Should Jews vote to dismantle affirmative action Racial preferences unfair

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Affirmative action means different things to different people, but one way or another, affirmative action always involves group preferences. They may be ironclad preferences, like quotas or set-asides. They may be more subtle preferences, like goals and timetables, which call upon institutions to hire more of a particular group by a particular date — and to be prepared to explain why if they fail.

The California Civil Rights Initiative prohibits state-sponsored "preferences" — in public employment, contracting and education. It does not prohibit legitimate and worthwhile forms of affirmative action, such as outreach and careful scrutiny of hiring and admission criteria. So the issue is preferences, not affirmative action.

There are many reasons why the polls consistently show that Californians of all racial and gender classes overwhelmingly oppose state-sponsored preferences, even while they support affirmative action.

First, preferences are just plain unfair. They assume that those who deserve a break from society, and those who ought to give that break, can be defined along neat racial or sexual lines.

Now life is not always fair, but it is simplistic to assume that life's unfairness can be treated along such lines. Life has been pretty fair to Bill Cosby, and his children deserve no advantage over the children of an impoverished Jewish immigrant from Russia.

Preferences based on socioeconomic class, not race or gender, make sense, and comport with traditional Jewish notions of justice and charity. We should look at income, family stability and other social factors. If we substitute class for race, we may still give most of the breaks to members of a particular race. But however much they overlap, there's a fundamental difference between race or gender, on the one hand, and class, on the other. Race and gender are immutable. Class is not. Anyone could someday qualify for a class-based preference, but many of us could never qualify for a racial or gender preference.

Californians also oppose preferences because they are impractical. How in the world do we decide who gets and who gives the breaks? Some insist that "minorities" deserve preferences at the expense of the "majority." How do we define "minorities"?

Women and minorities constitute 70 percent of the population in California. By the turn of the century, whites will be just another minority group. In San Francisco, whites represent 15 percent of the public-school population; blacks represent 18 percent, Hispanics 21 percent, and Chinese 24 percent. Who, in that mosaic, is the minority and who the majority?

If blacks, because of the horrendous heritage of slavery, are entitled to preferences, why are Asians excluded? After all, California has never had slavery, but it has had concentration camps. And they were filled with Japanese Americans. California has never had Jim Crow laws, but it has had racial exclusion laws aimed directly at Chinese Americans.

Racial preferences are on a collision course with interracial marriage trends. How do we determine an individual's racial identity? Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both had white ancestors. In San Francisco, where quotas regulate hiring of firefighters, some applicants contend that they qualify because a fourth or fifth generation ancestor was Hispanic.

These same issues figured in pre-war Germany, where Jews and gentiles intermarried. Ultimately, applying racial preferences may force America to adopt its own version of the obnoxious Nuremberg Racial Laws to screen for qualified candidates.

In addition to being unfair and impractical, preferences are counterproductive. They do no favor for the racial or gender group preferred. Preferences send this condescending, patronizing message: We are going to do for you what you cannot do for yourselves.

Preferences taint deserving minorities. They create a climate in which qualified blacks are equal but separate. As Shelby Steele writes: "In the crucial yet gray area of perceived competence, preferences make whites look better than they are and blacks worse, while doing nothing whatsoever to stop the very real discrimination that blacks may encounter."

But by far the worst thing about preferences is that they divert us from the genuine problems which we should address. Preferences are like wage and price controls. Both deal with shortages by disguising the symptoms. Preferences simply increase competition to hire or admit a limited pool of favored applicants. Instead of resorting to preferences, we in the Jewish community who are dedicated to social progress should focus on enlarging the size of that pool.

Does anyone really expect blacks as a group to compete equally with whites when black children are four times as likely as white children to grow up in poverty? When 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock? When more than half of black families are headed by single parents?

These are the awful and fundamental problems we ought to address. And there are many serious solutions we ought to consider: reforming welfare, establishing enterprise zones, strengthening the police, developing school choice programs, supporting churches and other community institutions. But preferences are not a solution. They are cosmetic.

The Jewish community, with its proud heritage of supporting progressive causes, should shun racial and gender preferences, and endorse the California Civil Rights Initiative.