Monday, December 11, 2006
From The Chicago Sun-Times…
Affirmative action, desegregation still vital
BY CHERYLE JACKSON
Soon, we hope, the day will come when America will no longer need affirmative action in the workplace, or desegregation in its public schools. On that bright morning, we’ll awaken to find educational achievement gaps closed, glass ceilings disappearing from high-paying corporate positions, and entrepreneurial spirit and prosperous businesses sprouting in neighborhoods that once nurtured little but weeds, broken glass and disillusionment.
But anyone who has driven through our city’s South or West sides lately knows that that day has not yet come. At best, it remains a long way off; some argue that in fact, it is receding. Which makes the rolling back of affirmative action in Michigan, and federal lawsuits aimed at dismantling desegregation in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle premature, shortsighted and dangerously destructive.
These efforts to halt or reverse years of hard-won legislative, social and educational progress also beg a crucial question that we have not yet seen satisfactorily answered: What’s the alternative?
Almost two years ago, in a report titled "Still Separate, Unequal," the Chicago Urban League commented that even after a decade of economic and educational gains, "how tenuous and reversible black progress seems to be." How true that statement has proved to be.
Here in Chicago, for instance, the percentage of city contract dollars awarded to African-American businesses fell from 16 percent in 2003 to 9 percent in the first nine months of this year.
If a Michigan-style ballot initiative were to pass in Illinois, private contract dollars for minorities could be expected to dwindle, too, and higher education would likely become more segregated, as it has in California and Michigan. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of Chicago African-American adults with bachelor's degrees or higher rose 3 percent. That progress could be imperiled, too, if doors begin slamming shut.
If so, it would create a reality that business leaders, think tanks and government researchers on both the political right and the left agree foretells danger for the national economy. Unless more investment and gains are made in the educational progress of minorities, the share of college-educated members of the labor force will decline between now and 2015.
Removing this key piece of the infrastructure supporting minority development also weakens a key building block of the national economic infrastructure. They are called consumers. Without them, no one buys cars, no one buys houses, and the economy sags. In a fast-moving globalized economy with whole sectors of jobs catching the next flight offshore, these issues become urgent.
What opponents of affirmative action and desegregated schools miss is that those policies, along with economic development, all form an interlocking daisy chain upon which disadvantaged minorities can build a springboard into the economic mainstream. Political will is needed. So is a better-informed populace.
Research shows that many whites genuinely believe that racism is dead and that the real barriers to success lie in the black community itself. But we need only look at examples such as Coca-Cola or Texaco, which were fined millions of dollars for illegal discrimination, or more recently, “Seinfeld” comedian Michael Richards’ recent racist outburst.
A return to segregated education will almost certainly bring with it further economic segregation, too. So how do we address the economic gap and educational gap? Perhaps a revised policy linking investments with strategic race-based solutions.
Dismantling affirmative action and desegregation and failing to replace them resolves nothing. And that is a far more acute danger than giving an ambitious minority youngster a helping hand.
[Cheryle Jackson is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.]