In the race to the center, many solutions are gaining currency. The one most
in vogue proposes that we base affirmative action on economic need, rather
than on race. This policy addresses the charge that well-meant policies
have misfired by offering extra spoils to middle- and upper-class blacks
instead of fresh opportunities to the impoverished. Championed by lawyer
Richard Kahlenberg and endorsed by various politicians — including
Clinton, from time to time (though not in his latest speech) — the
class-based scheme promises a fix. Alas, it’s fatally flawed. Why?
Consider: since when has America needed affirmative action to buttress the
ladder of class mobility? Generations of immigrants of various ethnicities
have climbed that ladder. The whole reason affirmative action arose in the
first place was because blacks didn’t fit the pattern of ethnic ascent. As
historian Stanley Elkins’s seminal 1959 work Slavery showed, the racism
blacks as a people met with in America differed in kind from what other
groups faced. Even Kahlenberg and other boosters of the class fix
ultimately concede that class is meant to act mainly as a proxy for race in
their vision. Treating a problem via a proxy, though, invariably works less
effectively than treating it directly.

Which leads to another commonly suggested remedy: dispense with affirmative
action and redouble efforts to improve education and social welfare for
poor, urban blacks. They, after all, make up the target population that
both race- and class-based affirmative action supporters want to help the
most. The goal is unimpeachable; who opposes good schools, higher living
standards and justice for all? But this answer, too, collapses with just a
gentle kick. After all, for self-proclaimed reformers to preach this
solution smacks of naivete, not to say hypocrisy. In the era of Gingrich,
the decade of downsizing, a renewed assault on root causes of black
disadvantage stands as much chance of success as a star-spangled
Congressional tribute to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Next, Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociology professor,
spotlights the army as a model for how to do it right. In the army, the
number of blacks slated for promotion to a given job reflects not the
overall number of blacks in the army but the proportion of blacks among all
those who meet the criteria for promotion. This method inoculates the army
from charges that a “less qualified” black has taken the slot of a white
candidate. Applied to society at large, this model has some appeal: no more
will symphony orchestras or physics departments have to scrounge to fill
racial slots when blacks just aren’t pursuing classical music or quantum
mechanics in large numbers. Sounds perfect. The problem here is, as my
colleague Jeff Rosen at The New Republic has noted, the number of blacks
joining the army in the first place is disproportionately high, and there’s
a large pool to draw from for each promotion or assignment. Writ large, the
Moskos formula will spare all sorts of fields in American life from any
attention to hiring minorities whatsoever. Pure numbers dictate that whole
segments of society will probably stay lily-white.

Rosen poses his own solution: erect a high wall between the public and
private spheres. In the public sphere, ban affirmative action. Keep the
government out of playing racial politics. In the private world, though,
let employers follow their consciences. Let them choose between
color-blindness and color-consciousness. In all likelihood, Rosen predicts,
private efforts to integrate workplaces would proceed apace voluntarily,
since companies won’t want to bear the stigma of racial uniformity.
However: what if they don’t? What if private hiring, housing and education
reverts to pre-affirmative action levels? What if blacks find themselves
frozen out all over again? A society devoted to racial equality can’t in
good conscience let the private sector do as it pleases, especially when
the private sector has failed the test so many times before.

None of these middle ground solutions, then, satisfies. All disappoint. So
how can society even hope to find consensus?

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