This Date in UCSF History: Affirmative Action Under Attack (Again!)

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Originally published in Synapse on Feb. 23, 1995.

Do you think that all citizens should have equal access to jobs and education? If so, how does one measure equality?

Is the measure the relative number of positions that any particular group holds based on its representation in the general population? Or are there other more accurate measures?

In the debate stirring in California with regards to affirmative action, an attempt is being made to confuse the terms “affirmative action” and “equal opportunity.”

Affirmative action policies are attempts to combat the historical structural hindrances that African-Americans and other groups have encountered in the pursuit of happiness — hindrances which have created huge economic and educational disparities between ethnic groups.

These policies were implemented in recognition of the fact that opportunity is not equal in our country, skin color being only one of many traits easily targeted for discrimination.

Stating that affirmative action is “reverse discrimination,” “preferential,” or otherwise unfair ignores the origin of these policies and their goals.

Government-sanctioned racial discrimination created these disparate worlds.

Consider two Supreme Court decisions which illustrate this point:

(1) Dred Scott vs. Sanford, 1857, in which Dred Scott was denied the right to sue Sanford for his freedom. Chief Justice Taney wrote that African-Americans were “beings of inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race... they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

(2) Plessy vs Ferguson 1896, in which Louisiana was allowed to maintain separate railroad cars for African-American and white passengers.

These rulings led directly to the “separate but equal”, Jim Crow policies that subsequently engulfed the nation.

These policies were not reversed until the civil rights movement of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s and even then, the reversals have been subjected to constant attacks such as that presently being waged against affirmative action.

How equal are the opportunities? If one uses the measure of proportionate representation, not equal at all.

Andrew Hacker, a British statistician, enumerates countless inequalities in his book Two Nations: Black and White, separate, hostile, unequal.

African-Americans account for roughly 12% of the U. S. population and 10% of the nation’s work force, yet we comprise only 4.7% of waiters and waitresses, 3.8% of editors and reporters, 3.6% of engineers, 3.2% of lawyers, 3.0% of physicians, 2.5% of dental hygienists and 0.9% of architects.

On the other hand, we are 22% of janitors and cleaners, 23% of vehicle washers, and 25% of hotel maids and housemen.

These discrepancies clearly exist due to past discriminatory legislation.

Are you surprised by the figures? Can the opponents of affirmative action show similar damage to any other group?

The answer is no. Certainly, there have been highly publicized cases, particularly with firefighters in Memphis and Los Angeles, where affirmative action policies may have penalized individuals for being white.

These situations must be addressed as they arise.

No one, however, can argue reasonably that affirmative action effects widespread, government-sanctioned racial discrimination.

The detractors of affirmative action also want to incite opposition by claiming that those who benefit are “unqualified” or “not the best qualified.” (A familiar term used not too long ago was “inferior.”)

What is the measure? With respect to our medical school, might it be SAT scores, for example?

SAT scores have no predictive value in identifying “good doctors” (the measure of which itself is unclear) and have been shown to be linked to family income.

Selection of medical school students primarily by SAT scores would be equivalent to selection against most minority groups, as income levels are grossly unequal.

The criteria for “the best doctors” and their selection are multifactorial and cannot be subject to any sensible ordinate value.

This principal is true for most, if not all, occupations (e.g., what is a good president?).

What is the source of this most recent outcry?

The California Civil Rights Initiative, proposed for the 1996 ballot, would ban all state affirmative action programs without any form of replacement.

It is authored by Glynn Custred, a Hayward State anthropology professor, and Tom Wood, representing the conservative state faculty group, the California Association of Scholars.

Additionally, Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) and Regent Ward Connerly are active opponents to affirmative action.

Elitism, ignorance and prejudice abound in their published statements, notable also for a paucity of facts.

For example, in a San Francisco Chronicle interview Feb. 12, Custred states “People in society really aren’t equal.”

In the Jan. 14 issue of UCSFs Newsbreak, Connerly is quoted, “I don’t think you give preference by virtue of gender or membership in an ethnic group.”

The origin, intent, and success of affirmative action programs are carefully avoided in their arguments.

Neither is convincing evidence given of systematic, cumulative damage to any group. President Kennedy knew better.

In proposing the Civil Rights Act which eventually led to affirmative action, he stated that, “If an American, because his skin is dark...cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”

The battle for equality continues...