With her customary, self-satisfied smirk and glib confidence, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow yesterday derided Senate Republicans for focusing on â€œone caseâ€ (i.e., the Ricci discrimination case) in which Judge Sonia Sotomayor, as a member of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled to dismiss a white Connecticut firefighterâ€™s contention that he had been bypassed for a promotion specifically because of his skin color. Maddow sneered that Republicans were obsessively characterizing the Ricci case as a â€œpro-affirmative action rulingâ€ and were â€œcriticizing that one a lot.â€
At the heart of Maddowâ€™s remarks was the implicit conviction that affirmative action always has been, still is, and always will be a good thing; that it is a necessary counterbalance to white Americans’ allegedly inherent inclination toward bigotry; and that in recent decades, preferential policies have not only been indispensable to the social and economic progress of minorities, but also have brought many tangible, lasting benefits to society as a whole. From these planted axioms, it is but aÂ short logical leap to the conclusion that a â€œpro-affirmative action rulingâ€â€”far from tarnishing a judgeâ€™s resumÃ© â€”could only enhance it.
But a careful analysis of the facts reveals no solid evidence that affirmative action has helped minorities overall to improve their position in society–to sayÂ nothing of the tribalism and the inter-groupÂ hostlities it has bred. Consider, specifically, the case of African Americans.
Affirmative actionâ€™s proponents seem utterly unaware that black progress was already well underway, and proceeding at a brisk pace, long before the era of affirmative action. In fact, between 1940 and 1960 African Americans were, in many ways, improving their position faster than they would after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or after the dawn of widespread affirmative action programs in the early 1970s. The pre-1960 economic progress of blacks was in large part a result of their massive migration from the rural south to northern cities, where the employment and earning opportunities open to them were far superior. Without a doubt, the strides they made in the space of just two decades must be ranked among the greatest achievements of any demographic group in American history an ascent they began from the very bottom rung of the social ladder.
Whereas in 1940 only 10 percent of black men held middle-class jobs, by 1960 this figure had more than doubled, reaching 23 percent. Between 1940 and 1950 the earnings of the average black man, in real dollars adjusted for inflation, grew by a remarkable 75 percent (about twice the rate at which white male incomes grew), and increased by another 45 percent during the 1950s. By 1960, black male incomes were 2.5 times greater than they had been twenty years earlier, and black female incomes were 2.3 times greater. In two decades, the black poverty rate had virtually been cut in half.
Apart from income, there were additional barometers of black Americansâ€™ growing prosperity. For instance, between 1940 and 1960 the percentage of blacks who owned their homes rose by 65 percent, as compared to a 42 percent rise for whites. In 1940 black life expectancy at birth was just 53 years, fully 11 years lower than the white figure. By 1960 the black average had risen by ten and a half years, while the corresponding white figure had increased by only half that much. During that same twenty-year period, the percentage of blacks who attained high-school diplomas more than tripled, while the corresponding figure for whites grew at only one-fifth that rate.
Clearly, it makes no sense to credit “affirmative action” for setting in motion a trend that was already well underway long before that term ever made its first appearance in the American lexicon. If we are to make wise public-policy decisions as a people, it is imperative that those policies be based on facts, rather than on gaudy rhetorical tapestries woven by uninformed demagogues and their mouthpieces in the media.