More than a decade after his death, Arthur Fletcher’s contribution to American society is embroiled in controversy.
In 1969, this civil servant laid the blueprint for affirmative action as applied by the first Republican administration to accept it. As Nixon’s assistant secretary of labor, he implemented the Revised Philadelphia Plan, which required companies to make efforts to hire minorities and women in order to receive federal contracts in naval shipping yards.
In the years that followed, the principle would spread and morph in all sorts of institutional settings. And it would form one of the core grievances of the new right and become a prominent theme of racist invective.
Americans better get ready for a fresh chapter in the war over affirmative action. The New York Times reported this week on an internal hiring memo within the U.S. Justice Department and surmised a new project was afoot to sue universities found to be discriminating by race in their admissions practices. Discriminating against white applicants, that is, in favor of disadvantaged minorities.
That’s all it took. Mere mention, even speculatively, of race-based affirmative action policies in college admissions and the axe that Attorney General Jeff Sessions may be grinding for them and the culture war machine wound itself up to rehash a debate we’ve had regularly for decades now.
It was that way during Fletcher’s lifetime.
Don’t know his name? Most people don’t. Fletcher was a rare breed, an African-American Republican. The son of a Buffalo Soldier, he served under four presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He died at 80 in 2005.
Fletcher hated the discord that surrounded affirmative action. He never intended affirmative action to be about diversity, although he well understood the need. He didn’t intend for his model to be focused on creating multicultural student bodies at campuses across America or for it to include quotas or provisions that have since been declared unconstitutional by numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
What he wanted was to ensure that racial bias did not close access to jobs that received government funding. He did not envision a grandiose plan that would sweep into corporate America, spawning any number of diversity programs in the 1990s, some of them stellar and many of them window dressing that created office tensions.
“I would be wasting my time trying to pursue some la-la land where discrimination doesn’t exist,” Fletcher told me in 2003. “I’m more concerned with how we go over it, around it and through it.”
Yet, in many respects, we’re closer to the version of the program that Fletcher envisioned at its impetus than the ones that followed.
Many critics don’t realize that race can only be used as one aspect of admissions decisions. What most colleges and universities use today is a matrix of considerations including test scores, level of difficulty in coursework, activities and work experience — along with, yes, an eye to creating a diverse campus by several measures, not just race. Poor white applicants are often helped by efforts to draw rural students and give a break to those who might be the first in their family to attend college.
Fletcher argued that America could ill afford to hold back large segments of its population and still maintain national economic strength and security. That view is only strengthened by the demographic changes that have continued apace after Fletcher’s death.
We live in a far more globally integrated time. Students must be prepared for it. And they will never get there if their only experiences are among peers who are of the same race, class and particular set of cultural influences.
In that respect, it really doesn’t matter that this week’s White House spokesperson tried to stifle the headlines generated by the Times story that started the stir.
Let affirmative action, in the narrowly tailored way it is practiced today, be scrutinized and held to account. While we’re at it, let’s talk about the value to society and the justice of colleges admitting the children of alumni by legacy. Or of the rich buying their children admission to Harvard. Funny, no one is complaining about those practices.
Fletcher had a good concept, one that was based on fairness, opportunity and national interests.
So bring on the debate about affirmative action — so we can remind ourselves why it is such a good idea.