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Democrats could lose their gains on social issues quickly

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to take on a big question of justice and civil rights: affirmative action. Politicians in both parties should be careful, but Democrats have particular reason to be wary.

U.S. Supreme Court Building

U.S. Supreme Court Building Ken Hammond/U.S. Department of Agriculture

President Barack Obama and Democrats generally have gained political ground as Republicans, especially former Sen. Rick Santorum, have pushed social and cultural issues to the forefront while most voters remain concerned with gut economic and war-and-peace issues. But that situation could change quickly with the sudden return to center stage of affirmative action as an issue after being in the background in recent years.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider a major case involving race-based admissions policies at the University of Texas.

The Supreme Court in 2003 ruled that colleges and universities could not use a formal, point-based system to increase minority enrollment but could employ informal ways to increase diversity. In practical terms, that has meant that black and Latino Americans have gotten an admissions edge over Anglo and Asian American students, whose test scores and grade-point averages have often been higher. But the Texas case has reopened the issue. In the intervening years, competition for admissions has heightened and protests have been notable at institutions such as the Universities of California and Texas about discriminations allegedly being employed against qualified white and Asian American applicants.

Current cultural-issue debate, centered around abortion rights, has tended to tilt in favor of Democrats. Public opinion is split about 50-50 between pro- and anti-abortion views. But most voters have been uncomfortable with the recent high-decibel debate on the issue.

Democrats, additionally, have attempted to shift debate so as to make Republicans appear anti-contraception. Most voters, including Catholics, are OK with contraception. But Santorum recently fell into a trap when, answering a question, he granted that states probably had the legal power to outlaw contraception, if they chose. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wisely responded, to a similar question, that the subject was "silly" since no state was attempting to do so.

The issue of affirmative action, however, is an entirely different matter.

A strong majority of voters, over a number of years, have opposed the concept of affirmative action — that is, the favoritism of one group over another on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or religion.  Obama and Democrats will have a hard time winning a public argument on the issue, although major media and many influential groups will tip to the affirmative-action side.

Where did affirmative action come from? Contrary to frequent representations otherwise, it did not begin in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. The whole emphasis through the Johnson presidency, and in the preceding civil-rights movement, had been to eradicate all such favoritism. The defining Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly banned discrimination for or against anyone based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion.

The emphasis changed, however, in the Nixon presidency with a program pragmatically undertaken to fight discrimination in the construction industry and trades and without thought to its larger long-term implications. Labor Secretary George Shultz launched the so-called Philadelphia Plan whereby unions and employers in the notoriously discriminatory construction industry agreed to set aside jobs for minority, mostly black employees. The concept then spread to hiring in other industries, to awarding of public contracts, to college admissions, and to other aspects of American life.

The concept, of course, was in direct opposition to the "equal opportunity for all" philosophy underlying the Civil Rights Act.  It also went against the basic precepts held by a vast majority of Americans — that is, that everyone should have an equal chance to rise on the basis of his/her effort and performance.

The legislators and people who had fought and bled for the Civil Rights Act, and the everybody-equal concept, were skeptical of affirmative action. My old boss, former Vice President Humphrey, the principal author of the act, argued against affirmative action at a national Americans for Democratic Action conference. I made the opposite case, asserting that affirmative action programs would be only temporary and a way to help formerly oppressed minorities make up lost ground getting to the starting line. But, quite soon, minority leaders found themselves on the affirmative-action side.  Their constituents liked special breaks and it was easy to justify them as compensation for past discriminations.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 23, 5:54 a.m. Inappropriate

It is unclear to me why this should be considered a loss for Democrats. In the case of public universities it is very hard for anyone to make a convincing case that admissions should be based on affirmative action. Universities have the option of giving preference to applicants from families that are economically disadvantaged or where nobody in a prior generation received a college degree. They can also take into account that the applicant went to an underperforming school. These are more subtle and less emotive criteria that have the effect of benefiting disadvantaged applicants from all races.

Posted Thu, Feb 23, 6:47 a.m. Inappropriate

When I was a kid, folks used to say that two wrongs don't make a right. The best folks also said that discriminating against anyone on the basis of race is wrong. Both notions make sense to me, and apparently to most Americans as well.

Posted Thu, Feb 23, 7:03 a.m. Inappropriate

I should have added additional information regarding the pre-affirmative action policies of those who passed the Civil Rights Act and wanted
minorities to rise. One dimension of the approach was the eradication of legal barriers to equality. The other, as reflected in Great Society
job training, Title I and other education programs, and other targeted
programs was to focus on income-based approaches for which all were eligibile but which, as a practical matter, especially helped minority citizens.

The latter component has often been lacking since, with a greater emphasis on affirmative-action-related approaches to bring about equal outcomes
rather than equal opportunities. Myriad problems plaguing the black and Latino communities, for example, have often resulted in lower education performance by black and Latino kids than their Anglo and Asian American counterparts. An affirmative-action response has been to establish criteria
which would enable black and Latino applicants to gain places in public
university classes for which their h.s. grades and test scores might not otherwise qualify them. White and Asian American applicants, with higher grades and scores, have found themselves excluded. The same issue has arisen when minority bidders for public contracts have been given preference over non-minority bidders---again, assuring an outcome rather than an equal opportunity.

Over the past 30 years, Democrats in particular have supported affirmative-action programs and are identified with them. The programs are popular, needless to say, among blacks and Latinos who benefit from them. Both are important constituencies, in particular, in the Democratic Party.
The reflexive response, when the programs are questioned, is to charge the questioners with being anti-black or anti-Latino. Critics, as noted, make equally simplistic charges against affirmative-action supporters.

Great strides have been made since the breakthroughs of the 1960s. The United States today is a far fairer-minded, more just society than it was before then. Racism and discrimination are far less prevalent than they ever have been. We do need to think through how poor and disadvantaged citizens can best get their chance. Is it through policies dictating group outcomes? Through income-based programs directed toward individuals, no matter their race or ethnicity?

We thought, back in the 1960s, that passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation, and establishment of programs which would advance
the education, skills, health, nutrition, and other aspects of poor and minority citizens' lives would bring us over time to a society of de facto as well as legal equality. It has been more difficult than anyone foresaw.
Do we give up on this effort? No. But we need to reexamine ways and means continually. The current Supreme Court case is part of that reexamination.

Posted Thu, Feb 23, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Race-based affirmative action is racism. Period. It is also not helpful to teaching our children honesty, morality, and honesty when we tell them "do not be a racist" and then we perform racist behaviors. They are not stupid. We are training them to be hypocrits when we do this.

Posted Thu, Feb 23, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

The concept of affirmative action, and especially the related toxic issue of forced busing, was one of the major reasons for the collapse of the New Deal Coalition in 1968. They have been the subjects of much hyperbole and demagoguery; the very phrase "affirmative action" is the equivalent of waving the red cape. It would be most unfortunate for this matter to reinject itself into presidential politics, especially with the wide range of more important matters going on.

Posted Sat, Feb 25, 4:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Pepper2000 is correct that Democrats lost votes, and the Presidency, in 1968 because of backlash against what were perceived as too avid efforts on behalf of the poor and minorities. Affirmative action was not a reason for it, of course, because it did not begin until the Nixon presidency.
Yes, mandated busing too generated a strong backlash.

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