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August 03, 2004

A Conservative Review of Affirmative Action

LaShawn is boiling up the pot with a new flap over Affirmative Action, which she opposes. There's a fairly decent debate over the old, spider-web covered issue linked to and attending her post.

Now that I am out of the closet as a conservative and Republican, I'd imagine that people would expect me to oppose Affirmative Action for a new reason. And while I have 'seen the light' and adopted some conservative litmus positions (with nuance of course) I can't say that my position on Affirmative Action has changed much, although I am a bit more inclined to say the hell with it all. It sort of reminds me of an odd position I had against Reagan's Constructive Engagement, which was to support it because the more people hated America's involvement in South Africa, the more attention it would bring to the problem - not that the policy itself was effective.

I primarily support Affirmative Action for two reasons. The first has to do with the principle of racial integration. Affirmative Action mixes people. Anything that does so is good. Period. The second reason is that Affirmative Action exists as a peaceful concession to a militant political demand. It was a deal struck between the leaders of two separate and unequal worlds - a treaty which kept the peace in America. It was an honorable deal that we should honor.

The soundest criticism I hear about Affirmative Action is that it essentially fights fire with fire. That it establishes a racial preference and that this sort of discrimination is flatly wrong. I accept that criticism, but only in the case of integrated applicants. A black kid from the integrated 'burbs doesn't need to be integrated again. A kid from a segregated neighborhood is defacto discriminated against on the basis of race (which established the ghetto in the first place) and that needs to be countered. This is important point. I'll return to it.

On balance, however, I still support Affirmative Action. It's still a good idea and it's still useful. However I don't think it is as important an issue as many folks make it out to be. It's not as important, for example, as school vouchers which would affect a great deal more people. It is not as important as the minimum wage. It is not as important as amnesty for illegal immigrants, tax reform, health care reform or (of course) our occupation of Iraq and War on Terror. It's not as important as the continuing debate over abortion rights, civil liberties vis a vis Homeland Security, police abuse, the drug problems, HIV/AIDS or the sepration of powers.

It is more important than 'under God'.

Affirmative Action addresses a social power issue. At its best, Affirmative Action increases the social mobility of the previously land-locked. Further it keeps alive the notion of social mobility and prepares all of us to deal with it. A nation with a continuing program of Affirmative Action is more pluralistic - it gooses the dream along. But Affirmative Action is not a question of justice or rights. And in this regard, its defenders are often too shrill for their own good.

Today, I think the legitimate basis for discussion about Affirmative action has to do with its resonance as a matter of social power. Therefore I put proponents for 'Diversity' on the same footing as those who complain of 'Stigma'. While I recognize these, I happen to devalue both arguments. This is because my defenses of Affirmative Action originated when such programs were more important and less controversial than they are now. I am conceding that the second generation of beneficiaries are less significant than the first in carrying the water for the continuing political & social support for racial integration. In other words, role-medeling is over.

What this means is the following. While it is clear to me that today's individual beneficiary gains as much from Affirmative Action as yesterday's, society does not gain as much. Like it or not, we have reached a point of cultural equilibrium which diminishes the marginal social value of each new black or brown face integrated into the mainstream. Yes we still need to goose the dream along, but for most Americans, the very idea of the integration Affirmative Action creates has already been created.

So we have a case of perception vs reality. Therefore we take it down to economic cases.

One: Is all the Affirmative Action in America going to change the gap in unemployment between blacks and whites? No. For one thing, it's not a zero-sum game. For another thing the pool is simply too small.

Two: Is Affirmative Action going to changes the pattern of employment for blacks? I think it already has, but still has a little juice left. I think the demand for Affirmative Action is static and is not bringing blacks into many new areas but largely replicating the demand of the first generation. It's still doctors and lawyers, not concert violinists and architects.

Understand that this cuts both ways. Whites on the whole are not losing anything concrete when it comes to the benefits of Affirmative Action, nor does Affirmative Action raise the race of blacks and browns. Given those two facts which were not the case a generation ago, Affirmative Action is not as important to society as it once was. However, it is just as important to individuals as it ever was, which is the point I made up top and want to emphasize.

So here is the curveball. Since I think 'Diversity' is a sham, always have always will, and because I think 'Stigma' is an argument which barely hides racial resentment, I think it is entirely reasonable to substitute some socio-economic criteria for race.

