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Affirmative action's evolution

How the debate has changed since 1970s.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2003

Twenty-five years ago when the US Supreme Court issued its landmark affirmative- action decision in the Bakke case, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a separate opinion arguing for the necessity of using racial classifications to remedy historic discrimination against blacks.

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He lost that fight by one vote, with only four of the nine justices agreeing that the Constitution permits the use of racial quotas and set-asides in such circumstances.

From that moment, the debate over affirmative action shifted in a fundamental way. Rather than black-white equality, the goal became diversity. Rather than empowering racial groups, the idea was to empower individuals.

Critics said it wouldn't be enough to free the African-American community from the shackles of generations of racism and discrimination.

One of the most powerful parts of the dissenting portion of Justice Marshall's opinion in Bakke is a 206-word description of the state of black America in the late 1970s.

Now, as the nation's highest court prepares to take up on Tuesday the constitutionality of affirmative action in admissions programs at the University of Michigan, Marshall's report card on equality in America offers an opportunity to gauge the progress (or lack thereof) made in the quarter century since the court last debated the issue.

"The position of [blacks] today in America is the tragic but inevitable consequence of centuries of unequal treatment," Marshall wrote in June 1978. "Measured by any benchmark of comfort or achievement, meaningful equality remains a distant dream."

Marshall cited US Census and US Labor Department data in seven categories, including the percent of black representation in five elite professions.

Here are Marshall's findings, updated with the most recent comparable statistics:

• In 1978, the life expectancy of a black child was five years shorter than that of a white child. Today it is six years shorter.

• Twenty-five years ago, a black child's mother was three times as likely to die of complications during childbirth as a white mother. Today she is 3-1/2 times as likely to die during childbirth.

• The infant mortality rate for blacks was twice that for whites. Today it is slightly more than twice.

• In 1978, four times as many black families lived with incomes below the poverty line as white families. Today, that ratio remains unchanged.

• For black adults, the unemployment rate was twice that of whites, and for black teens it was three times. Today, both statistics remain unchanged.

• The median income of a black family in 1978 was 60 percent of the median income of a white family. Today, it is 66 percent of white-family income.

• In 1978, blacks represented 11.5 percent of the population, but they were only 1.2 percent of the lawyers and judges, 2 percent of the physicians, 2.3 percent of the dentists, 1.1 percent of the engineers, and 2.6 percent of college and university professors. Today, blacks represent 12.3 percent of the population, and are 5.1 percent of the lawyers and judges, 5.6 percent of physicians, 4.1 percent of dentists, 5.5 percent of engineers, and 6.1 percent of college and university professors.

Conclusions from the numbers

Some analysts point to such statistics as proof that while a post-Bakke scaled-down version of affirmative action has helped bolster the ranks of black professionals, African-Americans as a whole have been left behind.

"Despite all the talk of the creation of a black middle class, the relative position of the black community to white America has not changed that much," says Andrew Hacker, a Queens College political-science professor and author of "Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal."

While such statistics might have provided compelling evidence for the justices debating affirmative action in the 1970s, since the Bakke decision black-white equality is no longer the intellectual underpinning that drives the affirmative-action debate.

"I don't think anyone would disagree with Justice Marshall that there was a long history of tragic discrimination in the US, and as a result the socioeconomic status of African-Americans remains lower than other racial and ethnic groups," says Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative public-interest law group in Sterling, Va. "But a majority of the court [in Bakke] did not think that justified discrimination in favor of African-Americans."

To some analysts, the Bakke decision was more than a turning point; it was a U-turn.