Affirmative Action Is Dead; Let’s Move On : Quotas killed a good idea. We need to redefine the concept to fix class disparities.

<i> James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. </i>

Since affirmative action is going to end, we ought to start thinking about what should replace it. Today, the anti-quota cloud on the horizon is no bigger than a fist, but one doesn’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the storm front is blowing. The California Civil Rights Initiative, sure to be on the ballot next year, will terminate the Golden State’s racial preferences. And that thunderclap will help demolish the legal structure of quotas across America.

Four pillars have upheld the current system as it mutated from equal opportunity into mandatory racial allocations. But soon, all four will fall like dominoes.

The first domino is public opinion. Poll data is sketchy because pollsters don’t frame questions about race in the same stark terms as Middle Americans do when they gather around their kitchen tables. But the pro-quota forces must know that they can’t win at the ballot box; that’s why they have always looked to the courts and the bureaucracy to do their legal trench work.

The second domino is Congress. We will look back at the 1993 nomination of Lani Guinier for the Justice Department’s top civil-rights post as a turning point. She was “qualified” in terms of legal acumen, but her out-of-the-mainstream views rendered her unfit in the eyes of even the Democratic-controlled Senate. Today, not only is Congress Republican, but it’s led by Southerners. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas is the closest thing to a Yankee in the GOP leadership; the rest are from places like Georgia, Mississippi and Texas.


The third domino is the executive branch. The President’s latest survival idea is the “middle-class bill of rights”; he’ll do as little as possible for the non-middle in the next two years. Besides, Clinton, having shot his wad on health care, is mostly irrelevant to the future debate--and will be even more so after 1996.

The fourth domino is the judiciary. It’s said that the Supreme Court follows election returns; if so, then the first new indicator may be the case of Adarand Constructors vs. Federico Pena, argued before the court this week, in which a white Colorado contractor who was the low bidder challenges a federal highway contract awarded to a minority. But whatever the court decides, the judicial armor around quotas will persist for awhile. Plenty of lifetime-tenured judges remain loyal to the quota programs they helped create, but if those liberal judges are not replaced with like-minded activists, then those programs will die off as their protectors pass from the scene.

So what will come next? The sad part of this story is that affirmative action is not a bad idea. Quotas, however, are a terrible idea. In the short run they are merely divisive; in the long run they summon up, from the base of people’s brains, the furies of unintended consequences. Those who, with the best of intentions, have emphasized racial categories at the expense of colorblindness must bear some responsibility for legitimizing the racially categorizing thinking that results. One such result is “The Bell Curve,” the book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein that speculates on the linkage between race and IQ. Further down that same unpleasant road lie backlash, breakup and Bosnia-ization.

So the first challenge should be to separate voluntary multiracial outreach from what critics call a racial spoils system. That’s not easy to do, but the American people support a merit system that allows Colin Powell, Maya Angelou, Bill Cosby and everyone else to climb as far as their talents will take them.


Second, we should focus on those who most need help. Are middle-class African Americans more deserving than poor Scotch-Irish from Appalachia? Are Aleuts and Pacific Islanders really more discriminated against than Arab Americans? Since not everyone can get special treatment, people of goodwill need to redefine affirmative action along class lines, on the principle that society’s first obligation is to uplift the poor. The current quota system does nothing for the underclass, including the 10,000 young black men killed by guns every year.

The once and future high ground on civil rights was best expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever embraces his words, in which he looked forward to the day when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” will deserve victory in the coming debate.