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When Good Intentions Aren't Good Enough

when-good-intentions-arent-enough Edited image by Eric Shoemaker via Flickr.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue here.

It has been a half century since President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 commencement address at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C. He had signed the Civil Rights Act a year earlier and would sign the Voting Rights Act just two months later. But Johnson’s speech wasn’t a victory lap, as some anticipated. Instead, it was mainly about what government should do next on behalf of blacks. This was merely the “end of the beginning,” he said, quoting Winston Churchill.

“That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society—to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school,” said Johnson. “But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘Now you are free to go where you want and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.’

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Johnson said that the “next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” was “not just freedom but opportunity” and “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

The president had launched a war on poverty and racial inequality, and he was going to win it by redistributing wealth and pushing numbers-based racial remedies.

But what if Johnson was mistaken? What if there are limits to what government can do beyond removing barriers to freedom? What if the best that we can hope for from our elected officials are policies that promote equal opportunity? What if public-policy makers risk creating more barriers to progress when the goal is the ever-elusive “equality as a result”? At what point does the helping start hurting?

Over the past half century, popular government policies and programs aimed at helping blacks have not worked as intended. The intentions behind welfare programs, for example, may be noble. But in practice they have slowed the self-development that proved necessary for other groups to advance. Minimum-wage laws might lift earnings for people who are already employed, but they also have a long history of pricing blacks out of the labor force. And so it goes, with everything from soft-on-crime laws that make black neighborhoods more dangerous to policies that limit school choice out of a mistaken belief that charter schools and voucher programs harm the traditional public schools that most low-income students attend. People of goodwill want to see more black socioeconomic advancement, but time and again the empirical data show that current methods and approaches have come up short.

Nowhere is the gap between intentions and results more evident than in affirmative action.

From Color Blindness to Quotas

Affirmative action is now approaching middle age. We are five decades into this exercise in social engineering. And aside from the question of its constitutionality, there remains the matter of its effectiveness. Do racial preferences work? Have they in fact helped the intended beneficiaries? How much credit do they deserve for the minority gains that have occurred?

Although proponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dismissed concerns that it would lead to quotas and timetables that required employers to hire or promote specific numbers of minorities, the concept of equal opportunity soon fell by the wayside, to be replaced by a concept of equal results—exactly what Lyndon Johnson called for in his 1965 speech at Howard University. In 1987 the Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote: “The expectation of color blindness that was paramount in the mid-1960s has been replaced by policies setting a rigid frame of numerical requirements. . . . Whatever the term meant in the 1960s, since the 1970s affirmative action has come to mean quotas and goals and timetables.”

Glazer’s analysis is still true, only more so. A report by the Congressional Research Service found that the number of federal statutes that granted “preferences in employment, contracting, or awarding federal benefits on the basis of membership in a preferred class” had jumped from 172 in 1995 to 276 in 2011.

There is no question that black poverty fell and that the professional class swelled in the decades following the implementation of racial preferences. In 1970 blacks comprised 2.2 percent of physicians, 1.3 percent of lawyers, and 1.2 percent of engineers, according to census data. By 1990 those percentages had more than doubled. Liberals automatically credit affirmative action, but note what was already happening prior to the introduction of preferential policies in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“By 1970 over a fifth of African-American men and over a third of black women were in middle-class occupations, four times as many as in 1940 in the case of men and six times as many as in the case of women,” wrote Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, coauthors of America in Black and White. “Thus,” the Thernstroms concluded, “there was a substantial black middle class already in existence by the end of the 1960s. In the years since, it has continued to grow, but not at a more rapid pace than in the preceding three decades, despite a common impression to the contrary. Great occupational advances were made by African Americans before preferential policies were introduced.”

The earlier drop in black poverty was even more dramatic. In 1940 the black poverty rate was 87 percent. By 1960 it had fallen to 47 percent, a forty-point drop that predated not only affirmative action but also the passage of landmark civil rights bills that liberals would later credit with the steep decline in black poverty.

Did affirmative action play a role in reducing the percentage of poor blacks? If so, it wasn’t much of one. In 1970, 33.5 percent of blacks were living below the official poverty line. In 1990, two full decades of affirmative action later, the figure was 31.9 percent.

Under affirmative action, low-income blacks have actually fallen farther behind. Between 1967 and 1992, incomes for the wealthiest 20 percent of blacks rose at approximately the same rate as their white counterparts. But the poorest 20 percent of blacks saw their incomes decline, at more than double the rate of comparable whites over the same time period. Income disparity among blacks increased at a faster rate than income disparity among whites. This trend, which social scientists call “income segregation,” has actually worsened in more recent years.

