It's just possible that 1995 will see the beginning of the end of affirmative action. Certainly we are about to enjoy a third opportunity to disengage from the divisive policies of race and sex preference fastened on America for the past quarter-century. The first two opportunities were lost by timidity. In 1978, in his pivotal opinion in the famous Bakke decision, justice Lewis Powell tried to split the difference, endorsing some racial preferences while deeming others unconstitutional. In 1985, President Reagan abandoned a campaign promise and decided not to revoke the Johnson-era executive order that had established racial preferences in government hiring and contracting.
Today, however, affirmative action is suddenly vulnerable. The Clinton administration has stirred opposition by taking a hard line in favor of preferences, most notably in a New Jersey case in which it is supporting a school district that laid off one of two equally qualified teachers purely on the basis of race. A 1996 California ballot measure will give voters a chance to repeal affirmative action statewide; early polling indicates that preferences will lose big. The Republican landslide produced a congressional leadership ready to move against preferences, the traditional defenders of affirmative action are momentarily disorganized, and President Clinton has zigzagged, ordering his own review of federal programs in an effort to limit Democrats' political exposure on the issue.
Across the country, it's beginning to sink in that programs and practices sold as temporary remedies are on their way to becoming permanent features of the American landscape. This situation is untenable, since the majority of Americans agree that non-discriminating colorblindness is the only truly just principle, even though the elites may disagree. The dangerous temptation for opponents of preferences will be to settle for half-measures under the false flag of "moderation." "Let us get rid of the worst abuses," it will be urged, "but continue to allow some preferences in order to create diversity." This won't work: as long as managers of companies and institutions are under pressure to produce "results"-that is, to show that "enough" minorities or women have been hired, promoted, or admitted-they will do whatever is necessary to keep their numbers up. Small preferences will become as large as they need to be. As a practical matter, there is no such thing as a little bit of affirmative action—and no substitute in a democracy for individual, merit-based decision making.