“It also means rejecting affirmative action plans and quotas that give weight to one group of Americans at the expense of another,” Bounds said. “Plans that result in quotas, where such plans have not been judicially created to remedy a specific, proven act of discrimination, only result in more discrimination.”
Affirmative action, a term coined in the early 1960s, is a loosely defined set of policies meant to help rectify discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin. It quickly proved controversial, especially in the public arena, as some white males alleged they were losing government jobs and public university admissions to less qualified minorities and women.
The Supreme Court ruled 30 years ago that universities could use race as one factor in choosing applicants, but it banned quotas. Subsequent court decisions placed more restrictions on affirmative action, and Connerly and others launched ballot initiatives that virtually crippled it in some states.
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, pushed by Connerly. It bars all government institutions from giving preferential treatment to people based on race or gender, and particularly affects college admissions and government contracts. Similar measures passed in Michigan and Washington state, and Connerly hopes to have versions on the ballots this fall in Colorado, Nebraska and Arizona.
The erosion of affirmative action is forcing colleges and other institutions to seek new ways of pursuing diversity, with mixed results.
“What had been a national policy is being dismantled, state by state,” University of Washington President Mark A. Emmert wrote in the Christian Science Monitor last year. He said his campus has learned that it still can “ensure diversity and access to higher education, particularly by taking socio-economic factors into account.”
While Emmert laments the erosion of affirmative action, others say it is overdue. It’s great if Obama’s success hastens the process, they say, but previous achievements by blacks in business, government, entertainment and other fields already have undermined the argument that racial discrimination is rampant.
Defenders of affirmative action cite continuing disparities between blacks and whites in areas such as income, education achievement, health care and incarceration rates.
These disparities, however, “have roots in problems that are not addressed by affirmative action,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
They are complex, deep-seated factors that put many minority children behind their peers as early as kindergarten, she said. In confronting such challenges, she said, “racial preferences don’t solve anything.”
To some extent, Obama agrees that affirmative action is poorly suited to address such problems. But it still is needed, he says.
“Unless we do a better job with early childhood education, fixing crumbling schools, investing to make sure that we’ve got an excellent teacher in front of every classroom, and then making college affordable, we’re not even going to reach the point where our children can benefit from affirmative action,” Obama told National Public Radio last year.