Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy.
by Nathan Glazer.
Basic Books. 248 pp. $10.95.
This important book is one of the first full-length accounts of the reverse discrimination known as “affirmative action,” and of how that policy has operated in the fields of employment, education, and housing. According to the federal agencies that practice it, affirmative action is mandated by the laws against discrimination. But as Nathan Glazer demonstrates, affirmative action as it is practiced is unequivocally illegal, contrary to specific provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not only does that act prohibit discrimination in general, it also provides with respect to employment, for instance, that “nothing contained in this title should be interpreted to require any employer . . . to grant preferential treatment to any individual or to any group because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin . . . on account of an imbalance which may exist with respect to the total number or percentage.” If the language were not sufficiently clear in itself, it was spelled out on the floor of Congress by Senators Joseph Clark and Clifford Case, who acted as the bill’s floor managers: “The question in each case is whether that individual was discriminated against.” “Quotas are themselves discriminatory.”
Nevertheless, corporations have been required to meet numerical goals in the hiring and promotion of certain “minorities” (a term ambiguous enough in ordinary usage and here stretched to include women, who make up a majority) and have also been penalized on the basis of statistical evidence alone. Thus, for example, AT&T was forced by the so-called Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to pay some tens of millions of dollars in “back pay” to “minority” employees even though no act of discrimination by the company against any individual employee was ever admitted or proved.
The busing issue is even stranger. The Brown decision affirmed that distinction by race should have no place in public education, but in the name of that decision schools have been forced to ignore virtually every other characteristic of their pupils and arrange them by racial quotas. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 asserted: “Nothing herein shall empower any official or court of the United States to issue any order seeking to achieve a racial balance in any school by requiring the transportation of pupils.” Yet federal judges everywhere have been issuing precisely such orders. In this area, as with employment, the clear meaning of the law is violated in the name of enforcing it, while both the popular will and the well-being of the children are ignored. According to polls over the past several years, a substantial majority of the electorate, both black and white, is against busing; and the evidence that its effects are mainly deleterious has mounted enough to convince even James Coleman, who originally was the principal sociological witness on the other side.
In the third substantive area that Glazer analyzes, residential “segregation,” the case is more equivocal. As Glazer notes, the term segregation contains a bias, for the condition in question, concentration, can result—apart from fortuitous patterning—either from a conscious restriction from the outside, or from what might well be termed congregation, the deliberate choice of individuals to live among people like themselves. Though statistically the two are often difficult to distinguish, the tendency of the federal authorities has been to regard any racial concentration as the consequence of discrimination and to enlist public policy in the service of breaking it up wherever it happens to occur.
Glazer’s position is that in all areas—employment, education, and housing—the proper public objective is not the quota system or some approximation of it, but rather equal opportunity for individuals as individuals. That is what the Constitution stipulates, what most Americans demand of their society, and what has enabled ethnic minorities, including blacks, to move up. This last assertion he bolsters with an account of how ethnic patterns arose in American history and how they are likely to evolve in the future. He omits from his analysis of reverse discrimination any consideration of how affirmative action affects women. Nor does he deal fully with such harmful effects of reverse discrimination as the recent unspoken assumption that any black college student or jobholder, no matter how well qualified the particular person might be, is there only as a result of preferential treatment.
How will affirmative action, which has been in effect for only about five years, influence American society over the long run? Glazer seems to regard it as a serious but temporary aberration, and I hope he is right. But one should take into account that the institutions developed to accommodate new guidelines are likely to persevere longer than the policies themselves, for they are producing a new type of bureaucracy that will, like any vested interest, resist change toward the status quo ante. Israel Zangwill’s slogan of “the melting pot” has long since given way to Horace Kallen’s “cultural pluralism,” and affirmative action may now take us also beyond “a nation of nations” to an ethnic and sexual battlefield regulated by proportional representation and quotas.
Whatever its faults of omission, however, Affirmative Discrimination as it stands demonstrates once again that Nathan Glazer is one of the country’s best social analysts. Intelligence, his first and most important working tool, shines through in every discussion and lights up every conclusion. He is an empiricist in the most palpable sense: whatever the subject, his writing is sparked by specific examples drawn sometimes from the census or other standard sources but no less often from direct, on-the-scene, concrete observation. And this intelligent empiricism is applied to social issues—to the solution of social problems by policies that are both workable and consistent with the best traditions of American liberal democracy. Affirmative Discrimination is another, and very valuable, contribution to his ongoing pursuit.