February 5, 2003
Dear Concerned Citizen,

The issue of affirmative action-which the Supreme Court is preparing to adjudicate over the next few months-is surrounded in a mist of misunderstanding. What follows, therefore, is a brief primer to help clarify some of the fundamental issues at stake.

What is affirmative action? Originally affirmative action meant efforts to recruit more minority applicants so that there would be true equal opportunity, and the best person would get the position. Today, however, affirmative action means race and gender preferences. Race-based affirmative action involves giving preference to less qualified black and Hispanic applicants over more qualified white and Asian American candidates.

But don't such preferences fight discrimination? No. Consider two virtually identical scenarios. A white person and a black person apply for a job. The black person is better qualified; the white person gets the position. That's racial discrimination. Here is the second scenario. A white person and a black person apply for a job. The white person is better qualified; the black person gets the position. That's affirmative action. Now, in what sense is the second result a remedy for the first? It is not. All that we see are two instances of racial discrimination.

Isn't it a problem when minorities are under-represented at selective colleges? That depends on what is causing the under-representation. In the National Basketball League, more than 75 percent of players are African American, even though African Americans are only 12 percent of the national population. Is this a problem? Why aren't people demanding to see more Jews or Korean-Americans on the court? The reason is that it is merit-not discrimination-that is producing the disparate outcome. So, too, if a larger percentage of whites and Asian Americans are getting into Berkeley on merit, that is a result we should be willing to live with.

Does affirmative action hurt blacks? Yes, in two ways. African Americans face two serious problems in America today. The first is "rumors of inferiority." Many people don't like nonwhite immigrants, but hardly anyone considers these people inferior. With blacks, however, there remains a lingering racist suspicion that they may be intellectually inferior. Far from dispelling this suspicion, affirmative action strengthens it. It conveys the message to society that blacks aren't able to succeed on their merits. Racial preferences devalue black achievement and intensify doubts about black capacity.

What is the second way in which racial preferences harm blacks? A second major problem facing blacks is cultural breakdown: high crime rates, weak academic skills, low rates of entrepreneurial formation, broken families, and so on. These cultural problems are the main reason why blacks do relatively poorly on many measures of academic achievement and economic performance. The way to improve black performance is to address the cultural breakdown. Racial preferences are a distraction from this challenge. They create the illusion that blacks are performing poorly due to racism. By rigging the race is favor of blacks, affirmative action policies discourage blacks, and society in general, from doing the hard and necessary work of building the group's cultural skills so that blacks can compete effectively with whites and other groups.

So what should the Supreme Court do about affirmative action? Get rid of it.

Affirmative Action and Diversity and Web Page Project
The Origins of Affirmative Action
Bush Doesn't Seem to Mind Affirmative Action at West Point
PBS Online Newshour
The Black Gender Gap
Forgotten Men
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  Dinesh D'Souza Bio
Dinesh D'Souza, the Rishwain Research Scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, served as senior domestic policy analyst in the White House in 1987-1988. He is the best-selling author of Illiberal Education, The End of Racism, Ronald Reagan, The Virtue of Prosperity, and What's So Great About America. He is tothesource's designated expert on current American culture.
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