Doing so creates problems but it resolves others.

First: It does damage to the spirit of the Treaty - it would constitute a blow to black political patronage. But nobody is going to riot on the streets about it. The heat is off. It will create a significant amount of resentment - but we can deal with that because we deal with it now.

Second: It deflects the commitment to racial integration and establishes whatever year as ground zero. Direct racial integration becomes a side-effect rather than the explicit purpose of Affirmative Action. This is a big deal. It effectively destroys what we know of it. It's not Affirmative Action any longer.

Third: It eliminates the basis of the Stigma argument, and while I don't believe that admissions committees are ignorning the class of the egregious red herring of the black doctor's kid, it would finally shut up that loud minority.

Fourth: The Diversity crew, whose shape-shifting justifications are legendary, would be mollified. They will adjust to the new reality without much fuss - it serves their socialist egalitarianism symbolically.

Fifth: The racial nose counters will never be satisfied on either side of the fence. It forces them to say what they really mean.

Sixth: It still gooses the dream along.

As long as a non-racialized Affirmative Action has the same demonstrable affect for poor black and brown kids, the current have-not group, I think most people would support this idea. But doing so raises a very important question about the overall effectiveness of our public education system itself. If a deracialized Affirmative Action is to take the most deserving black and brown kids and give them a leg up, why aren't they getting it anyway? If a deracialized Affirmative Action just integrates regardless of merit, what exactly is the point of putting objectively disadvantaged kids into heavy competition?

A deracialized Affirmative Action satisfies both the Stigma and Diversity contingents but broadens the scope of questions of opportunity and equality in public and private schooling. This is exactly what we're seeing. It brings in questions of vouchers, achievement bonuses, tracking, charter schools & infrastructure investment. In other words it takes one small can of very nasty snakes and turns it into six cans of slimy worms.

As a conservative black, I have always understood with the same insight as Malcolm, that Affirmative Action and empowerment do not belong in the same sentence, with this exception proving the rule. Affirmative Action has done a good job in changing the pattern of black employment and social mobility over the past few decades, but it alone does not account for black achievement. It has been a kick in the pants for a lot of people, but not a sustained push. Everyone who is a beneficiary ultimately sinks or swims on their own. But I also acknowledge, without giving comfort to the Stigma weinie dogs, that on the whole society is not going to be dramatically changed with respect to additional Affirmative Actions. That job is done, and I think nothing quite says so like the fact that the hiphop generation is exactly what they want to be, overexposed. They don't care about one more black accountant, America doesn't care about one more female manager any more than Malcolm cared about three black cashiers at Woolworth.

Who cares? That one kid who is the first of her family to get into college. That kid who gets to escape from the ghetto into a different, although equally challenging world. We can and should work for those individuals. That's the important work of preserving opportunity in a free and open society. The sooner we get down to that business, especially in breaking people free of our ghettoes, the better off we are. That cannot and will not take place under the banner of 'Affirmative Action', but it needs to take place, and we need to be all about it.

Posted by mbowen at August 3, 2004 08:39 AM

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A Conservative Review of Affirmative Action from Booker Rising
The conservative Republican supports affirmative action in education for two reasons: (1) it promotes racial integration; and (2) it's "a peaceful concession to a militant political demand," which kept the peace in USA as it addresses a social power ... [Read More]

Tracked on August 3, 2004 05:49 PM

My Stance on Affirmative Action from Nykola.com
Fellow member of the Conservative Brotherhood, and someone who continues to show us all how critical thinking is really done, Michael D. Cobb Bowen does a far more eloquent and pointed job of almost nailing my stance on the heated... [Read More]

Tracked on September 21, 2004 10:06 PM


I'm still marinating my grey matter in your brew, but haven't scholarships based on need always been available to the kid who was fortunate enough to have a parent(s) who drove him to excel?
Is this the form of AA you are talking about?

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 3, 2004 09:11 AM

Yes, but that never has been enough to achieve societal integration, and of course there was bias in those programs as well. Affirmative Action was not initially designed to just get blackfolks scholarships, that door of opportunity was much too small. That's why we have had it in corporations, police departments, federal contracting and in the military.

I'm saying Affirmative Action has been carrying two burdens. That of direct uplift and opportunity and that of a standard bearer for racial integration in general. The question is whether or not these two goals are inextricably bound together.

Posted by: Cobb at August 3, 2004 11:22 AM

As opposed to tofu weiner, suitable for toothless gumming; you've served up a steak, lean & medium-rare.

Steak-knife and teeth required for mastication.


Posted by: Andy at August 3, 2004 11:56 AM

Maybe I don't understand what you mean by 'stigma' when you say that it barely hides racial resentment.

I think it actively encourages racial resentment.

One of the major benefits of integration from my perspective (non-black) is that it allows mildly racist white people to defuse the stupid ideas about race. Especially at universities, this benefit is hampered because of the fact that all ahievements are seen through the lens of affirmative action 'pluses'. It offers a hugely convenient way for many people to avoid the day of reckoning that integration ought to provide.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw at August 3, 2004 01:59 PM

What I am saying is that the argument against Affirmative Action which concerns itself with the spectre of beneficiaries being unqualified is not quite as legitimate as it appears.

'Stigma' is the perception that because Affirmative Action programs exist, there will always be some doubt in the minds of Americans as to whether blacks are deserving of the positions they hold. This is precisely the argument attending the Jayson Blair scandal. It wasn't because Blair was black (inherently & irrevocably inferior), went the argument, it was because he got into the NYTimes on a racial preference which inflated his value (demonstrably inferior).

The existence of Affirmative Action removes the benefit of a doubt blacks ought to get to these folks. Why? Becuase they equate the racial discriminations of Affirmative Action with those of Jim Crow. In fact, they suggest that the proponents of Affirmative Action do so because they believe black (demonstrated) inferiority to be insurmountable without it. Proponents of the 'Stigma' argument say that this cost to society and individuals is more corrosive than the benefits of the placement. I say, so long as they continue to make a stink about it, that is a self-fulfilling prophesy. So they look for signs of self-doubt in blacks who are beneficiaries as evidence, not of a genetic inferiority, but of a moral flaw. The effect is exactly what any racist would want, an excuse to second-guess all blacks without the suggestion that there's anything wrong with that.

I give this argument weight only because, to some extent the criteria for the success of Affirmative Action is social power. One can't simply wish the Stigma crowd away, and so long as they have their excuse to scrutinize blacks and people don't think that excuse is racist, they will persist in damaging the social capital of any black person they disapprove of.

But I still believe that the presumption is based upon an invalid and racist suspicion. It amounts to a witch hunt into the past of anyone suspected of inferiority. Are you now or have you ever been a recipient of Affirmative Action?

The presence of blackfolks who counter racist stereotypes is irrelevant to both racists and the Stigma crowd. It is irrelevant to the racists for obvious reasons, and to the Stigma crowd because they place the moral error on the heads of blacks who choose the 'racist' discriminations of Affirmative Action.

Posted by: Cobb at August 3, 2004 03:25 PM

head...hurt...me no like thinking. well, ok, i managed to get all the way thru the maze, but i have to suspiciously sniff the cheese. a few semi-random points on your treatise, mainly as devil's advocate, as i'm still formulating my own position on AA.

not sure what you mean when you say Affirmative Action's not too important. You realize you can only say that b/c the status quo at present is that it's in place (and has been for a long ass time now). pass a law tomorrow ending it, and we'll see just how fast this "militant political demand" storms up the impo'tance meter. fortunately, the political bandwith is wide enough to accomodate work on many important issues in parallel instead of a stuttering serial fashion....

and, woah, AA was LESS controversial when it was being enacted (like, vs now)?!...

i must agree that it's certainly less shocking to see Black faces in university or in high-falutin corporate positions, but i'm not sure i'm ready to say a "cultural equilibrium" has been reached. how the heck would you define that, anyway? i suppose there are diff ways to indentify that, but you don't say on what basis you make the claim....

i imagine one way to measure might be to compare per capita representation (across all strata, economic, academic, etc). Blacks (or whomever is the identified downtrodden of the day) vs. Whites (or whomever the identified racial majority in "power" is). when it's all about equal (plus-minus whatever), then come check me about equilibrium. will that ever happen as a result of AA alone? don't ask me, man, i just ask the questions....

