� VPN Based P2P | Main | Google Masking �

January 19, 2006

The Case Against Racial Preference

Joe Hicks challenged Colin Powell and Condi Rice to give up their support for Affirmative Action. I'm not sure either Colin or Condi were listening, but I sure heard him. The angle he took was very clever in that it actually made sense to me.

What he said was that as the University of Michigan case was decided in favor of an Affirmative Action program, the deciding vote of Justice OConner was worth noting. She expressed a desire for colorblindness as policy but said that the school and the nation wasn't ready for it. Maybe in 25 years we might be ready for that ethos. Joe said, if it's a good idea now, why wait?

Is institutional colorblindness a good idea in principle? Yeah. It is. Does it therefore make sense to apply that principle if you are the president of the US? How important is it that you do right and be right despite what the unwashed millions think? This is a very compelling argument and I buy it, except I feel funny when I do.

Let's go to the quibbles for a moment then circle back. First off, there is a such thing as reasonable Affirmative Action. It's called Balanced Workforce. It's legal, it's sensible and it no more discriminates negatively than any hiring or promotion scheme. It makes sense to implement under certain circumstances and is, as far as I can see, the only self-limiting scheme of racial integration.

But Balanced Workforce was a form of Affirmative Action in that it mandated hires and firings according to numbers. It has given way to a softer form of integrative priority known as Diversity Management. I happen to think that diversity in all of its manifestations is squishy and full of contradiction, but there is something to be said about the evolution of managment ethics in American corporations. I really can't speak to a broad number of industries, but my experience with managers today is that they are a great deal more respectful and capable of managing an ethnically diverse workforce in 2005 than they were in 1985. This is due, from my perspective, in no small measure by the real experience of black women being the boss of white men, etc, etc. People recognized that companies would not fall apart, that they could even thrive and become more profitable when broadening the scope of markets and management.

Affirmative Action was the crowbar.

When it comes to a very specific and narrowly tailored vision and version of Affirmative Action, programs of racial preference can be very effective and Constitutional. I think this is the Supreme Court's vision and I think, without quibbling, this vision is appropriate. But when I quibble, I do so in the context of anti-racism and the progress of blackfolks in America. Those are huge and complex subjects which are far from resolution. In that context, hardball zero-sum Affirmative Action is both a drop in the bucket and a kick in the pants, which is to say it is bracing remedy that only fixes a small fraction of the problem of race in America. If I wanted Affirmative Action to be the singular government remedy to racial inequity it would be an onerous burden on both the government and the people. That is a burden Affirmative Action cannot bear. Our fundamental guarantee of racial equality is that the government make no distinction on the basis of race.

It is in the matter of the Constitutional principle of colorblindness from which my funny feelings arise. Because people don't read the Constitution. People read the Bible. People read the newspaper. People read blogs and magazines and cereal boxes more than they read the Constitution. The Constitution is right and the people stay wrong, and there are no racial cops who are adjudicating the American mind on race. Yes the EEOC is handling the ugliest cases (at what pace nobody knows), but that's out of the spotlight. So what is desired, I beleive, by all Americans is a colorblind legal ethic and an activist politics that fights racism.

So here's where the quibbles arise again. Where exactly should matters fo fighting racism be adjudicated? If you have a colorblind Constitution and anti-racist politics, how does that work out if racial preferences are Constitutional? That's where we are right now. And in a way it's good that all of the racial traffic is happening in society more than in law and legislation. We have a Jesse Jackson not elected because he doesn't need to be running an administration.

While there is still wide interpretation over what the effects of drastically diminished racism might be in this country, I tend to beleive less and less in the exceptionalism of the Civil Rights Movement within the context of American history. I say that it was inevitable and that it has run its course. Furthermore I say that there is no turning back. There only remains some measure of political consensus on the declining significance of race. I predict that this will be established by the maturing and growing black middle class, and once done will be done for good. We won't be white, we'll be American and suddenly everybody will see.

