These figures come from a massive new scholarly work, “America in Black and White,” by two civil rights veterans, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, who have reconstructed the history of racial progress and conflict in the postwar era and examined the impact of affirmative action solutions.
Black poverty, the Thernstroms show, has little to do with race, and its solution will not be affected by affirmative action set-asides. Such policies, they assert, have had the net effect not of employing greater numbers of blacks or raising their living standards, but of shifting black employment from small businesses to large corporations and to government. A far more effective anti-poverty program would be to promote black marriages. Currently, for example, 85 percent of poor black children live in fatherless families; the poverty rate for black children without fathers is nearly five times that for black children with two parents.
In higher education, the rate of gain for blacks in college enrollments was greater between 1960 and 1970 (when enrollments increased from 4 percent to 7 percent of the total college population) than it was in the decades after affirmative action was implemented. Enrollments rose from 7 percent to 9.9 percent between 1970 and 1980, and to 10.7 percent between 1980 and 1994. In 1965 — before affirmative action — blacks were only about half as likely to actually graduate college as whites. In 1995, the figure was exactly the same.
In 1995, only 1,764 black students nationwide (1.7 percent of all blacks who took the test) scored as high as 600 on the verbal SATs; the math scores were even worse. By comparison, 64,950 white students (9.6 percent of all whites who took the test) scored 600 or higher on the verbal SATs. But under affirmative-action guidelines, those black students have been recruited by Berkeley, Harvard and similar elite schools, where the average white student (and the average Asian) had scores at least 100 points higher. At Berkeley, the gap is nearly 300 points. Predictably, blacks drop out of Berkeley at nearly three times the rate of whites.
This is but one of the unspoken nightmares of affirmative action. Simply put, African-Americans are being put in college programs that far exceed their abilities and qualifications. As the Thernstroms ruefully observe, the college that comes closest to equality in actually graduating its students is Ole Miss, one of the last bastions of segregation in the South. Integrated now, Ole Miss is resistant to the new racial duplicity in admissions standards. The result: 49 percent of freshmen whites graduate, and so do 48 percent of blacks.
On the basis of what actually has happened, increasing numbers of civil rights supporters are concluding that affirmative action is not only having little or no effect on the income and education gaps, but is actually destructive to the people it is supposed to help. It is creating black failure while stirring the resentment of other groups who see themselves displaced, on the basis of race, from their hard-earned places of merit.
“Liberalism no longer curbs discrimination. It invites it. It does not expose racism; it recapitulates and, sometimes, reinvents it.” Those are not the words of some Confederate flag-waving demagogue from below the Mason-Dixon line; they are the words of another veteran of the civil rights movement, Jim Sleeper, a columnist with the New York Daily News, and they are taken from his new book, “Liberal Racism,” which examines the toxic effects of well-intended liberal programs like affirmative action.
So does the wheel of history turn. Old models and old beliefs are crumbling. It was the survivors and reformers of communism who dumped that unworkable ideology into the ash can of history. A similar process is taking place in the civil rights movement. And for the people who need it the most, that cannot come too soon.