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Need-Based Affirmative Action

On Oct. 28, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole delivered his most significant speech on the question of affirmative action, vigorously opposing race and gender preferences, but, more importantly, backing an alternative - what he called "needs-based preferences."

In the speech, Mr. Dole said: "The real focus should be on helping citizens who are economically disadvantaged, to provide assistance based on need and not on skin color - in other words, needs-based preferences, not race-based preferences."

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In associating himself with class-based preferences, Dole adds his voice to a growing number of individuals who have backed the idea of providing a leg up to the disadvantaged of all races. Today's advocates include conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp, but the roots of the idea go back to civil rights stalwarts like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin.

Class-based affirmative action, these advocates have pointed out, will disproportionately benefit the victims of historic discrimination, without resorting to the toxic use of race and gender preference.

The notion of need-based affirmative action flows directly from the most powerful conservative critique of racial preference: How can we justify providing a leg up to the daughter of a wealthy black doctor over the daughter of a poor white janitor? The irony, of course, is that the emphasis in evaluating the fairness of a program is a fundamentally progressive idea.

Indeed, in 1995, before President Clinton caved in to organized interests within the Democratic Party, he asserted: "I want to emphasize need-based programs where we can because they work better and have a bigger impact and generate broader [public] support." Politically, need-based affirmative action answers Jesse Jackson's call to "de-racialize politics," and to "leave the racial battle ground and come to the economic common ground."

For now, the significance of Dole's statement is likely to be overshadowed by the unfortunate timing of his call to replace race with class-based preferences. By waiting until the end of the campaign - following a decision to make an all-out effort in California - Dole gives the appearance of opportunism on an issue that must be guided by principle.

He appears to put himself in line with Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who recently charged his opponent, Harvey Gantt, of profiting from his minority status to gain ownership in a television station. Mr. Gantt has denied the allegation. Lost in the discussion is the fact that the leader of Gantt's party is firmly on record as supporting programs which do provide racial preference in such cases, in order to assure diversity in broadcast ownership.

None of this is to say that there is agreement between Jesse Jackson and Bob Dole or between Jack Kemp and President Clinton, and certainly none will be admitted for the duration of the campaign. But there is at least a glimmer of hope in the idea that all these individuals could, in a calmer environment, rally around the idea of need-based affirmative action.

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Particularly if the California Civil Rights Initiative prevails, progressives will be forced, by necessity, to take Dole up on his call to provide special help for the poor in a colorblind way. There will be disagreement over the shape of such a class-based affirmative action program, but that question will serve as grounds for a much healthier debate than the divisive one we have today about race and gender preferences.

*Richard D. Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington, is author of "The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action" (Basic Books).

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