Sounding much like a Walter Matthau character, Bonacic, an Orange County Republican, griped to no one in particular: “Everything has to be racially balanced. ‘We need a woman. We need a Hispanic. We need an Afro-American. We need some Caucasians. Maybe we need an Asian.’ I don’t necessarily adhere to those philosophies. If seven women happen to be the brightest, put them all on.”
This was a rather welcome outburst of candor in an otherwise gratuitous display of political theater, as Senate Republicans attempted to thwart the governor after having rolled over on gun control last month (much to their credit).
Senator Bonacic’s frustration at the new world order in which women and minorities lay claim to the trappings of white male power is not without merit. There’s an intellectually sound argument against affirmative action, championed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, that it’s hypocritical, even unconstitutional, to make minorities into a protected class of people. Thomas argues that since the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment already guarantees equality under the law, affirmative action is tantamount to discrimination.
Martin Luther King Jr. also envisioned a race-blind nation in which his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But, as Freakonomics author Steven Levitt details in the 2005 classic, King’s vision is simply not yet a reality. Levitt teamed up with fellow economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. to study naming trends in black and white culture, and the effect of a name on future success. The study identified the most popular names among black and white families (Deshawn and Jake respectively) and found that when two otherwise identical résumés were sent out, the white applicant was more likely to receive a callback. Despite the same qualifications, the white applicant was already ahead of his black peer.
This is precisely why affirmative action was created. So people with names like Sonia Sotomayor could gain entrée to education and employment regardless of their circumstances. Sotomayor, who rose from poverty to Princeton to become the first Latina on the Supreme Court, supports affirmative action.
The social advancement of women and minorities typically comes as a result of a lawsuit or civil uprising, not because everyone just suddenly realizes it’s the right thing to do. Women got the vote in 1920 because the suffragettes fought for it. Gay sex was decriminalized because of Lawrence v. Texas. The desegregation of schools in the South happened because of Brown v. Board of Education. Why should the accomplishments of the award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the first black students to enroll at the University of Georgia in 1961, be diminished by the fact that she needed to sue for admission?
The executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, the first woman to hold the post in the paper’s 162-year history, freely admits to being a direct beneficiary of an antidiscrimination lawsuit filed in 1972 by the female employees of the Times. Not that she didn’t succeed on her own merits. However, as a result of the suit, which was settled in 1978 and which mandated the Times affirmatively seek to hire more women, Abramson got a foot in the door. In a recent interview, she further acknowledged taking a special interest in female journalists: “I try to go out of my way, not to the exclusion of men, but I do take a particular interest in careers and work of many of the younger women at the Times.” Abramson’s personal interest in her female employees is exactly the kind of consideration her male employees have long enjoyed as a matter of course.
Affirmative action is a corrective measure for inequality, providing access to opportunities for people at a social disadvantage. It does not supplant natural ability. And it recognizes that change doesn’t happen on its own. While Senator Bonacic’s claim that he would happily approve seven qualified women for the state’s highest court is admirable, the facts don’t bear it out. Not that the senator isn’t sincere; there simply have never been seven women on the court.
Now at least there’s one more.
It’s an imperfect solution for an imperfect world.
Alexis Grenell is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.
Tags: 14th Amendment, African-American, Brown v. Board of Education, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Clarence Thomas, Ellen Beauchamp Ciparick, Freakonomics, Hispanic, Jenny River, jill abramson, John Bonacic, Lawrence v. Texas, Martin Luther King Jr., New York Times, Senate Republicans, Sonia Sotomayor, Walter Matthau