A negative result

April 21, 1995

David Edmonds on the campaign to outlaw affirmative action in the US. James Meredith wanted to study at his local state university. But when he sought to enrol there in 1962, President John F. Kennedy was forced to send in the federal troops. For Meredith was black, and this was Mississippi.

During two days of rioting, hundreds of frenzied whites battled with Federal marshals and the National Guard. Only when the Mississippi governor, a strong supporter of segregation, yielded to federal pressure, did Meredith finally enter the university.

It is easy to forget how recent the history of racial oppression in the United States is. In a bid to counter it, President Johnson, in the 1960s, introduced a set of laws and executive orders that came under the collective term of "affirmative action".

Provision was also made in employment for "set-asides", in which contracts from public bodies are set aside for minority-owned businesses. But just as controversially, affirmative action took root in higher education.

Now it is facing its most sustained attack - launched from one of America's most prestigious colleges, the University of California at Berkeley. Two professors, Glynn Custred and Thomas Wood, have begun the task of collecting 616,000 signatures on a petition to force a state-wide referendum to outlaw affirmative action. They share, they say, Martin Luther King's dream, that people be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

Berkeley has a famous tradition of anti-establishment protest, so it is a somewhat incongruous headquarters for a conservative anti-affirmative action drive.

Higher education as a whole, however, is a familiar arena for affirmative-action battles. The most significant, Bakke vs. the University of California in 1978, concerned a white man, Alan Bakke, who had been rejected twice from medical school, even though his grades were higher than those of some minority students who were accepted. The university had introduced a quota system, reserving a certain number of places for minorities. The Supreme Court ruled that quotas were constitutionally illegal and Bakke won the case. But the court did allow for race to be taken into account as one consideration among many.

This led colleges to refine their affirmative-action programmes. Berkeley's dean of admissions, Bob Laird, says: "The efforts to which universities go to recruit talented African-Americans is equal to the efforts that go into the recruitment of talented athletes."

Yet it is the easing of academic requirements for minorities that has caused the greatest resentment. The gap between white and black scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test, which helps determine which student gains access to which college, remains large, and African-Americans as well as Hispanics are routinely accepted with lower grades.

Many African-Americans believe this is merely compensation for past wrongs. However, a justification that treats people not as individuals but as members of a disadvantaged group has dangers. It is seen as anomalous, for example, when a rich African-American gets preference over a poor white.

A small but growing number of black academics are now voicing their own doubts about affirmative action. Randall Kennedy at Harvard says: "I know when I go into the lecture room on the very first day of class there are a number of students who are saying to themselves, 'Hmmm, I wonder if Kennedy is a real Harvard Law School professor'." Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, laments the so-called "best-black syndrome" - the perception among whites that a black student or faculty member is simply one of the best blacks, rather than deserving of a place in his or her own right.

Most whites claim to support an entirely meritocratic system. That would benefit both blacks and whites, it is said: whites would not feel hard done by and no stigma would be attached to black success because it would be perceived to have been fairly earned.

There is some hypocrisy in all this. In higher education "meritocratic" criteria are transgressed in many ways. The system, for example, favours the sons and daughters of alumni.

A stronger objection is that affirmative action has been remarkably ineffective, with almost no narrowing in the gulf between white and black educational attainment. The higher the level, the greater the gap - only two per cent of PhDs are now awarded to African-Americans, who constitute around 13 per cent of the population. Nor is it any good granting affirmative-action access to students if they are not going to finish their studies. The black drop-out rate is more than 50 per cent.

Whatever the arguments, opinion polls have repeatedly revealed the profound unpopularity of affirmative action. It now seems likely that the Berkeley professors will raise the requisite number of signatures and then win the vote. In California at least, affirmative action is a practice that could soon be outlawed.

David Edmonds is a producer on Britain Today, a World Service news programme.

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