All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1978

A Decision Against Meritorious Achievement

After 13 years as an information researcher for local and national media corporations in New York City, Anne Wortham is now a doctoral candidate in Sociology at Boston College. A number of her articles have appeared in The Freeman since 1966. She serves on the board of directors of Citizens for Limited Taxation in Massachusetts.

Any fair-minded person ought to applaud the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the California Supreme Court’s ruling that Allan P. Bakke should be admitted to the Medical School at the University of California at Davis on the basis that ethnic and racial quotas are unconstitutional according to the 14th Amendment. But one would have to be quite concerned that, in reversing that part of the California Court’s ruling to prohibit the university from establishing future affirmative action programs that take race into account, the Supreme Court did not rule affirmative action unconstitutional. It was apparently in that spirit that during the following week the Court refused to review the American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) affirmative action plan of goals and timetables for hiring and promoting women and minorities. Under the plan, if hiring targets are not met the company may pass over job candidates with greater seniority or better qualifications in favor of those in the underrepresented groups.

By declining to hear the case the Court confirmed the legitimacy of the AT&T plan and thereby underscored a separate majority opinion, as written by Justice Brennan, that “Government may take race into account when it acts not to demean or insult any racial group, but to remedy disadvantages cast on minorities by past racial prejudice, at least when appropriate findings have been made by judicial, legislative or administrative bodies with competence to act in this area….”

It seems that the Justices hold the widespread opinion that one is demeaned or insulted only when he is discriminated against because of race; but there are those of us who are insulted, if not demeaned, when we are discriminated in favor of because of race or other equally irrelevant classifications. As a member of both the racial and gender groups so favored, I reject the opinion that preferential treatment of racial minorities should be allowed if it serves a social good. There is nothing humanitarian in a policy that uses racial classifications to “further a compelling government purpose,” as the Justices put it. Any government purpose which must be served in such a manner may be suspect as having sinister motives. It may increase the numbers of those employed from underrepresented groups in industry and education, but at what price?

“What affirmative action has done is to destroy the legitimacy of what had already been achieved, by making all black achievements look like questionable accomplishments, or even outright gifts,” writes black economist Thomas Sowell in the April 1976 issue of The Public Interest. “Here and there, this program has undoubtedly caused some individuals to be hired who would otherwise not have been hired—but even that is a doubtful gain in the larger context of attaining self-respect and the respect of others.”

For blacks like me, the supreme irony of having to contend with affirmative action measures is that we grew up in a tradition which prepared us for precisely the opposite—that tradition which measured achievement in terms of merit as evidenced by one’s skill, knowledge, experience, interest and attitude. It was, we were told, “the American way”—the practical expression of our culture’s devotion to human individuality. Now, we are told that virtue lies not in such aspirations as color-blindness and meritorious achievement, but in the social good of implementing race-conscious programs to remedy the effects of racism.

As I contemplate the Bakke decision, my mind is crowded with reminders of all that went into my adherence to “the American way.” I hear my father’s repeated admonitions to his five children that we grow up to be independent, self-supporting citizens. I see him working long hours and sacrificing to provide for our education, determined that he would do so despite Jim Crow and without outside assistance. I hear this self-educated man, who at one period made a salary of only $50 a week, telling us that our education was his investment in the future. “I don’t want my girls to work as domestics or my boys to be ditch diggers,” he would say. And always there was the reminder we hear from him to this day: “Remember, your record follows you.”

The society he was preparing me for was one in which merit was the basis of achievement. It was also one in which racial discrimination and prejudice were prevalent; but in addressing this issue, black fathers like mine taught their children a rule of thumb taken from the words of Booker T. Washington:

Any individual who learns to do something better than anybody else—learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner—has solved his problem, regardless of the color of his skin….

In the long run, the world is going to have the best, and any difference in race, religion, or previous history will not long keep the world from what it wants….

Such was the simple but noble faith in the just rewards of quality with which these fathers and their fathers before them sent their children to colleges and universities across the country. We went forth lured by the American dream and willing to pay the price of being twice as good as our white counterparts in order to compete with them. But we wanted nothing to do with tokenism—that despised practice which A. Philip Randolph once called “that veneer of acceptance masquerading as democracy.” How could one have any pride in being the “window dressing” of some white man’s conscience? We wanted no favors, no double standards, only justice and the freedom to create our opportunities in our own way.

