Nothing in the current debate over affirmative action has rankled me more as a black person than the question: "Isn't thirty years enough?" It has been asked by many people, but perk haps most prominently by Jesse Helms on the floor of the Senate in March. "Isn't thirty years enough?" Helms intoned, as he announced that he was introducing legislation to end all federal affirmative-action programs.
Isn't thirty years of affirmative action enough?
To put that into perspective, recall that the first black settiers arrived here as slaves in 1619. In the 376 years since, AfricanAmericans have enjoyed two periods of relative normalcy, two periods of about thirty years each in which they were subject to neither involuntary servitude nor officially sanctioned second-class citizenship. And those two periods were separated by about seventy years.
Sixty good years out of 376---and people have the nerve to ask whether thirty years of affirmative action isn't enough. Incredible!
Nevertheless, the political facts of life suggest to me that thirty years will have to be enough. Because affirmative action, at least insofar as it means efforts to overcome the historically imposed disadvantages of black folks (and definition is part of the problem in this debate), looks like a goner. My personal crystal ball says that 1996 will bring a watershed event of some sort in American race relations--a Supreme Court decision? passage of the California Civil Rights Initiative? the election of Phil Gramm?--that will be the symbolic equivalent of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. That, of course, was the Supreme Court decision that made "separate but equal" the law of the land, marking a kind of official end to Reconstruction and laying the juridical foundation for Jim Crow. The new event, whatever it turns out to be, will ring down the curtain on the most recent period of black advancement. God willing, we'll not regress as far as Jim Crow. I fear that the foregoing suggests I am much more an unqualified supporter of affirmative action than I am. The fact is that it has troubled me for a long time and for a number of reasons, although none of them is killing.
It really can foster doubt about the legitimacy of the achievements of those it's meant to benefit--not just in the minds of white males, but also in the minds of the blacks, women, or other beneficiaries. I don't think this is a crippling defect. (It certainly doesn't seem to have crippled the white men who benefited from affirmative action in decades past by not having to compete with excluded portions of the population.) As Stephen Carter observed in his book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (Basic Books, 1991), what's critical is not how one comes to the opportunity, but what one does with it. Affirmative action imposes obligations on its beneficiaries, and no one has demonstrated that, on balance, those beneficiaries don't measure up as well as those from the traditional talent pools. (Of course, there's no reason they shouldn't measure up.