Affirmative Action: What Do We Owe One Another?

Debate exposes the blind spots among both liberals and conservatives

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TOO many of the proponents of affirmative action have been reluctant to see the defects in their programs, but those who now so eagerly work to dismantle those programs display a willful blindness of their own.

First, the liberals' defects.

When defenders of the system dismiss its critics as racists and sexists, they don't see how deeply preference based on group membership offends laudable American values about rewarding individual achievement. Many won't acknowledge how often mediocrity has triumphed over excellence because of affirmative action.

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The arguments that these ''injustices'' served justice as a kind of reparation for past wrongs made sense 30 years ago. But, at some point, reparations have accomplished whatever healing they'll be able to; eventually, it becomes healthier for relations between groups to move beyond paying back old debts.

But justice is not so easily achieved as the rhetoric of the opponents of affirmative action suggest. Here we discern the blind spots of the conservatives.

Moving to a ''colorblind'' society may now be desirable. But abolishing affirmative action is hardly a guarantee of it. Americans have never been colorblind, nor evenhanded in the assignment of gender roles. So long as people discriminate in their hearts, so long as people prefer to be surrounded with folks like themselves, and so long as the great preponderance of positions of power are still filled by white men, without special protection for certain groups, the playing field is apt to be tilted as of old.

There is an even more fundamental issue to be addressed if we are to speak meaningfully of a level playing field. As important as the rewarding of individual merit is in the American pantheon of values, no less central is the ideal of equal opportunity.

America -- founded to provide a contrast to the aristocratic order of Europe where one was born into one's lifelong status -- has always held as an ideal that the home in which a child is born should not prejudge the status he or she will achieve. But we are far from being such a society.

At a deeper level, the ideal of equal opportunity applies not only to present competition, but to the individuals' prospects in the whole course of their lives. Of course it is important to stress the importance of each individual's taking responsibility for his or her own destiny. The conservatives are right that the ''culture of dependency'' shows the disastrous results of a society failing to convey that message strongly enough. But individualist philosophy has its own limitations.

A hundred children born into affluent American homes will predictably have, as a group, a markedly different destiny from that of a group of a hundred children -- similarly endowed by their creator -- born into impoverished homes. This suggests that only to a degree are individuals responsible for their fate.

Is the ideal of equal opportunity violated by this blatant inequality in American life?

Should we be content that it is only de facto, and not de jure, that the circumstance of birth so strongly determines an American child's chances for success?

Is opportunity equal enough if inherited status is probabilistic and not certain -- if extraordinary individuals can escape the circumstances of their birth?

Or should we be committed as a society to doing all we can to truly equalize every child's opportunities, given equal God-given talent?

If the circumstances of a person's birth are to cease being so predictive of that person's prospects in America, this society is going to have to invest far more -- and more effectively -- in its least advantaged children. Giving less attention to competition among adults would have to be coupled with being more attentive to inequalities in how different groups of children are prepared for that competition.

Our present public institutions not only fail to compensate for the disadvantages of birth, they actively exacerbate them. The public schools in rich neighborhoods offer far more than those of the poor. Programs like Head Start hardly begin to make up for the head start enjoyed by the children of the well educated and successful.

We say we believe in a level playing field for individuals, but how much are we willing to do to make it truly level? Do we even know how to do it?

On the other hand, if we decide that fairness requires only that the swiftest win each course -- and that it is not our concern how crippling are the circumstances into which many children in America are born -- will we abandon part of the soul of our democracy?

These questions are difficult for us because of some deep confusion in our understanding of the question, What are the rights and responsibilities of individuals and of groups in relation to society as a whole?

When some people's lives aren't working well, the liberals, with their emphasis on the responsibility of the collective to take care of its members, tend to find the cause in society's defects and to create government programs to make things right.

The conservatives, with their stress on the responsibility of individuals to sink or swim by their own efforts, find the causes of failure in the defects of individuals, and reject as unjust meddling any government intrusions into what they regard as private decisions.

If the current debate about affirmative action can help us bring together these pieces of a larger truth that thus far has escaped us, then the struggle over it will have been worth something.

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