Affirmative Action the Best Way to Achieve a Colorblind Society

Supporters of a ballot initiative in Michigan -- Proposition 2 -- have waged a tough campaign to ban the use of race or sex in employment and college admissions.

Its defenders say they want a colorblind society.

But in truth, affirmative action is one of the best ways to achieve it.

There are at least five reasons for defending affirmative action.

First, it has helped integrate the United States, bringing millions of women into positions of authority and providing role models for countless young people. It has been a factor in the African-American middle-class reaching unprecedented levels in recent decades.

Affirmative action has diversified the nation's work force, provided a leg up to the underprivileged and allowed people to learn from those who have different backgrounds.

Second, a ban on affirmative action will have divisive and exclusionary consequences.

Ten years after former University of California's Regent Ward Connerly led the effort to abolish affirmative action through California's initiative process, only 96 blacks gained admittance to UCLA -- or 2 percent of the freshman class -- in 2006. That's a step in the wrong direction.

The third reason to defeat Proposition 2 is that foes of affirmative action have targeted the wrong program.

If we want to talk about fairness, why not abolish the advantages that certain students -- athletes and children of alumni, for starters -- receive on their college applications? Why not do more to promote college loans for low-income students of all ethnicities and races, and expand initiatives that retrain the unemployed so they can find new jobs?

The fourth reason we should support affirmative action is that it implicitly recognizes that racism is still a fact of American life. There is racism in politics and people of prejudice in powerful positions in our democracy.

In Tennessee, for instance, the Republican National Committee offered innuendo about black men and white women intermingling when it aired a racist commercial showing a scantily clad white woman telling Rep. Harold Ford Jr. --

Matthew Dallek, a former Democratic speechwriter on Capitol Hill, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics." who's trying to become the state's first African-American senator -- to "call me." And Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia infamously called the only person of color at a campaign event by the name "macaca" -- a monkey. Allen was clearly using the word as a racial epithet.

Even at the highest levels of American politics, racist undertones still ripple across our campaigns.

While affirmative action is not a panacea, it reaffirms the diversity of American society, furthers the goal of racial integration and encourages women and minorities to participate in areas where they are woefully underrepresented, like math, the sciences and Wall Street. It minimizes the corrosive effects of racist comments like Allen's and racist commercials like the RNC's.

Last, we have achieved a rough, righteous consensus on affirmative action -- and now is no time to shatter it. In 1995, President Clinton vowed to "mend it, not end it," using an important speech as then-senior adviser George Stephanopoulos recalled, to "decry the persistence of discrimination [and] defend affirmative action as a crucial tool in the struggle for equal opportunity."

In 2003, a rather conservative Supreme Court essentially ratified that formula. In a landmark case involving the University of Michigan Law School, the Court ruled that race could be used as a "plus" factor in college admissions.

Both Clinton's speech and the Court's decision honored and upheld a policy that millions of Americans consider reasonable and valid. Even our current socially conservative president refused to use affirmative action as a wedge issue in his 2004 re-election campaign.

In the end, Americans understand that affirmative action deepens the country's commitment to overcoming centuries of racism and discrimination against women, blacks and other minorities. It stands in the shadow of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.

Affirmative action has for more than three decades effectively countered discrimination and brought Americans closer to the goal of one America. Proposition 2 deserves to be defeated.

Matthew Dallek, a former Democratic speechwriter on Capitol Hill, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."