LEADING ARTICLE: Still unequal before the law

Share
Related Topics
AMERICA's affirmative action policies - giving preferential treatment to disadvantaged groups - are a reminder of the days when the left could be as bold and outrageous in its ideas as the right now is. Not until 1954 did a Supreme Court ruling outlaw racially segregated education. Later, Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation removed other forms of discrimination, creating what people then thought was equality of opportunity. Americans would have equal access to the best jobs and the best education, regardless of race, creed or sex. But the results remained stubbornly unchanged: blacks still failed to get into university, still failed to make law school, still failed to put down roots in the middle-class suburbs. This was an enormous blow to the collective self-image of liberal America. The country had always prided itself on its ability to remove barriers to individual advancement. Americans had developed a huge battery of "objective" tests designed not, as the English exam system is, to assess acquired knowledge but to quantify pure, innate merit and aptitude. In the past, blacks had suffered terrible discrimination; either they were barred from the tests or they were in no fit state to take them. With the barriers removed, liberal America had expected blacks to join full- heartedly and successfully in the great meritocratic free-for-all.

It was concluded that, if blacks were still failing, the system was flawed. Perhaps the tests were culturally biased; perhaps testing itself was biased; perhaps centuries of discrimination had left blacks with a sense of inferiority which made it impossible for them to compete. So affirmative action was developed as an attempt to achieve equality of outcome as well as of opportunity. Universities and colleges took background, as well as test scores, into account when selecting students. At Berkeley, California, for example, test scores would give blacks 1.4 per cent of the places; because the scores are modified by ethnicity, blacks get 6.4 per cent. Minorities were given preference in hiring policies. Minority-run firms, or those that had an ethnically balanced workforce, were given preference in the bidding for many state and federal contracts.

But now liberal America is in headlong retreat. For federal contracts, the Supreme Court has, in effect, ruled that it is unconstitutional. The University of California has just decided to end affirmative action in student admissions and staff recruitment.

The architects of the policy would not necessarily regard this as a disaster. They saw affirmative action as a temporary expedient to give black competitiveness a kick-start; after a generation or two, they thought, blacks would compete on equal terms. Has it turned out that way? In some senses, yes. A black middle class has indeed emerged. Blacks occupy top positions in government, education, the professions and the armed forces. But in other senses affirmative action has been a complete failure. The majority of blacks are, if anything, even worse off: a black man is still twice as likely to be unemployed as a white man, while 46 per cent of black children are born into poverty.

Affirmative action has proved, in the end, almost unworkable, if only because of the problems of definition. How black do you have to be to qualify? Which minorities deserve how much special treatment? But that should not blind us to an important lesson. America, like Britain, has become more unequal over the past 15 years. And no number of special programmes can create true equality of opportunity if society is moving to greater inequality. It is hard enough to pull yourself off the bottom in any circumstances. How much harder must it be when your parents, your neighbourhood, your school, everything around you, is slowly sinking, when hope is receding rather than growing? That is what is happening to the majority of blacks and Hispanics in America. If affirmative action has helped some of their fellows to escape into law offices and the suburbs, that only makes them more conscious of their plight, not less.

Affirmative action was a brave attempt to correct the wrongs of the past. But preferential treatment cannot help disadvantaged groups if deeper social and economic forces are working against them. "Mend it, don't end it," is what Bill Clinton has to say about affirmative action. He would do better to think about how he would mend his divided country.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz