All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1997

Book Review: Backfire by Bob Zelnick and The Affirmative Action Fraud by Clint Bolick

Organs of Government Continue to Discriminate Against White Males


by Bob Zelnick

Regnery • 1996 • 416 pages • $27.50

The Affirmative Action Fraud

by Clint Bolick

Cato Institute • 1996 • x + 170 pages • $10.95 paperback

Professor Levin teaches in the Department of Philosophy at City College and The Graduate Center of The City University, New York, New York.

Despite what should have been major legal setbacks from recent court decisions, organs of government continue to discriminate against white males, and to pressure private employers to do so. Two books attacking affirmative action are therefore most welcome.

Zelnick’s is the more useful. Replete with statistics and telling anecdotes, it establishes the ubiquity of state-enforced double standards penalizing white males and favoring blacks and women on no other basis than race and sex. A reporter, Zelnick lets the facts speak for themselves and, when transcribing interviews, stays in the background. It is all here: the discrepancy in SAT scores between black and white university admittees (150 points or more at Princeton, Duke, Dartmouth, and Brown, among others), the discrepancy in admission rates (Amherst takes 51 percent of all blacks who apply as against 19 percent of whites, although the academic records of the blacks are far inferior); government set-asides of billions of dollars in contracts that virtually exclude whites; banks forced to subsidize mortgages for high-risk blacks; Justice Department charges of discrimination against home insurers (made in the absence of a single black complainant) leading to demands that discouraged applicants be paid millions of dollars in restitution.

Zelnick explains clearly the assault on testing in employment, various schemes to dilute white voting strength, and the effects test introduced into the 1982 Voting Rights Act, showing how they reduce productivity and polarize racial politics. Particularly odious are college admissions officers, one of whom swoons over mediocre grades by minorities while airily dismissing incomparably more qualified Jewish students with the remark, They’ll be fine.

Analytical when required, Zelnick replies effectively to the arguments for quotas. Don’t colleges favor the children of alumni? [T]here is little if any evidence that sons and daughters of alumni have, as a group, academic credentials even slightly below the norm. Can black interests be represented without racial proportionality? Medicaid, Medicare, remedial education, low-income housing, and other measures thought of as benefiting blacks show inescapably that substantive black interests have received a sympathetic hearing in the councils of government for many years running. Zelnick’s sole weakness is a tendency to describe anyone who agrees with him as tall, distinguished, shrewd, or knowledgeable—a minor vice in an otherwise objective, hard-hitting book.

Affirmative Action Fraud is more ambitious (and windier). It too reports on the current state of play—Bolick and Zelnick cite many of the same passages from court decisions, especially to emphasize Thurgood Marshall’s deviousness and hypocrisy—but Bolick also seeks to trace the ideological path from civil rights to quotas. His account seems to me correct. The civil rights movement was born, he says, when the right of all men to be free from coercion—the American Creed—was seen to conflict with the institution of slavery. This perception led to the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments protecting the rights of blacks against incursion by the states. But a fatal misstep was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning private discrimination. [C]ivil rights laws went beyond restraints against coercion to tread directly upon voluntary freedom of association among private individuals, clearing the way for all the mischief that would follow.

The precedent that individual autonomy could be invaded, combined with the view that black failure to reach parity with whites is due exclusively to . . . oppression, licensed the federal government to tell employers whom to hire, banks whom to lend to, homeowners what neighbors they had to have, and children where they must go to school. The fraud is that none of these exertions has helped the population they were actually intended to help, namely the black underclass.

Where Zelnick simply wants affirmative action ended, Bolick holds critics are obliged to propose some positive solution to the problems facing the underclass. His is empowerment, the centerpiece of which are school vouchers allowing choice. He is particularly enthusiastic about a Milwaukee program allowing 1,000 low-income children to leave abysmal public schools and to apply the state portion of their education funds—roughly $2,500 per student—as full payment of tuition in nonsectarian private schools.

Such plans, popular among conservatives, are gravely flawed. Bolick delicately avoids mentioning the source of that $2,500, namely the taxpayers of Wisconsin. Vouchers are another device to forcibly transfer money from producers to non-producers and to infringe upon freedom of association. As such, they should be resisted by friends of liberty.