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Affirmative Action

GONE are the exhilarating days of the civil rights movement, when unarmed men and women braved lynchings, ax handles, and fire hoses to secure for blacks and other minorities the basic rights of a democratic and humane society - the right to vote, to eat and sleep in public accommodations, to buy a home or attend a school where one chooses. It was only yesterday, yet the Martin Luther King Jr. era - which so fired the moral imagination - already seems nostalgically simple. The battles of the '50s and '60s have been won - irrevocably; there will be no going back to Jim Crow. But less than a generation later, the civil rights environment has become incomparably more complex and ambiguous.

Where once the concern was overt, deliberate bias, now it's complicated statistical patterns that might - but might not - be evidence of discrimination in jobs and housing. Once the evil was the racism of officials and employers; now it's the legacy of past wrongs, extending into the future even amidst a more benign racial climate. Once the goal was the civil rights inherent in citizenship; now the goal is economic rights, to be fostered by that murky and troubling doctrine, affirmative action.

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Why is affirmative action ``murky and troubling''? Not because one doesn't yearn for a fairer and more just society, not because one is insensitive to the legacy of slavery, and not because one doesn't believe in extending a helping hand to those left disadvantaged by history. Rather, affirmative action vexes the conscience because, in practice, it has proved so difficult to favor minorities without disfavoring whites.

When does fairness to one become unfairness to another? When does antidiscrimination become reverse discrimination? These are the hard questions American society must grapple with. Those who cavalierly dismiss the complexity of such issues are as blinkered as those who ignore the imperatives of social justice.

It's in this spirit that one must consider recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action that civil rights activists say have ``turned back the clock.'' It's not that simple. The United States has not gone far enough along the road to genuine equality to adopt strictly ``color-blind'' policies, and that term can be an excuse for unacceptable stand-patism. At the same time, race- (or gender-) based remedies have their own moral shortcomings.

In race relations, it's not a time for finger-pointing, tired shibboleths, or arid, formulaic proposals, but for hard thought, imagination, and spiritual generosity.

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