Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / December 24, 1997 / 25 Kislev, 5758
New initiatives for equal opportunity are out there
LAST WEEK, PRESIDENT CLINTON invited me and a handful of others to meet with him in the Oval Office to discuss race. Among the participants were Ward Connerly, who led the fight to abolish racial preferences in California, and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, authors of the highly acclaimed new book, America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible. Most of us were there because we've been lifelong critics of racial preference programs and believe the president has not lived up to his promise to "mend affirmative action."
But the president had some criticism for us, too, faulting conservatives for not coming up with alternatives to racial preferences. I anticipated the president's criticism and came armed with some specific examples of programs that I believe are far better than the current system of set-asides and racial preferences. I oppose racial preferences not only because I think they're unfair -- and, when mandated by government, unconstitutional -- but also because they don't achieve their intended purpose of helping blacks and Hispanics.
The real challenge for all of us is to improve skills and equal opportunity in this society -- and most affirmative-action programs do a miserable job of both. College admissions programs aimed at minorities are a notorious example of good intentions gone awry. Many, if not most, schools admit black and Hispanic students who can't meet normal university requirements. Then, they do little or nothing to insure that these poorly prepared students will actually succeed. Ironically, many of the minority students who do benefit from such programs come from middle-class or affluent backgrounds.
There are a handful of institutions around the country that do it differently, however. I told the president about a program at the University of Maryland, for example, which is open to students of all races who are the first in their families to attend college. The school provides a special summer orientation session in which students learn study skills, take special writing and math courses, and receive academic counseling. Students who successfully complete the session take a highly structured freshman curriculum. Even after their first year, students continue to receive support services, including tutoring, counseling and help in selecting their course schedules and making career choices. Georgia Tech has had a similar program in place for several years.
I also gave the president information about a career ladder program run by the United Federation of Teachers in New York, which has provided opportunity to thousands of teachers' aides to earn college degrees and become teachers themselves. The program isn't targeted by race or ethnicity, but the greatest number of beneficiaries have been black or Hispanic.
The same is true of a program operated by the Associated General Contractors to help small contractors. Although the program is open to small contractors of all races, minority firms are often the ones most in need of the assistance the AGC provides. The program helps small contractors in qualifying for surety bonds, financing and insurance. Such strategies are far more likely to help small contractors succeed than bidding preferences or set-asides could ever be. What's more, the AGC program isn't subject to the fraud and abuse that has plagued government minority set-aside programs for decades.
Success in any business requires providing a superior product at a low price. But government set-aside programs create a rarefied environment in which participating minority businesses don't have to offer the lowest bid. In some instances, they don't even have to compete with other firms. This is hardly the way the real business world operates, which is why so many minority businesses that depend on government set-asides fail when they are no longer eligible to participate in the program. Even the president acknowledged the problem during our meeting.
Clinton said he wants to "stop talking past each other and start working together." He's taken a first step by listening to his critics. Let's see if he'll take the next one. Improving skills and equality of opportunity -- not racial double standards -- are the real keys to black and Hispanic advancement. But so long as government itself is in the business of awarding benefits on the basis of skin color, we'll never become a truly color-blind society.
12/17/97: Opening a window of opportunity (a way out of bilingual education for California's Hispanic kids)