Selected Skirmishes: Wedge-O-Matic

Affirmative Action slices and dices our common bond.


Is the Democratic Party, already passed over by those in the Titanic rafts as too far gone to save, headed for Really Big Trouble? The answer is: affirmative.

Democratic retainers are pulling their hair out as they scrape for a dodge on affirmative action. Even liberal Democrats in Congress tossed in the towel on what they had so recently (and adamantly) fought for: tax preferences for minority millionaires buying FCC licenses. The measure repealing the preferences, co-sponsored by Rep. Bob Matsui (my Clintonite congressman), encountered fewer than 50 "no" votes in a U.S. House of Representatives that six months ago would have killed such a bill as dutifully as O.J.'s lawyers dispense of unfavorable evidence.

The Republican Party is being accused of cynically exploiting affirmative action as a "wedge" issue, a ploy to divide and conquer the American public. In truth, the GOP leadership should be brought up on charges of political malpractice for gutlessly steering clear of this issue for three decades.

The catalyst for the recent national debate is the California Civil Rights Initiative, a 1996 ballot measure concocted by a former philosophy teacher and an anthropology professor at Cal State-Hayward. How embarrassing can this be for professional Republican Party campaign tricksters—to get scooped by a couple of bespectacled profs?

The anti-affirmative action sentiment is tarred by the press as "angry white guy" backlash. But this is the view that cynically divides people. Why is it a truism that only those who are officially discriminated against can oppose an unjust and counterproductive system? Indeed, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that while 68 percent of white males oppose the policy, 57 percent of everyone else does too. In other words, even among those who are officially awarded "frequent discrimination miles" under the affirmative action laws, a vast majority believes it to be a scam.

The cynicism of which affirmative action apologists speak is actually found on the government-mandated forms we fill out to indicate our race and gender. The division of people is as neat and simple as a check mark. Americans are "wedged" by affirmative action's paperwork.

In an electoral nutshell, affirmative action programs are wildly unpopular with the public, but are wildly popular with civil rights leaders, feminists, attorneys, university professors, Washington Post journalists, and three sensitive white guys in Madison, Wisconsin. The first group encompasses just about everyone who votes in America; the latter group encompasses just about everyone who contributes time, money, or favorable publicity to the Democratic Party.

Party leaders are enamored of affirmative action because it has proven a gold mine not to the oppressed masses but to a select number of elites, typically ensconced in high-paying public-sector jobs. The arithmetic reveals a marketing problem. But the party's franchise outlet owners prevent a solution. Panic is setting in.

To ordinary Americans, the most offensive aspect of affirmative action is that it creates a bureaucratic ranking of social pain. The task is of such outrageous complexity that we must settle for gross categorizations—black, Hispanic, female, Aleut, etc. The government then deals out chits for offenses thought to have been suffered by those "victims" lucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—genetically speaking.

The moral repugnancy of affirmative action is reinforced by the operational lunacy of the system: Everyone on this planet knows the hardship they have endured, and it is infinitely more important to them than the pain endured by their great, great grand-whatevers. We do not arise in the morning bemoaning the shellacking that Generation F or Q took in the 1400s or the 1800s. Yet we all go down with migraines over the piddling little slights and insults that whack us in the face and render us all battered children of cruel fate.

Indeed, it is this essential compatibility of experience that links all humanity with a common bond, and drives not only our desire for brotherhood but our respect for those who exude dignity in the enterprise of living. For the state to pull rank and declare that its accounting system of social pain—a simplistic stereotyping by skin color and the presence or absence of one moving part—is sufficiently wise to be law is quite absurd. And rude.

The struggle to overcome is ubiquitous, and the government's racist and sexist handicapping is an insult to every man, woman, and child who gamely tries to surmount life's challenges.

It may well be true that this cursed cycle of public policy began with the vile behavior of the southern segregationists. Indeed, Sen. Hubert Humphrey presciently accused Dixiecrats of sandbagging his 1964 Civil Rights Act by predicting the measure would lead to reverse discrimination. That was a cynical fabrication to undercut a noble cause, bellowed Humphrey. He was right then. And he is right today.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California at Davis.