Affirming Opportunity

I have long argued for a multiracial, national political coalition to press for public policies to address the common concerns of families of all racial and ethnic groups in an era of rising social inequality. But I believe just as firmly that an entirely race-neutral agenda would be a mistake. Policies that explicitly address race remain crucial to a progressive strategy and to the continuing quest for racial justice in America. However, in an era of widespread opposition to affirmative action as we know it, these policies need to be redesigned so that a broad coalition can support them.

In response to cries from conservatives to abolish affirmative action, some liberals who support multiracial coalition-building have argued that we ought to shift from affirmative action programs based on race to affirmative action based on economic class or need. This shift would recognize that the problems of the disadvantaged—low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods, broken homes, inadequate housing, poor education, cultural and linguistic differences—are not always clearly related to previous racial discrimination. Children who grow up in homes plagued by these disadvantages are likely to be denied an equal chance in life because the development of their aspirations and talents is hindered by their environment, regardless of race. Proponents of class-based affirmative action argue that minorities would benefit disproportionately from programs designed to address these disadvantages, since they suffer disproportionately from the effects of such environments, but the problems of disadvantaged whites would be addressed as well.

Despite the apparent appeal of this approach, if affirmative action were based solely on economic need, it would reduce opportunities for blacks. It would result in the systematic exclusion of many blacks from desirable positions, since they would be judged by conventional measures of aptitude, and, regardless of class, their scores on those tests are still likely to show the cumulative effects of race. By this I mean the effects of having one's life choices limited by race; the effects of living in segregated neighborhoods exposed to the particular skills and styles of behavior that emerge from patterns of racial exclusion; the effects of attending lower-quality, de facto segregated schools, and of being nurtured by parents whose own experiences and resources have also been shaped and limited by race. Thus, if we were to rely solely on the standard criteria for college admission, like SAT scores, even many children from black middle-income families would be denied admission in favor of middle-income whites, who are not weighed down by the accumulation of disadvantages that stem from racial restrictions and who, therefore, tend to score higher on these conventional tests.

Yet the remedy does not have to consist of numerical guidelines and quotas for admitting blacks with lower scores, the kinds of programs that have made affirmative action so unpopular. The remedy can be a different set of evaluation criteria—new, more flexible yet merit-based criteria—that are more accurate than the conventional tests in gauging the actual potential of black Americans to succeed.

Indeed, it is not readily apparent to what extent the standard measures of aptitude like the SAT or the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)—or even the tests widely used for promoting police officers—measure real merit, and not just privilege. The research reveals that for most applicants, these tests are only tenuously related to future performance. High school grades consistently predict college freshmen's grades more accurately than the SAT in both selective and nonselective colleges, and little predictive power is gained by combining the SAT with high school grades. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the University of Texas Law School found only weak correlations between LSAT scores and law school performance. And while other test scores may correlate better with outcomes, even these do not necessarily measure important attributes that also determine performance, such as perseverance, motivation, interpersonal skills, reliability, and leadership qualities.

For example, if you compare a youngster from the ghettos of Roxbury or Harlem or East St. Louis who displays these traits and a youngster from white suburbia who has a higher SAT score but does not possess these traits, the chances are good that the inner-city child will experience a higher level of college achievement and a more enriching college experience. Two studies are relevant here. William G. Bowen and Derek Bok point out in their important book, The Shape of the River, that black students with lower SAT scores who are admitted to selective colleges are not only more involved than white students in social service, community service, and political endeavors, but are also more likely to be leaders in these activities. Likewise, Richard Flacks and Scott Thomas report in a recent study of students at the University of California at Santa Barbara that "African-American and Latino students of both sexes were more involved in cultural and community activities than white males were: They were more than twice as likely to report going to plays, concerts, films, or museums. They were three times as likely to say that they frequently participated in social-service groups." As the law professors Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier have argued, we need to "improve the capacity of institutions to find people who are creative, adaptive, reliable, and committed, rather than just good at test-taking."

