Beyond Affirmative Action

Published April 24, 1998

The angry affirmative-action dispute between the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and its official advisory committees in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, well described in Naftali Bendavid’s insightful story (Page 1, April 1), should not obscure the underlying truth: Affirmative action is good for Illinois, good for America.

Maybe it’s not as good as it once was, when discrimination was rife, but it’s still important. It represents our best aspirations for a just society.

The Illinois Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights Commission, like the committees in Indiana and Michigan, reached far and wide to gather diverse views on affirmative action. The results might seem surprising: Opponents were hard to find, and among the strongest supporters were business people.

“Because of our diversity,” Ameritech Illinois president Douglas L. Whitley told the Illinois committee, “we are more productive, have stronger teams, better managers and more skilled employees.” What if government policy or law changes? “Our commitment to diversity will remain unchanged,” Whitley said.

To be sure, the Illinois committee heard criticism as well. But the critics were constructive, not bent on destruction. Lee H. Walker, a respected black businessman and Crain’s Chicago Business columnist, recalled that affirmative action: “allowed many of us to get entry-level jobs” in the 1960s, but he argues that blacks now need “affirmative opportunity” for advancement and promotion.

In a thoughtful analysis of racial change in the work force. University of Chicago economists James J. Heckman and J. Hoult Verkerke told the committee “federal employment discrimination law played a significant role in accelerating the rate of improvement in black relative wages and occupational status during the period 1965 to 1975” but that “it appears to have had little aggregate effect since.”

They concluded: “The available economic evidence strongly suggests the law is unlikely to have a major influence on aggregate racial disparity in the 1990s. Basic economic forces such as the decline of manufacturing and the increasing return for skilled labor relative to unskilled labor will play a much more prominent role in shaping black relative economic status.”

Did this mean that affirmative action should be abandoned as national policy? Not at all. Heckman replied. He said it’s still a good statement of national purpose, and its economic cost is insignificant.

It’s hard to quarrel with this spirit, this logic. Look at California. Long and fractious debate led to an abolition of affirmative action, which has led in turn to huge declines in minority admissions at the top state universities. Educators are alarmed and are scrambling in devise new admissions criteria, like lower economic status or prior hardship, to recover.

Diversity is the hallmark of America. And our diversity is growing, not shrinking. The pre-1965 record was clear: Americans on society’s lower rungs aren’t going to advance automatically; we who have been favored must work at it. The alternative, a permanent dependency for minorities, is unthinkable. Capable people want to contribute, and they will, if we in the majority make it happen. Provide good education and open doors.

It’s a noble vision. The alternative is not.

Joseph Mathewson, Chairman of Illinois Civil Rights Commission Advisory Board