American Social Liberalism and the Challenge of Ethnic Diversity: The Rise and Decline of Affirmative Action

  • Sami C. NIGHAOUI University of Carthage


In this article, it is argued that the progressive reform agenda of the mid-twentieth century liberal elite might have more effectively served the economic interests of non-white minorities had this generation of well-intentioned policy-makers been more attentive to the conservative criticism of the limits and pitfalls of their policies. As they turned preferential treatment into one of the mainstays of the national government’s anti-poverty strategies, and by supporting a new “welfare philosophy” that was essentially based on service provision, the social liberals in power during the sixties and seventies transformed government assistance into an even less popular approach to socioeconomic disparities. While they focused their vision of social progress on group advancement, they ended up further compromising their egalitarian agenda as their political choices and decisions gradually lost much of their early popular appeal. This liberal elite, it is argued, laid the foundation for a new egalitarian paradigm which presents racial integration through preferential treatment - or race-based affirmative action - as an ideal solution to the socioeconomic underperformance of disadvantaged non-white minorities, causing the former to definitively fall into disfavor.
Keywords: Affirmative action, Laissez-faire, Public policy, US ethnic minorities, welfare