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Why Affirmative Action Is Needed Now More Than Ever

DOES affirmative action deny us a society based purely on merit? Hardly. Has affirmative action outlived its usefulness? I don't think so.

First, let's clarify what society was like before affirmative action. My father and uncle both served in World War II. They had mixed black and white ancestry, but were classified as ''Negro'' based on rules designed to maintain ''white racial purity.'' Opportunities for advancement in the military were limited by explicit restrictions on the positions and ranks that ''Negroes'' could hold. After the war, my father became an aerospace engineer. However, several aerospace firms told him that they couldn't employ him despite his qualifications because of their policy of not ''hiring colored.'' Those that would ''hire colored'' would not allow ''coloreds'' to manage whites.

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As teenagers in South-Central L.A., my brother and I lived alternately with our father and our uncle, depending on who was able to take care of us (our mother had died during the '50s).

I was a good student and so was considered ''college material'' by school counselors, but my family could not afford to send me to college. Fortunately, many colleges were, in the late '60s, trying to diversify their formerly homogeneous student bodies. Several recruited me.

It had never occurred to me that I could attend a prestigious private college such as Yale University, but attend Yale I did, funded by scholarships and by loans I am still repaying. I not only did well there but also earned a doctorate from Stanford University and became a computer scientist and public-interest advocate.

Charges of double standards in affirmative action are often made by people who do not understand testing theory or good management practice. If two people take a test and the institution selects the one who scored lower, accusations of unfairness may result.

But if the scores differ by less than the test's margin of error, they must be considered equal. Even if the difference is large, the lower score may nonetheless exceed the institution's qualifying level. The lower-scoring applicant might be chosen based upon qualifications other than his or her test score (such as interview performance or letters of recommendation). Test scores are only one data point.

Affirmative action has its problems, but it is preferable to what preceeded it: a society that favored only white men. Affirmative action introduced a badly needed counterbalance to the one-way bias that prevailed when my father was in the prime of his life.

Some argue that affirmative action is no longer needed. I disagree. There are people still in the work force today who were prevented from achieving their potential by antiminority, antifemale bias that operated, often overtly, at least through 1960.

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We will never know what my father, my mother, my uncle, and others of their generation might have achieved in a society based on merit. Furthermore, that generation's children, now in their prime working years, were at least indirectly affected by the bias their parents faced. For example, if my father had not faced such steep odds when he was working, perhaps I wouldn't still be repaying college loans.

How can past discrimination against minorities and women be considered no longer worth correcting for, when the very people it held back and the children they raised are still living lives that began under that discrimination? Those who would eliminate affirmative action must first tell us what they would do instead to correct for the persistent effects of past injustice.

Discrimination against minorities and women has not ended; it continues today. Though no longer legal in the United States, it persists nonetheless. There are still towns in the US that blacks can't live in, restaurants they can't patronize safely, and clubs they can't join, regardless of their education and income.

Throughout the business world, women find their ascent blocked by the ''glass ceiling.'' Affirmative action is still needed to counter present-day pro-white, pro-male bias. Those who argue that affirmative action is antithetical to a merit-based society must therefore give us their plan for ridding our society of pro-white, pro-male discrimination.

Some people oppose affirmative action because they wish to return to a society that puts white men first. It is foolish to pretend that such sentiments aren't behind much of the backlash against affirmative action.

Those who oppose affirmative action must therefore first describe the measures they are prepared to take to prevent a return to the overtly pro-white, pro-male society that squandered our parents' potential.