Criteria for Success

When I call for flexible, merit-based criteria, I do not mean that standard aptitude tests such as the SAT should be abandoned. Rather, they should be given less weight in making school admission decisions. For example, in response to the vote of the University of California's regents to eliminate affirmative action in admissions, the university's Irvine campus developed new admission criteria recognizing that the potential for success is demonstrated in numerous forms and can be measured in various ways. Although test scores, courses completed, and grades remain important, Irvine now also considers other factors, including an applicant's initiative and leadership, ability to overcome personal hardship, self-awareness, civic and cultural awareness, honors and awards, and specialized knowledge. These new criteria reflect the findings of involvement theory—the more students are involved and socialized in their education, the more likely they are to succeed.

In order to determine the impact of the new admission process at Irvine, instituted in 1997, Susan Wilbur and Marguerite Bonous-Hammarth "compared the actual makeup of the newly admitted freshman class with the hypothetical makeup of a class admitted solely on the basis . . . of a ranking system based on the G.P.A. [grade point average] and test scores." The comparison revealed that the use of more flexible criteria "resulted in significant gains for underrepresented ethnic groups—particularly African Americans, American Indians, and Chicanos," whose admission rates increased respectively by 30 percent, 24 percent, and 21 percent.

The University of Michigan Law School provides another example of the effective use of flexible, merit-based admission criteria. In addition to an index score that represents an applicant's GPA and LSAT score, the Michigan admissions office relies heavily on other factors, including letters of recommendation, the application essay, the quality of the applicant's undergraduate institution, course selections, personal experiences or perspectives likely to contribute to a diverse student body, and evidence of leadership ability. The result has been an outstanding number of minority law school students over the past several years, although Michigan sets no numerical guidelines or quotas.

The University of Michigan Law School faces an anti-affirmative action lawsuit filed by a white applicant, Barbara Grutter, who claims that she was denied admission in favor of less-qualified minority applicants. However, the Michigan admissions program is quite different from the affirmative action program at the University of Texas Law School, which was recently struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Hopwood v. Texas. The Texas program set numerical goals to increase the enrollment of underrepresented groups (African Americans, Latinos, women, and so on). The goals were established by determining the proportion of underrepresented groups in the applicant pool.

As Jeffrey S. Lehman, dean of the University of Michigan Law School, put it:

We are confident that our admissions policy is constitutional. It conforms to the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment as set forth in Justice Powell's opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Our admissions office does not use racial quotas. The percentage of students of different races in our entering classes vary noticeably from year to year. We use diversity as a factor within the larger context of our policy of admitting only students whom we expect to go on to become outstanding lawyers.


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A final practical example of the use of flexible criteria is found in Mayor Richard Daley's Chicago Police Department. It recently switched to merit promotions based on such factors as job performance and leadership ability. In previous years, police promotions were determined mainly by standard aptitude tests, which resulted in very few promotions, proportionately, for African-American and Latino officers. The new, more flexible criteria enhance the probability that merit is being measured on the basis of actual job performance rather than an officer's class or racial background.

These new criteria do not lower standards. Rather, they stop excluding people who have as much potential to succeed as those promoted or accepted from more privileged backgrounds.

I call this approach, with its emphasis on flexible, merit-based criteria of evaluation, "affirmative opportunity," not "affirmative action." And the change is more than rhetorical. It signals a shift in emphasis away from quotas and numerical guidelines to guarantee equality of results, which is how "affirmative action" has come to be understood—and widely resented. Instead, the emphasis is on achieving equality of opportunity, a principle that most Americans still support.

However, the concept of affirmative opportunity acknowledges that something more than offering formal, legal equality is required to overcome the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. As a society, we have the continuing moral obligation to compensate for the enduring burdens—the social and psychological damage—of segregation, discrimination, and bigotry. A policy of "affirmative opportunity" would renew the nation's commitment to enable all Americans, regardless of income, race, or other attributes, to achieve the highest level that their abilities will permit.

