Affirmative Action: Conservatives Cloud the Issue

The cherished left-wing notion that class privilege is a central problem in American life and that government has an obligation to do something about it has been given a new lease on life by the most unlikely of sources - conservatives such as Newt Gingrich, Dinesh D'Souza, Linda Chavez, and Clint Bolick.

Triggering this uncharacteristic outburst of class consciousness is the escalating debate over affirmative action, which these born-again Marxists tell us is morally and legally permissible only if it is based on class rather than race or gender.

Mr. D'Souza, who has made the case for taxi drivers who refuse to pick up blacks, asks why the child of an Appalachian coal miner - sturdy symbol of proletarian virtue - shouldn't receive special consideration in college admissions. Even Mr. Gingrich has argued for giving preferences to the economically excluded.

The new conservative party line on affirmative action isn't a principled stand in favor of "individual merit" and against "group preference." Preferences are now deemed fine as long as they are given to the "disadvantaged." At a recent White House summit meeting between President Clinton and right-wing critics of affirmative action, advocacy of class-based preferences was a recurrent theme. Linda Chavez, chairwoman of the Civil Rights Commission during the Reagan era and a foe of "racial and gender preferences," promoted preferences for the "socially, economically, and educationally disadvantaged."

Even Clint Bolick, author of "The Affirmative Action Fraud," has joined the chorus. Mr. Bolick, aptly described in a recent newspaper article as "the maestro of the political right on race," announced in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that he supported preferences, as long as they were targeted to the economically disadvantaged. According to Bolick, Republicans in Congress are busy retooling the anti-affirmative action Canady-McConnell bill, blocked last fall in committee, to include class-based preferences. The bill's passage, Bolick assured his readers, would not mean the end of affirmative action but its true beginning.

Why would affirmative action's most ferocious public enemies claim that they actually favor a policy they've dedicated years to discrediting? The answer resides in the simple truth, confirmed in polls, that "affirmative action" programs for women and minorities still enjoy considerable public support, with fewer than one-third of Americans favoring outright elimination.

Just how important language and framing may be to the future of affirmative action was evident in Houston, where voters rejected Proposition A, whose wording made clear that passage would have the effect of eliminating affirmative action programs for women and minorities. In contrast to California, where the language of Proposition 209 spoke only of "preferences," Proposition A stated clearly that it would "end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities."

With those consequences laid out for all to see, Houstonians rejected the measure, with blacks coming to the polls in record numbers and voting "no" at a rate of more than 90 percent.

All the talk about class-based affirmative action obscures the fact that measures like Proposition 209 eliminate all affirmative action programs, including extremely popular ones. Programs marked for elimination last September by California Gov. Pete Wilson included a pipeline program designed to encourage minorities to become science and math teachers, a summer science academy targeting female high school students, and an academic partnership program encouraging talented minorities to enter college.

Though their aim is to eliminate the affirmative action programs that have expanded opportunities for women and minorities for 30 years, conservative enemies of affirmative action judge it politically imprudent to say so. Instead, they befog the issue, claiming a newfound commitment to the interests of the working class and the poor that is at best disingenuous and at worst downright dishonest.

In his brilliant essay on "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell observed that "political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful." Words crafted to mystify, he noted, are most likely to be employed "when there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims." The otherwise inexplicable conservative romance with the idea of class-based affirmative action is a stunning contemporary expression of just such a gap.

Whether the American people will fall for this shabby stratagem, whose essential claim is that affirmative action must be destroyed in order to be saved, remains very much in question.

* Jerome Karabel is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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