"Whites on the whole are not losing anything concrete when it comes to the benefits of Affirmative Action, nor does Affirmative Action raise the race of blacks and browns." um, what? what do you mean by that?...

re your two reasons for supporting AA:

1) i'm hesitant to go along with the idea that anything that mixes people is good. the opposition argument that AA trades one set of racial bias for another is a powerful one. on the face of it, any hillbilly can see that it doesn't really make sense. now, if it were a perfect world, then Black (and/or economically depressed) folk would somehow be able to overcome all the baggage that goes along with bein' po' and yank themselves and their bootstraps into good schools and jobs all by theyself. but it's not. and some (many) need help carryin the generations of baggage. that, to me, is a more compelling basis for AA than "mixin's good." it smells like a pride/ego thing to transmogrify that argument into so neutered for general consumtion.

2) can't argue. it is a "peaceful concession." the questions for me are for how long should this last? is this our generations-late 40 acres payoff?

this is good grist for the mill, cobb. i may have a more cogent response tomorrow.

Posted by: memer at August 3, 2004 04:25 PM

Many good points made on both the demonstrable results of AA and perceived results of AA (positive and negative). While some may tend to equate what you refer to as the "stigma" factor with more obvious racism, it seems to be a perception that in a way derives from the very conditions defined by AA. It is also important to note that this same type of bias exists anywhere there is either stated or assumed preferential treatment, including in some cases women and disabled people and in all cases the boss' kids. As such, the "stigma" is more a result of the program and not necessarilly a reflection of bias against the group that benefit from the program. The most bitter pill of AA for most detractors is not the cases where a disadvantaged individual is given a leg up, but the situation in which John and Mark sit side-by-side in class and are going to the same college in the Fall, yet John had an advantage in placement and scholarships solely based upon melanin content. If the program were based on shoe size the same "stigma" would exist for the small-footed.

Another problem I have is that inherent in many discussions of AA is an assumption that Black = Economically Disadvantaged. If the goal of a given program is to uplift economically disadvantaged blacks, then it seems a reasonable question to ask why similarly disadvantaged non-blacks are less deserving? This is said with the full recognition that blacks still have a statistically higher poverty rate than whites, and that, while the picture is steadily improving, it is important to try and understand if this is just a matter of taking its time to reach equilibrium or if there are other roadblocks to success and escape from the poverty cycle that need to be addressed. At the risk of sounding pompous, though, it has been my experience that most poor people I've known, of any race, are poor because they aren't particularly smart or motivated. This is not necessarilly anything against the individuals, but usually a factor of education and experience. Any efforts undertaken to address these issues among the poor in general will have a disproportionate benefit to black folks given their over representation among the group. I think this path allows both a greater positive impact to blacks who need the most help while simultaneously minimizing stigmatization along racial lines.

Posted by: submandave at August 3, 2004 05:38 PM

Anyone who says there wasn't a need for AA at one time, or who says that Jim Crow never was, or that people didn't have problems just being allowed into a voting booth... just wasn't paying attention. institutional racism was a reality, and that's all there is to it.

There was a need, and there was no question about it.

But what is next?

It was put there to change a condition. Did it work yet? If it did, we need the next step - whatever that is. If it didn't, why do we keep doing what isn't working?

AA is a very big divergence from Dr King's ideal. It doesn't judge by content of character but by skin.

Yet there is proof enough all around us that character can be found in many places. And leadership doesn't have a color, nor does wisdom.

I know that my fellow white conservatives have done a horrible job of disassociating themselves (ourselves) from racist elements in the past. We needed to whack them and we didn't. This is what makes it difficult for us to be taken seriously when we decry AA for being a no-fix. We are called down as bigots and in the context of some of our past associates we've earned the epithet.

But it either works or worked or hasn't worked. I always thought it was the right step at the time, but it is all quotas now and we need the next one now.

I know this is all a gross over-simplification. But I'm a simpleton, I guess. My loss is that I don't know what the next step is, except that we should understand that we are equal under the law and that's that.

Posted by: Boileryard Clarke at August 3, 2004 06:41 PM


AA was indeed less controversial than today, just 20 years ago. Remember that Bob Dole was pro-Affirmative Action for most of his career until he ran for president. The Culture Wars didn't start until the mid 80s, after the multicultural manifesto. Multiculturalism itself was possible because of the institutionalization of blacks, browns, women and gays on college campuses. Those critical masses would not have been so influential if the political opposition to Affirmative Action was in the late 70s and early 80s was as strong as it was in the days of Pete Wilson.

