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Voices From the Affirmative Action Front

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League


For nearly four decades opponents of affirmative action have painted those of us who favor it as, at best, misguided do-gooders.

That’s been their kindest description.
Most often, they’ve characterized the array of affirmative action’s supporters with harsher epithets—“elitist editorial writers and left-leaning politicians,” “race baiters,” “isolated academics,” and, perhaps the most damning of all, “liberals,” to name a few of the descriptions that have appeared in recent opinion columns—in their zeal to declare affirmative action as discrimination in reverse.

And they’ve proclaimed a blanket, fervent opposition to “preferential treatment,” often characterizing it as un-American.
But the opposition to affirmative action has now begun to shine the media spotlight on and raise questions about other kinds of preferential treatment in college admissions—such as that for children of wealthy parents or alumni offspring—which have almost exclusively favored whites for decades.

Perhaps even more important, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider affirmative action in admissions at the University of Michigan, its first great consideration of the issue since the Bakke case in 1978, some “new voices” have joined the discussion about the validity of the long-debated policy, both specifically at Michigan and in all sectors of American society.
These new voices are speaking out forcefully in support of affirmative action.

But they have not—at least, not yet—been verbally tarred with all those negative characterizations the rest of us are used to.
Most likely, that’s because these “new voices” come from the ranks of American business and the American military.

“Full integration and other policies combating discrimination are essential to good order, combat readiness and military effectiveness,” said Joseph R. Reeder, a former undersecretary of the Army, explaining the signing by nearly 30 top former defense leaders of a legal brief supporting Michigan.

They’ve joined more than 300 organizations, including major corporations, labor unions, institutions of higher learning, and civil rights organizations (the National Urban League among them) representing a broad spectrum of American society who’ve filed a total of more than 60 amicus curiae briefs on the University’s behalf.

Among the military and civilian defense officials are two former Defense Secretaries, William Perry and William Cohen, three former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen, General Hugh Shelton, Admiral William Crowe, and General John Shalikashvili, and also Generals Wesley K. Clark and H. Norman Schwartzkopf.

Reeder emphasized in a newspaper interview that the signers “absolutely” don’t support quotas or believe that troops can only be led by officers of their own ethnic background. His point was that all military personnel need to “know that those officers exist and to the extent that he or she delivers excellence they have the chance to rise and the service is fair and recognizes merit.”

Kenneth Frazier, senior vice president and general counsel at Merck, the pharmaceutical company, expressed what is essentially the same motivation in business terms. “Diversity creates stronger companies. The work we do directly impacts patients of all types around the globe. Understanding people is essential to our success.”

In fact, many businesses and the military have long supported affirmative action because they recognize its practical benefits (as well as its moral validity) for American society.

It’s just that they themselves have been quiet about it—and critics of affirmative action have preferred not to acknowledge the existence of their support for it. You see the problem for affirmative action’s opponents.

It’s one thing to call academics and civil rights leaders “elitists” and “isolated.”
It doesn’t quite work, however, to use such epithets against Fortune 500 company leaders and top military and civilian defense officials.

As the general counsel of the University of Michigan succinctly put it, “These people are not flaming liberals.”

But they do share “common ground” with affirmative action’s better-known supporters because as far as this issue is concerned we all have an intense, disciplined focus on what works best to produce the best “bottom-line” results.

For business leaders, that most obviously means what works best to expand their companies’ markets and profitability.
For the defense leaders, that most obviously means what works best for America’s national security.

Undergirding those pragmatic concerns is the moral issue: That affirmative action is a proper mechanism for redressing past injustices and properly preparing American society for the future.

I like the reason the American Jewish Committee, which had opposed the use of quotas in the Bakke case, has given for supporting the University of Michigan policies now.

The AJC told the New York Times that Michigan’s policies are more fluid.
That’s the point.

The affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan and hundreds of other American institutions are “more fluid” so that now and in the future American society can be more fluid, too.

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