Beneath all the recent controversy over preferences, this much is certain:
the center has shifted. During their heyday in the 1970s, affirmative
action polices enjoyed broad support. In more conservative quarters, that
support was usually qualified or grudging. Now, the matrix has flipped: the
view that affirmative action is tantamount to reverse discrimination
largely prevails. Conservatives roundly condemn it in almost all its
instantiations. Liberals, who once defended it anywhere and everywhere, are
now the ones offering the qualified or grudging support.

That trend will no doubt accelerate. Over time, generational change will
probably tip the balance further against preferences. Affirmative action
has hit younger Americans — whites at least — harder than it did their
elders. At the same time, new voters have seen less of the egregious racism
that provoked their elders to tear down Jim Crow in the South. Slowly but
surely, the views of the younger are growing larger in the political
calculus.

One other trend has fed the increasing skepticism. The growing complexity
of society has brought a growing complexity to government, and with it a
backlash, a visceral resentment of government-imposed rules. Scores of
remedies, once thought of as the absurd property of the lunatic fringe,
have been swept up by the mainstream: a flat tax is supposed to simplify
the tax code; junking consumer protection laws will liberate the free
market. By these libertarian lights, affirmative action is construed as
paternalistic interference in race relations, which would improve more
smoothly if left to their own. Although pre-1965 history poses some
problems for this view, the anti-government mood that has been burgeoning
for twenty years isn’t likely to reverse.

All this has led defenders of affirmative action to search for a middle
ground. Somewhere, it’s assumed, there lies a delicately constructed
apparatus of rules and guidelines, or a sophisticated mathematical formula
to measure all possible job qualifications including race. The search for
this middle ground is at once cynical and genuine: Cynical, because
liberals, watching the working class defect from their New Deal coalition,
are knowingly trying to dilute affirmative action just enough to keep the
fence-sitters from climbing over. Genuine, because as long as the sins of
old-fashioned racism against blacks outnumber the sins of affirmative
action, liberals can’t countenance a return to the bad old days. The
Clinton report, after all, cried defiantly: “The evidence shows that, on
the whole, the federal programs are fair and do not unduly burden non
beneficiaries.” Read: whites still don’t suffer the way blacks do. That’s
true, of course. To cite just one morsel of evidence: A 1991 Urban
Institute study found discrimination against blacks three times as likely
as discrimination against whites in job hiring.

In pursuit of this goal, those who speak for the moderate left and center
of American politics, from Clinton in his public speech to Sandra Day
O’Connor in her opinion, contort themselves, wanting to have it both ways.
Witness the Democratic Leadership Council, the pack of Democratic
politicians who fashion themselves progressive centrists. The New Democrat,
the council’s house magazine, devoted a special May/June issue to the
search for an affirmative action middle ground; that gesture alone reflects
well the current obsessions of centrist Democrats. “This issue,” the
magazine earnestly pledged, “…seeks to begin charting a third way,
grounded in the belief that the promise of affirmative action must be
redeemed, even as some of its current practices are replaced.” Likewise, in
other magazines and editorial pages everywhere, pundits craft solutions
that claim to find the golden mean.

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