The Magazine

Becoming Americans

The intersection of immigration and affirmative action.

Jul 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 43 • By BETH HENARY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Collision Course
The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America
by Hugh Davis Graham
Oxford University Press, 246 pp., $30

ON JUNE 6 FLORIDA GOVERNOR Jeb Bush signed into law a sleepy-sounding bill called the Florida Minority Business Loan Mobilization Program. The new law allows certified minority businesses--those that are at least 51 percent owned by Florida residents who are African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, Native American, or non-minority women--to request an advance of up to 10 percent on state-contract payments to facilitate their projects.

Despite the law's shrewdly nondiscriminatory appearance (the loan applicant must win the contract first), Florida's plan for helping minorities shows the color-consciousness of Jeb Bush's One Florida, which was touted as eliminating affirmative action in state hiring, contracts, and college admissions. More, it joins a vast array of government programs for minorities that lack both narrow tailoring and a cohesive rationale for the groups they include.

One of the most contentious aspects of race-conscious minority set-asides or assistance programs like Florida's is that their beneficiaries are nearly always a laundry list of broad ethnic categories. Take Florida's list of those eligible for minority-business status, which is typical of many local, state, and federal lists. Asian Americans certainly include Japanese Americans, but also Cambodians, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysians. African Americans are descendants of slavery, but recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean potentially qualify as well. Non-minority women and Hispanics can be recent immigrants or longtime citizens, desperately poor or exceedingly rich.

In "Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America," the recently deceased historian Hugh Davis Graham teases out the immigration and racial classification aspects of this bizarre ethnic dynamic that makes a mockery of the sole reasonable justification for race-conscious preferences --past discrimination in America. Graham elaborates on a trend noted by other scholars of immigration and affirmative action, focusing tightly on the policies, rather than the judicial decisions, that have made minority preferences what they are today.

Graham begins by insisting that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act were well intended. Over time, though, the enforcement of those colorblind laws fell to government officials forced to grapple with real-world race relations and politicians with upcoming reelections. In 1969 President Richard Nixon resurrected the Philadelphia Plan, a defunct Johnson Labor Department attempt to redefine fair employment practices as those that yield proportional representation of minorities. For Johnson the Philadelphia Plan was a response to rioting urban minorities in the 1960s, but for Nixon it served a political purpose. By using the plan to target skilled crafts unions, where minorities were few and seniority mattered, Nixon fractured the labor-civil rights Democratic coalition. Also toward this end, he established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise in the Commerce Department.

On Nixon's watch the Commerce Department for the first time named groups of minorities--Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians--that it considered "presumptively eligible" for its small-business assistance program. After Nixon, Jimmy Carter expanded set-asides for minorities, though instances of overt discrimination had been plummeting for several years. Congress joined the preferences movement in 1977, burying in a public works appropriation bill a clause that required a percentage of the bill's $4 billion in contracts go to minority businesses. This time, Eskimos and Aleuts were included in the ethnic mix.

As Graham points out, the philosophical justification for affirmative action--the now familiar terms like "disparate impact" and "institutional racism"--emerged only after the nondiscrimination policies of the Civil Rights Act were working. But if the logic behind affirmative action for African Americans was not immediately obvious, the logic for including other groups was even more obscure.