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The Dying Debate Over Racial Justice

On November 7 Michigan voters chose to end affirmative action preferences based on race or gender in education, government jobs and government contracting. But something else may have ended as well: the national debate on affirmative action. This does not mean that affirmative action’s job is done. It does not mean that racial minorities are a declining part of the population — in fact, immigration and relatively high fertility rates among African Americans and Latinos ensure that just the opposite is true. It means that Americans may no longer feel collective responsibility to end racial and gender inequalities — and in particular disadvantage among blacks.

The national debate has ended in two senses. First, the fighting is dying out. Political and legal forces have been whittling away at affirmative action for at least a decade and a half. These forces have met increasingly limp resistance. Simply put, we hear fewer vigorous arguments in favor of the policy, and no one argues for its expansion or strengthening.

Second, fewer are paying attention to the fighting that is occurring. Consider the national headlines on November 8. The stem cell referendum in Missouri saw front-page coverage. Ditto for the South Dakota proposal to ban abortion. Anti-gay marriage referenda also gained attention. Yet for those outside of Michigan, we had to dig around to find the results of the affirmative action referendum.

The issue has fallen far off the national agenda. Ten years ago, Republican leaders were writing opinion articles in national newspapers criticizing the policy. President Clinton was urging policy makers to “mend it, don’t end it.” A state’s effort to end it, in this context, was big news, as it was when California voters did so in 1996 and when the citizens of Washington state followed suit in 1998.

The end of the affirmative action debate does not mean the issue is resolved in Washington. Though both parties mostly avoid the issue, the courts do not. It was only three years ago, in a case involving the University of Michigan, that the Supreme Court said that affirmative action preferences were acceptable to achieve the goal of racial diversity in university admissions. The Supreme Court again has affirmative action cases on the docket, and the results of the Michigan referendum will be fought over in the courts for the next few years. Though the addition of new conservative justices suggests the policy’s days are numbered, for now it remains a vital part of federal law, as well as many state laws and university admissions policies.

But the end of the affirmative action debate suggests that Americans — including both political parties — are no longer interested in racial inequality, in particular the problems of black America. The two policies long identified in the public mind as “black” policies — affirmative action and welfare — have both been severely retrenched in the last several years. As political scientist Paul Frymer has argued, Democrats take for granted the support of black voters. They worry more about alienating white voters by being too closely identified with black interests. Consequently, Democrats have not pushed for a major policy initiative for blacks or other minorities in decades and they do not put up great resistance to retrenchment efforts.

What is odd about affirmative action falling off the political map is that the number of beneficiaries of the policy is growing every day. Immigration — especially from Latin America but also Asia — is bringing about a million new people to America every year, and the vast majority will be affirmative-action eligible. Latinos are already a greater proportion of the population than are blacks, whose numbers are growing at a much slower clip. By 2020, the Census Bureau projects that Latinos will be nearly 18% of the American population, while blacks will remain near 13%.

Despite this explosive growth of the Latino population, affirmative action has not come to be seen as a “Latino issue.” One might think that a group whose growth is driven mostly by voluntary immigration and high birth rates might provoke cries of protest from Americans accustomed to complaining about preferences for “undeserving minorities.” Consider that most Latinos chose to come to the United States, with many coming after the passage of civil rights laws, while African Americans are still overwhelmingly the descendants of slaves who never asked to come to America in the first place. But Latino immigration has done little to shape the affirmative action debate; it is still seen as a “black” policy.

It appears that Americans are simply much more bothered by preferences for blacks than they are preferences for Latinos. Similar to the way that affirmative action for women does not produce the same heat and rage as affirmative action for blacks — defenders have tried for years to get Americans to think of the policy as help for the wives, mothers, sisters or daughters of America — the same is true of Latinos. If you ask Americans if they support affirmative action preferences for Latinos, polls show they are likely to say no. But just as Americans do not debate affirmative action as a policy for women, they usually do not think of the policy in terms of Latinos.

To be sure, there is no great embrace of the growing Latino population, as the immigration controversy shows. Yet what is striking here is that this debate remains narrowly focused on the question of illegal immigration. It is a law-and-order issue. There is almost no attention paid to legal immigration, or the needs and problems of these workers, or of the second and third generations. Latinos might face discrimination, or attend poor schools or be mired in poverty. But these issues, like the challenges facing black America, are not on the agenda.

It is still possible that critics of affirmative action will begin to highlight the inclusion of Latino immigrants in their arguments against the policy. But the Michigan vote and the broader lack of concern for it suggest that will be unnecessary. For those on the right still interested in ending affirmative action, the best plan is to stand back and the let the courts do the work. For the left, despite the Democratic victories in the House and Senate, the situation suggests a crisis. Collective responsibility for the disadvantaged — including those disadvantaged by virtue of their race and gender — was a pillar of liberalism. If Americans are no longer interested, liberals will need to re-frame policies such as affirmative action so that they appeal to the self-interest of voters. Or they will need to rethink the meaning of liberalism itself.

John D. Skrentny is a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author, most recently, of “The Minority Rights Revolution” (Harvard University Press, 2002).

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