During this past year of heated political battle on the affirmative action front, liberal defenders of continued ethnic preference programs—from President Clinton to Jesse Jackson and beyond—have repeatedly suggested compromises prohibiting “unqualified” individuals from receiving such benefits. Many observers—myself included—had long regarded such arguments as specious, being based on a mixture of cynicism and semantics: very few current beneficiaries of preferences are truly unqualified, while a great many are lesser qualified, except for the color of their skin. It was difficult to imagine even the most ardent quota-monger actually selecting an officially “unqualified” individual from among a pool of applicants.
So much for theory. Gov. Pete Wilson has now announced his intention to place on the California Supreme Court a former aide, repeatedly and overwhelmingly rated “unqualified” for the position by the bipartisan judicial review board. This would represent the first time in California history that such a failing grade had simply been ignored for a Supreme Court nominee.
Ah, but Janice Brown, the former aide in question, is a black woman, of which our High Court currently has none, and so by her very presence and life experiences can bring a unique perspective to the judicial decision-making process, whether or not she can properly analyze legal precedents or draft an opinion. Until recently, such an argument of “qualification through diversity” might have come naturally to Gov. Wilson, a lifelong and committed supporter of affirmative action policies and minority set-asides. But in 1995 he underwent a sudden metamorphosis into Presidential-Candidate Wilson, America’s leading foe of such preferences, the man who promised to restore colorblind merit to our society from his meritocratic perch in the White House. Apparently giving seventeen-year-old black girls an admissions boost into the University of California now ranks among the greatest evils in our society, while placing 47-year-old “unqualified” black women on the Supreme Court is a sign of compassion and outreach.
The issues raised here are far more substantial than the typical “do what I say not what I do” of most hypocritical politicians and the cronyism of all too many gubernatorial appointments. Today, growing numbers of liberals and Democrats have begun to find the courage to reclaim their Hubert Humphrey heritage by standing up against our nation’s disastrous ethnic separatist policies, affirmative action among them, on grounds of principle. Given the vehemence with which the beneficiaries of our current racial spoils system will fight to retain their perks—and the power of this lobby within the Democratic Party—such a stance does not attract the faint-hearted.
The courage of such brave Democrats is cruelly betrayed if Republicans prove right those cynics who have insisted from the beginning that the highest principle involved in the affirmative action debate was that of the election-year wedge-issue, to be exploited then discarded after use, much like George Bush’s “read my lips—no new taxes” pledge. Yet this seems exactly how many Republicans regard the topic: bad “quotas” are when Democrats appoint incompetent Democrats based on race and gender; good “outreach” is when Republicans do exactly the same, but with the party labels switched. This is not the sort of principled stance which can unite a racially divided society.
Exactly this sort of symmetrical hypocrisy is shown by all sides in the related UC Board of Regents controversy. It now seems clear that most members of the Board have regularly used their positions to boost the university admissions chances of favored applicants, mostly the children of friends, business associates, or political allies. Those Regents most committed to retaining ethnic preferences allegedly aimed at providing opportunity for the poor and the downtrodden were apparently eager to provide even greater opportunity for the rich and the powerful, regardless of race; while those opposing non-merit preferences in the general case, quietly supported them when it came to particular political contributors. All this petty favoritism had been going on for years, indulged in by liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican alike, and even institutionalized in the form of special UC admissions review committees, until the bitter feelings aroused by the affirmative action battle blew apart this cozy little arrangement. The “good old boys” network which so often forms a part of liberal demonology actually does exist, but leading liberals now constitute an integral part of it.
The likely end of racial preference programs in our society cannot avoid being accompanied by a ferocious political battle—too many deep interests are at stake. But the battle will be far more damaging to our nation if the defenders of the status quo become convinced that their foes are using the rhetoric of colorblind merit and equal opportunity for all to mask an actual concern with polling data, focus group results, and potential victories in marginal seats. Any sincere observer recognizes that the end of affirmative action will inflict substantial short-term losses on certain groups in our society. If these losses are inflicted cynically, for crass political motives, then the wounds produced will take much longer to heal.