In 1996 voters in California approved the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a measure that forbids the use of race, gender, or ethnicity as criteria in state hiring or public university admissions. No longer would businesses and universities be required to adhere to affirmative action guidelines that mandated minority representation in the workforce or student body. The passage of the CCRI effectively put an end to more than thirty years of affirmative action in the state of California, and sparked a fiery debate over the continued need for affirmative action programs.
Affirmative action was part of the legislation that came out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was designed by federal lawmakers to ensure that a certain percentage of African Americans (the program was later expanded to include women and other minorities) were represented in business, higher education, and government offices. When affirmative action was first introduced in the mid-1960s, it attracted little opposition. America was just emerging from the Jim Crow period, an era of racial segregation and state-supported discrimination against African Americans. Many black Americans lived in poverty, a result of centuries of slavery and racist mistreatment. The rate of unemployment in the black community was double the rate found in the white community, and inner-city neighborhoods, where many African Americans were forced to live, were saddled with substandard schools and crumbling tenement housing. Many citizens at the time felt that affirmative action was needed to address the grim conditions that plagued the black community, and open the doors of opportunity that had been previously locked to African Americans.
Today, however, many critics contend that affirmative action has outlived its usefulness. “For black people during the 1960s there was a presumption of inferiority, affirmative action was the shock treatment to change our culture,” says Ward Connerly, one of the architects of the CCRI. According to Connerly, however, America is no longer the inherently racist society it was in the days of Jim Crow. Statistics cited by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, authors of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, appear to back Connerly’s notion that the situation for black Americans has vastly improved. According to the Thernstroms, 40 percent of black Americans now consider themselves members of the middle class. Forty-two percent own their own homes and almost a third of the black population lives in suburbia. Because the American dream is realizable for black people today, Ward Connerly argues that “it is really hard to defend affirmative-action preferences. The only arguments you can use are either that we need diversity just for the sake of diversity, or that America is still racist. You have to embrace one of those two. And you find that you can’t win those arguments at the end of the day.”
Other opponents of affirmative action argue that the program was only a temporary policy meant to redress those who felt the sting of liv- ing under Jim Crow laws. Former California governor Pete Wilson contends that those who benefit from affirmative action today are granted preferential treatment “based not on past discrimination, but simply on being born into a protected group.” To continue using affirmative action policies, Wilson argues, would be unfair to those who were not members of protected groups. “Even the architects of this system of special preferences never intended that it would last forever,” declares Wilson. “No one, in fact, envisioned that redressing two centuries of unfairness would launch a whole new era of unfairness. But it has.”
While many supporters of affirmative action concede that discrimination is not as terrible as it was during the Jim Crow period, and that the black community has made considerable economic advances, they still attest that racism and discriminatory practices have not been entirely eradicated. According to a 1998 study conducted by the Fair Housing Council in Washington, D.C., minorities are discriminated against 40 percent of the time they attempt to rent apartments or buy homes. Congressman Robert C. Scott, citing another study conducted that year by the Fair Employment Council and Urban Institute, revealed that “African-American and Latino job applicants suffer blatant and easily identifiable discrimination once in every five times they apply for a job.” Furthermore, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission reports that African-American men with a bachelor’s degree earn as much as $15,180 less than their white counterparts.
Supporters of affirmative action also point to declining minority admission rates at prestigious California schools in the wake of CCRI as evidence that discrimination still exists in higher education. Of the 828 students admitted to the law school at the University of California at Berkeley in 1997, only fifteen were black. In the year prior to the implementation of the CCRI, seventy-five black students were admitted. Supporters of affirmative action argue that these numbers are proof that an admissions system based only on grades and SAT scores is culturally biased and that affirmative action programs are needed to ensure minority students a place at America’s most prestigious institutes of higher learning.
Advocates of affirmative action argue that as long as racism is present in institutes of higher education and the professional world, raceconscious policies will be needed to ensure minorities a fair chance at success. They contend that the programs balance white privilege—preferential treatment granted to white people simply because they are white. “The favoritism for certain groups in the United States is so strong that it can only be remedied by actively encouraging the promotion of other groups,” declares Paul Butler, an associate professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. “Specifically, favoritism for white people in the United States is such a strong, inviolable part of our country that for African Americans to have a fair chance, they have to be actively considered.”
In the thirty years since the inception of affirmative action, the conditions that the programs were supposed to alleviate continue to plague the black community. According to Derrick Bell, author of Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, “The unemployment rate for blacks is two and a half times the rate for whites. . . . Black per-capita income is not even two-thirds of the income for whites; and blacks . . . are three times more likely to have income below the poverty level than whites.” While at the same time, a Heritage Foundation study conducted in the early 1990s indicates that the black middle class grew by more than 30 percent during the 1980s, and the ranks of black professionals increased by 75 percent. Whether or not these statistics indicate a continued need for affirmative action is the topic debated in At Issue: Affirmative Action.