By Chuck Hobbs, Esq. – On February 24th a debate between students at predominantly black Florida A&M University (FAMU) and Florida State University (FSU), its predominantly white cross-town neighbor, will center upon one of the most politically divisive issues of the past quarter century—Affirmative Action and the role it plays in government spending. The debate was spurred from angry reaction on the FAMU campus upon learning that the FSU College Republicans held a bake sale where a free cookie was given to black and Latino students, a half cookie was given to Asian students and a fourth of a cookie was given to white students.
When I first learned of the bake sale my initial and admittedly cynical reaction was to wonder whether the young Republicans had considered that the proverbial cookie is comprised of ingredients provided by all races. Meaning, if the cookie symbolizes the Federal budget, and the concern is that Affirmative Action is unjustly enriching minority groups, this line of reasoning fails to take into account that in 2011, the lions’ share of federal contracting and dollars spent for research, student loans and scholarships is not overwhelmingly skewed toward blacks, Latinos and women.
When Affirmative Action was first proposed in an executive order by President Kennedy, the primary reason was to redress centuries of government sanctioned discrimination against minorities. Later, under President Johnson, sex was added to redress discrimination against women. Make no mistake, minorities and women were routinely taxed prior to Affirmative Action, but they received little benefit with respect to business growth and contracting from their hard earned dollars. Once enacted, it certainly can be argued those minorities that were allowed into institutions previously forbidden and participating in minority set-aside programs were able to obtain the education and financing needed to develop the middle and upper middle classes that presently exist.
Despite this progress, among blacks there remains no unanimity in thought on the inherent benefits—or the long term viability—-of affirmative action. Consider the divergent views of former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell and conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Powell, who also served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, bases his longstanding support of Affirmative Action on the fact that America’s armed forces, once integrated in 1948, enacted measures to ensure that talented minority officers were able to rise through the ranks unencumbered by systemic discrimination.
Justice Thomas, on the contrary, states that his aversion to affirmative action is based upon his mistaken belief that his admission to Yale Law School was based on merit, as opposed to race based admissions. In his autobiography My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas recounts conversation in which a former professor told him as much—that absent relaxed standards for admission that he would not have been vouchsafed admission had his application been subjected to same rigors as his white classmates. Dejected, Thomas became and remains bitterly opposed to such set-asides, so much so that he refuses to hang his Yale degree in his chambers.
While Thomas’ position is lauded by Affirmative Action opponents, when debating this issue I am mildly amused at the rank hypocrisy of the same, many of whom stress the need for “color-blind” admission to their favorite college or university—except with respect to the athletic programs that often are littered with black athletes that would never gain admission to said college or university but for their ability to run, block or tackle.
While there are certainly pros and cons to both Powell and Thomas’ approach to this subject, the rhetorical question asked by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is still on point: how long such remedial measures must remain in effect? 10 years? 25 years? Such is difficult to say. But it is clear that the political winds on this topic certainly are blowing harder in the direction of eliminating race as a factor in government funding or scholastic admissions.
This is based in large part on two issues; first, there are legions of whites who are now entering leadership positions who have no conscious memory of Jim Crow or overt gender discrimination. The second, addressed by President Obama in a speech two years ago, is whether middle and upper middle class blacks, those whose children have as many or more opportunities to excel than their white counterparts, should qualify for certain special status based upon race alone.
The courts have skewed to the right on this issue over the past two decades, with present jurisprudence often requiring a claimant to prove discriminatory intent. Still, when one reviews where state and federal dollars are doled out, more often than not the lion’s share of the firms obtaining these contracts is owned by and large by white males. For example, if there are 10 contracts available for bid and bids are submitted by qualified majority and minority firms, and yet a supermajority of the contracts go to white owned firms, is that not a discriminatory use of tax dollars—dollars that are taxed from all races? An answer of “no” is not only disingenuous—but belies the reality that forty years after the Civil Rights Movement, there is much left to overcome in the court of public perception on race privilege.