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Playing favorites

All of us practice affirmative action-when it is on our own terms

Issue: "How to fix baseball," June 21, 2003

IF I REPORTED TO YOU IN THIS SPACE THAT THE marketing department at WORLD had decided to offer a free subscription to every single military person you know who participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the likelihood is strong that you might respond appreciatively, saying that was a nice and generous and patriotic gesture.

But if I also reported that we were extending the same free-subscription offer to anyone of African-American descent, the likelihood is equally strong that I'd stir up a storm of protest-especially if I called it an affirmative-action program to increase WORLD's readership among neglected minority groups.

All of which is to argue that none of us really knows what he or she believes about affirmative action. Most of us treat the issue with a huge set of double standards.

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Most of us don't like favoritism. But all of us, at one time or another, play favorites. My mother always treated her eight children with extraordinary fairness. But if she hadn't now and then singled out various ones of us for some motherly affirmative action, none of us would have made it through childhood. If we see-and appreciate-such behavior in our earthly parents, it's because we see there a reflection of the character of God. He is both perfectly fair in all His dealings, and yet perfectly free to offer special attention to one of His children whenever He pleases. And aren't you glad He has and exercises that freedom?

What we really don't like, I think, is for favoritism to be institutionalized. Affirmative action has earned its bad reputation not for the good things it has accomplished (and they are many) but because mere humans have regularly overestimated their ability to construct and use such a delicate tool effectively.

Howell Raines, until recently the editor of the vaunted New York Times, thought he was smart enough to use affirmative action in managing his editorial team of 1,000 or more people. But it blew up in his face. He ended up hurting (and even stereotyping) some of the very people he wanted to help.

For a generation and more, American society has presumed it was smart enough to devise mandatory mathematical formulas enabling young women to find equal opportunities (academically and athletically) in our nation's schools. Now BusinessWeek reports of a "New Gender Gap," and that "from kindergarten to grad school, boys are becoming the second sex." We tinker around, and then we institutionalize our tinkering-only to discover we may have over-tinkered.

I still grimace at my own painful experience on such a front. I was headmaster 30 years ago of a small Christian high school. The parents, the board, the faculty, and I were determined not to be seen as a segregationist academy. So we boldly established our own affirmative-action program, raising special scholarship money, and recruiting a dozen minority students to join the 40 students already enrolled.

The original 40 students were educationally advantaged boys and girls; the dozen newcomers had extraordinarily bad educational backgrounds, through no fault of their own. And the disparity between the two groups took its toll on us all. Intentions were good, but hurtful stereotypes were reinforced almost every day. The very things we wanted to avoid enveloped us. What I learned was that you have to be very smart indeed (much smarter than I was) to control all the variables of an affirmative-action effort.

So does that mean we never engage in affirmative action? Hardly. If it's right to "affirm" a student who is especially good on the French horn, or who can run very fast, or who seems to be a born leader, then it is just as right to "affirm" a student because we want to help somebody from the inner city make it into the mainstream of life. And yes, let's admit that the French horn player we gave preference to, along with the fast runner and the student leader, almost certainly displaced some other possibly deserving student. To a certain extent, that's life.

And we need to remember that one reason some folks try to institutionalize affirmative action is that injustice has itself very often been institutionalized.

But two wrongs still don't make something right. I propose two cautions in the exercise of affirmative action. First, deliberately limit the scope of the remedy. If you can take care of the matter informally, or individually, try not to establish company or organizational or societal policies. (That caution, incidentally, almost precludes federal governmental initiatives). Second, limit the duration of the remedy. Establish a sunset policy for any rules you do set in place.


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