Resonating With the Public

This change of strategies, and the change in the language we use when discussing such programs, would increase public support for these policies and make them acceptable as a vital part of a progressive, multiracial coalition's agenda to fight social inequality. Research suggests that the idea of affirmative opportunity would resonate with the general public. In a 1990 survey, almost seven in ten white Americans opposed quotas to admit black students in colleges and universities, and more than eight in ten objected to the idea of preferential hiring and promotion of blacks. But in the same survey, 68 percent of whites favored spending more money on schools in black neighborhoods, especially for preschool and early education programs. And 70 percent favored granting special college scholarships to black children who maintain good grades. Race-targeted programs like these that enable blacks to take advantage of opportunities do not seem to be perceived as challenging the values of individualism and the work ethic. Unlike "preferential" racial policies, opportunity-enhancing programs have popular support and a relatively weak connection to antiblack attitudes.

In another national survey, the Princeton political scientist Carol M. Swain found that a majority of respondents, black and white alike, felt that consideration should be given in college admissions to obstacles or hardships that a student had to overcome. In other words, colleges ought to evaluate a student's potential at least in part on the basis of his or her successful navigation of difficult circumstances in, say, high-risk environments. In addition to the standard questionnaire, Swain's survey presented respondents with vignettes that described college admission and employment situations without using code words such as "preferential treatment." Though responses to the standard questionnaire revealed a clear rejection of the idea that racial preferences should guide admission decisions, in their responses to the vignettes, these respondents seemed to be asking university admissions officers to take into consideration factors other than the conventional academic criteria.

Swain concludes that "the majority of Americans, both white and black alike, are not enthusiastic about racial preference programs, but can agree on some affirmative action-related issues once we move beyond the racially inflammatory code words found all too often in existing surveys." The importance of language is also attested to by recent public opinion polls in Houston. These clearly suggest that if Texas opponents of affirmative action had been able to adopt the language used in Proposition 209 in California and in Initiative Measure 200 in the state of Washington—language that included the term "preferential treatment"—their proposal to abolish municipal-sponsored affirmative action programs in Houston quite likely would have passed.

Yet as the sociologist Jerome Karabel reminds us, while it is true that Americans worry about "quotas" and about "unqualified" people being hired, promoted, and admitted to colleges and universities, they also recognize "that the playing field is not level and that programs are needed to ensure equal opportunities for minorities and women." That probably explains why, following President Clinton's 1995 speech on affirmative action, two national opinion polls, despite slightly different wording, found that 60 to 65 percent of American voters approved of the President's position that affirmative action should be mended and not ended.

In order to fully address the economic insecurities that beset many groups in this era of rising social inequality, a progressive, multiracial coalition would combine support for affirmative opportunity programs with support for a larger and more comprehensive set of public policies. These are race-neutral public policies that emphasize common solutions to commonly shared problems, policies that promote a sense of unity, regardless of the different degrees of severity in the problems afflicting different groups.

A new democratic vision must reject the commonly held view that race is so divisive that whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans cannot work together in a common cause. Yet those articulating the new vision must realize that if a political message is tailored to a white audience, racial minorities do draw back, just as whites draw back when a message is tailored to minority audiences. The challenge, then, is to find programs and issues that concern families of all racial and ethnic groups, so that individuals in all groups can honestly perceive mutual interests and join together to move America forward.

Among such programs, I would include those that increase employment opportunities and job skills training, improve public education, promote better child and health care, strengthen supports for working families including lone-parent families, and reduce neighborhood crime and drug abuse. When I speak of issues that a multiracial coalition would find of common concern, I refer to government actions and policies that exacerbate rather than alleviate the economic stresses of ordinary families. Included among these are monetary policies that elevate real interest rates and lead to increased unemployment, trade policies that place low-skilled labor in the United States in greater competition with low-skilled labor around the world, tax policies that favor wealthier families at the expense of ordinary families, and congressional inaction on or opposition to programs such as public investment and national health insurance.

Because the gap between have-nots and haves is growing more severe, a vision that acknowledges racially distinct problems and the need for remedies like affirmative opportunity, but at the same time emphasizes the importance of transracial solutions to shared problems, is more important now than ever.

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