My ideas about equilibrium are fairly simple, and it comes from the simple presumption that blacks are doing as much as they feel compelled to do in their own self-interest. The same thing is true of whites. You can eyeball the marginal changes over time, and most things are not changing quickly. There is a big difference between equality and equilibrium, and I think the failure to recognize this difference is important. I'll talk about that under seprate cover.

1) I think you are right about generations of baggage, but I also think you overstate the ability of people to adapt to foreign environments. Affirmative Action is a kick in the pants like a free boat ride to France. But it doesn't teach you how to speak French or succeed in France.

You have to acknowledge that Affirmative Action can never take people off the streets and put them into the boardrooms. The advantage it gives does not go that far.

'Mixing is good' means mainstreaming. To a certain extent, putting you in France forces you to learn the language. If you do, that's good. If you don't, then you go back home - but at least you know what France looks like. Dispel myths about it.

2) The demand for Affirmative Action is already fragmented. It will never be the same. Every few years the rationale for it changes. There was no such thing as 'Diversity' when I was in college. Understand that the diversity argument means more to whitefolks than to beneficiaries.

Posted by: cobb at August 3, 2004 08:17 PM


I think we are in fundamental agreement. But I want to underscore some of the points you bring up. It may be true that stigma attaches to the boss' kids, but there isn't a political movement afoot to make nepotism strictly illegal. Affirmative action questions have gone all the way to the Supreme Court several times in the past decade, that's a tremendous backlash against what was supposedly settled by Bakke in 77.

Furthermore, while I think you're dead on in the side by side example with regard to the resentment it can engender, the white kid should know as much about Affirmative Action as the black kid. If he can't recognize that Affirmative Action is a real part of life, then he's tripping. How is he suddenly wronged? It's this kind of false naivete (if not studied ignorance) that makes him more white than he needs to be. He should recognize that on any given year there are 1 million slots for college freshmen, and out of those there are 7,000 Affirmative Action seats. Whatever the ratio is, deal with it, but don't pretend that everything is always equal for everyone all the time and everywhere. That's foolishness.

I agree fully with your second point. And I am particularly perturbed by black vs white studies that don't look at other factors.

Posted by: Cobb at August 3, 2004 08:53 PM

You bring up the Blair affair, in the context of AA, and the perception or "stigma" of AA, and I'm still not sure just how you've landed on that episode.

Nonetheless, I re-submit to you Dr. Sowell's empirical study of AA around the globe, throughout the 20th century, the exact title of which seems lost in my piling system. In it he makes the points that AA is sold as a short-term fix, never achieves its original goals, and remains in place much longer than originally promised. Along the way it depresses the incentive of both the benefitted and the "other" classes, to the overall economic detriment of the nation.

The study covers at least a dozen countries on several continents where AA has been tried.

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 4, 2004 05:17 AM

I don't know if I can completely buy your idea of "false naivete" vis-a-vis the side-by-side example. One could just as well turn it around and say that in the absence of AA the black kid should recognize a societal bias against his acceptance and "deal with it". While I am neither naive enough nor so much in denial as to claim that such discrimination doesn't happen, the difference is that in one case it is punished by the law while in the other it is mandated (or at least encouraged).

Posted by: submandave at August 4, 2004 06:14 AM

I cannot get too upset about the nepotism issue;
it's more a matter of whether nepotism is covering for perceived incompetence.

I suppose by rights I should apply the same criterion to AA, but it's somehow not the same, is it? At least in the nepotism case, there is an obvious motive for the family to succeed, and the rising waters lift all ships.

If I were working for a firm with known nepotism, and that success paradigm appeared broken, I'd be looking for another job.

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 4, 2004 06:48 AM

Got a little sleep. In the morning light, I think I see more clearly more value in the mixing argument. Will think some more on it.

Looking forward to your piece on diff between equality and equilibrium. There's something about that taht gives me the willies.

Posted by: memer at August 4, 2004 08:58 AM

"... I think it is entirely reasonable to substitute some socio-economic criteria for race..."


If you apply this to the 90th percentile poor kid, it's called a "need+merit" scholarship.

If you apply this to the 10th percentile poor kid, it's called socialism.

It's fine to explore new worlds, but when you meet up with familiar features, they already have names.

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 8, 2004 06:04 AM

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 10, 2004 09:22 AM

Posted by: True_Liberal at August 19, 2004 04:05 AM