Jennifer Gratz, center, pictured with Attorney General Bill Schuette, has worked her adult life to successfully eliminate racial preferences in Michigan. (Susan Walsh / AP)
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a long-awaited answer to the petitions of the civil rights movement. It proved a moral turning point in the fight for equal treatment under the law for every American.
Today, the merit of the Civil Rights Act stands largely unchallenged. It did not end racial injustice — nor did it claim to — but it marked a concerted political effort to remove the legal basis for government-sponsored discrimination based on race and ethnicity. In order to accomplish this objective, however, it opened the door to policies that the country continues to wrestle with to this day — namely, affirmative action.
President John F. Kennedy first used the term “affirmative action” in Executive Order 10925, requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, “without regard” quickly morphed into policies that encouraged public officials, educators and administrators to actively treat people with regard to race. Relying on allowances in the law’s Title VII, special racial boosts and preferences were instituted by federal, state and local governments across the country with the goal of increasing minority representation in education and employment.
Over the years, this special treatment based on race has been justified as a tool for rectifying past discrimination, expanding opportunities for the underprivileged and, more recently, fostering diversity. However, such race-based policies are burdened with an inherent contradiction.
The civil rights movement made it clear that preferential treatment for white Americans was just as abhorrent as discriminating against black Americans. Both are simply two sides of the same coin. Yet today we are still debating whether or not government bodies and public institutions should be allowed to use skin color to grant preferences to some and deny opportunities to others. The preferred colors have changed, but the fundamental principle has remained the same — government and public institutions are treating people differently based on race.
Many insist that such policies are acceptable as long as they further a good cause. The reality is that any time someone is granted preferential treatment based on race, opportunities are denied to others who may be just as qualified or needy but simply have the “wrong” skin color. Discriminating based on race to make up for the effects of past racial discrimination is a vicious cycle. It creates new victims who had nothing to do with past injustices and perpetuates the legacy of race-based thinking and resentment.
America has an ugly, terrible history when it comes to race and discrimination. Skin color and ethnicity have been used to enslave, brutalize, segregate, imprison, shame, reject, uproot and murder. Despite this tragic history, the country has largely embraced as a common goal Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a colorblind society. His vision emboldened many people at the time to oppose discrimination based on skin color and should unify us today toward the same end.
Part of the reason we are so polarized as a nation is because issues like race-based policies are eating away at people, creating a brand new generation of racial distrust. We can never expect to move beyond this division and achieve a fair and equal society when our government and public institutions insist on dividing us based on race. These policies are holding us back, and the only answer is to ensure that fair and equal treatment for everyone is a reality, not just a talking point.
Individuals should be judged on character and merit, not given separate standards based on skin color. This is at the very heart of just society. Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we are still faced with two choices: We can continue down the path of preferential treatment and discrimination, or we can stand up for the principles of equal treatment and colorblind society.
Jennifer Gratz is the founder and CEO of the XIV Foundation.