.

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