“Segregation by income among black families was lower than among white families in 1970, but grew four times as much between 1970 and 2007,” according to a 2011 study by two Stanford University scholars. “By 2007, income segregation among black families was 60 percent greater than among white families.”

Empirical data show that in an era of racial preferences, quotas, and set-asides ostensibly intended to help the black poor, that subset regressed.

Help or Harm?

Proponents of affirmative action credit it with the increase in black college students and contend that ending double standards in admissions would reduce their numbers and decimate the black middle class. But is this another example of affirmative action being oversold as crucial to the success of blacks?

The history of affirmative action in academia since the 1970s is a history of trying to justify holding blacks to lower standards in the name of helping them. The left believes that the large black-white gap in academic credentials among college freshmen doesn’t matter, or that racial and ethnic diversity is a bigger concern. But what if the efforts to color-code campuses at any cost are not so benign? Are black students helped or harmed when they are admitted to a school with lower qualifications than those required of other students at the same institution?

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about the answer, because some states have banned the use of race in college admissions, and enough time has now elapsed to evaluate the results.

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in public education and public employment. In 2013 the New York Times ran a front-page story on the University of California system’s efforts to maintain a racially and ethnically diverse student body without using group quotas. “Across the University of California system,” the Times reported, “Latinos fell to 12 percent of newly enrolled state residents in the mid-1990s from more than 15 percent, and blacks declined to 3 percent from 4 percent. At the most competitive campuses, at Berkeley and Los Angeles, the decline was much steeper.” But the article acknowledged that “eventually, the numbers rebounded” and that “a similar pattern of decline and recovery followed at other state universities that eliminated race as a factor in admissions.” Given all the dire predictions made at the time, it’s nice to see that the worst-case scenarios didn’t come to pass.

But the too-seldom-told story of affirmative action in the University of California system is of the black gains that have occurred since it was abolished.

In their book, Mismatch, authors Richard Sander and ­Stuart Taylor Jr. tell this good-news story by comparing the pre– and post–Proposition 209 eras. Here is a sample of their findings:

  • The number of blacks entering UC as freshmen in 2000 through 2003 is, on average, only 2 percent below pre-209 levels, and black enrollment jumps when we take into account transfers and lower attrition.
  • The number of Hispanic freshmen is up by 22 percent over the same period, and again more when we include transfers.
  • The number of blacks receiving bachelor degrees from UC schools rose from an average of 812 in 1998–2001 (the final cohorts entirely comprised of pre-209 entrants) to an average of 904 in 2004–2007 (the first cohorts entirely comprised of post-209 entrants). For UC Hispanics, the numbers rose from 3,317 to 4,428.
  • The number of UC black and Hispanic freshmen who went on to graduate in four years rose 55 percent from 1995–1997 to 2001–2003.
  • The number of UC black and Hispanic freshmen who went on to graduate in four years with STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] degrees rose 51 percent from 1995–1997 to 2001–2003.
  • The number of UC black and Hispanic freshmen who went on to graduate in four years with GPAs of 3.5 or higher rose by 63 percent from 1995–1997 to 2001–2003.
  • Doctorates and STEM graduate degrees earned by blacks and Hispanics combined rose by one-quarter from cohorts starting in 1995–1997 to cohorts starting in 1998–2000.

Prior to the passage of Proposition 209, blacks and Hispanics in California were steered into schools where they were underprepared relative to the other students. “Diversity” was deemed more important than learning. Proponents of racial preferences weren’t overly concerned with whether these minorities actually graduated, and many of them didn’t (or did so only by switching to a less demanding major). After race preferences were banned, blacks and Hispanics were more likely to attend a school where they could handle the work, and as a result many more of them have flourished academically.

Yes, fewer minorities attended Berkeley and UCLA in the wake of the new policy, and instead matriculated at less selective places like UC Santa Cruz, but more minorities overall not only graduated but also obtained degrees in engineering and science. What’s more important?

Once again empirical data show blacks doing better in the absence of a government policy originally put in place to help them. Once again the political left, which has a vested interest in convincing black people that group success is highly dependent on policies like affirmative action, has ignored or downplayed results at odds with its agenda.

Jason L. Riley is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. This essay is adapted from his book Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed(Encounter Books), by permission of the publisher.


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