This tradition, though not always prevalent in certain sectors of the black community in the country, was nevertheless as potent a force among blacks as it was to any New England Yankee. Writes Sowell: “When people ask why blacks cannot pull themselves up the way other oppressed minorities did in the past, many white liberals and black `spokesmen’ fall right into the trap and rush in to offer sociological ‘explanations.’ But there is nothing to explain. The fact is that blacks have pulled themselves up—from further down, against strong opposition—and show every indication of continuing to advance.”

It is true, as Sowell notes, that the advance of blacks “accelerated at an unprecedented pace in the 1960s, once the worse forms of discrimination had been outlawed and stigmatized.” But as the 60s evolved into the 70s it was in the interest of liberals and black spokesmen to ignore that part of the advancement of blacks which is the product of generations of struggle—without ant discrimination laws. It was with this one-sided view of black history that Lyndon B. Johnson told the 1965 graduating class at Howard University :

You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe you have been completely fair…. Thus it is not enough to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

Johnson challenged those who might offer the counterclaim that if other Americans could overcome their disadvantages without special equality-of-result legislation, so could Negroes. He cited a long list of statistics indicating the gap between the opportunities of Negroes and whites and said:

The Negro, like these others [white minorities], will have to rely mostly upon his own efforts. But he just cannot do it alone. For they did not have a cultural tradition which has been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded—these others—because of race or color—a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society.

This distorted view of black history supported by biased research, statistical “explanations,” and a great deal of ignorance has now been made “official” by the 1978 Supreme Court. With the memory of past discrimination so fresh in my mind, I am profoundly resentful that I, along with every other American, must bear the burden of this new stereotype of my race—that I cannot overcome the circumstances of my forefathers on my own and in my own way; that the only way I can compete with a white person is by weighing him down with penalties for the sins of his race and the government against my race. What an insult to me—and, oh what injustice to the innocent white person! Neither of us is responsible for the cultural heritage that stretches across the centuries behind us; yet both must be burdened by it. I am branded as incapable of walking through the gates of opportunity on my own, and he is branded as the source of my incapacity.

But I protest! It was not legislative decree but my parents who brought me to the starting line of a life of productivity, achievement, liberty and happiness. Oh, the richness of that which was handed to me and to other black children of an earlier time—that time of discrimination and prejudice and segregation. I recall my mother, a child of the Depression, teaching me how to read and write; I recall those hours I spent at an old Underwood typewriter learning “a trade,” as my father put it; I recall those domestic jobs I took at $3.00 a day to purchase classical recordings or a new dress; I recall my father making my brothers take newspaper routes so they could “learn how a dollar is made.” I recall the teachers who encouraged me and those I admired. And I recall those special occasions, such as Negro History Week, when I sang with the school choir the “Negro National Anthem,” written by the Negro poet James Weldon Johnson in commemoration of Lincoln ‘s birthday:

Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun

Let us march on till victory is won.

I recall being voted by my classmates as “The Most Likely To Succeed.” And I recall the honor of being placed on the Danforth Foundation’s I-Dare-You Honor Roll and receiving an inspiring little book written by William H. Danforth, founder of Ralston Purina Company, who cared enough about young people to say to them: “I dare you!” I shook hands with the challenge in Danforth’s list of dares and took off in search of excellence, wisdom and greatness. In those days, we really believed in such things. Anybody could believe them, regardless of his race, color, gender, class, or national origin.

Now I find that I was fueled by the spirit and meaning of those aspirations only to have the Supreme Court stamp my racial identity as the symbol by which my fellowmen are to judge my achievements as gifts from the State. Fortunately, there have been enough intervening years between my high school years of the fifties and today for me to have acquired that record of performance and authentic achievement my father was so insistent that I establish. But I shudder to think of the credibility robbed from those younger than I who do not have the benefit of an educational or employment history prior to the establishment of affirmative action in 1965. How are they to contend with the new prejudice against blacks who, because of their race, are suspected of being recipients of “conferred benefits”?

There can be no greater insult than to free a man, then tell him that according to the statistical profile of his racial group and interpretations of his cultural heritage, he will not be allowed to exercise that freedom in his own way, but must be spared the risks of competition, treated “preferentially,” and doomed never to know whether he could have advanced alone. Whites could not be more mistaken than to think that such a policy will improve race relations. And blacks could not be more self-deceived than to look upon such a policy as having anything remotely to do with their liberty and self-respect. 

  • Anne Wortham is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University. She is a rare voice in the liberty movement — a scholar and rogue academic. She wrote her first piece for The Freeman in 1966.