Posted by mbowen at January 19, 2006 10:32 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


01 19 06

Interesting perspectives here Cobb. Some of your essay is rooted in idealism, while other parts are totally real. A nice dash of happiness is always needed in writing about such matters;) In the scheme of things, I think that economic divisions will cause far more schisms than racial ones in the upcoming years. My husband was a frat boy at San Diego State in the 80s. When we went to Socal last month, we saw his old buddies in Carlsbad and San Diego and they all have good qualities of life. We all get along quite well and they are all White. But class and upbringing is more similar so we have lots of stuff in common. When my husband and I went to West Oakland to a 24hr Burger stand, these women said a few derogatory things about "Buppies" and so forth. So ah...I guess thats the point. Great post.

Posted by: mahndisa at January 19, 2006 12:52 PM

I may be the only person on the planet who thinks reverse discrimination is a bad policy, on the one hand, but constitutional, on the other. I think it's bad policy for the same reason most of my fellow conservatives do; colorblindedness ought to be the goal. But I don't think the Constitution mandates that, in the sense that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment is only aimed at invidious discrimination, not against well-meaning but misguided efforts to bring someone into the fold.

Posted by: Xrlq at January 19, 2006 01:25 PM

I think you've kind of nailed it. So the question of balance ought not to be so much about righting historical wrongs, because they simply won't be righted, but having some kind of political presence for the goals the majority of Americans feel - which is that we ought to do something about segregation.

For all of his inarticulateness, Ray Nagin is right. What you get when you mix white and brown is chocolatey and sweet. But it takes agitation. So I have a problem saying that Affirmative Action (maybe an overbroad term) is 'reverse discrimination' it is a racial preference given for the purposes of racial integration. It's not about keeping whites out, as it is about getting others in who otherwise would not consider themselves invited. It is this matter of invitation that makes the whole premise of 'diversity' acceptable.

What's misguided about certain Affirmative Actions is not about stigma. That's just marketing spin. It's about the quality and responsiveness of the institution to its community. Huge subject. Don't want to rant. Bottom line is that 'political correctness' which is social and actually not political is not unconstitutional. Our problem is that our 'political correctness' is shallow and often unethical. There is an ethical, social way to achieve racial integration without legislating racial preferences. We are simply incompetent to discipline ourselves to it. Therefore our politics are more racial than they need be.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2006 01:49 PM

I never had a huge problem with Nagin's comment, which strume me more as lame than offensive. It would be different if he had said "New Orleans will always be a chocolate city, and I don't mean none of that wimpy 'milk chocolate,' either; I mean good old fashion Hershey's Special Dark, without a trace of milk whatsoever. Dammit." It seemed clear enough to me that he was saying New Orleans would retain is traditional character, not announcing some new ethnic cleansing program.

As to the phrase "reverse-discrimination," I think any time a preference is given in favor of one trait vs. another, that is discrimination. Not all forms of discrimination are bad, of course, and not all bad forms are equally bad. Discriminating against incompetent job applicants and in favor of competent ones is just common sense. Discriminating by race in hopes of righting past wrongs or making one's work force "look like America" is a rather dumb idea in my view, but it's hardly the equivalent of Jim Crow, unlesss it is taken to unusual extremes (e.g., a target quota for one particular race that is so large that it effectively shuts out everyone else.). But it is discrimination, nonetheless, and if memory serves, its proponents in England even call it "positive discrimination."

"Affirmative action," however, is a more slippery term, whose meaning can vary significantly depending on what "affirmative act" one has in mind. In modern usage, that affirmative act is usually some form of reverse-discrimination, ranging from nebulous "plus" factors, at one end of the spectrum, to flat-out quotas, on the other. Historically, however, it hasn't always been that way. In the Nixon (Johnson?) days, the affirmative act government contractors were expected to take was not to "positively discriminate" but to take proactive steps in ensuring that no one got any better or worse treatement on account of his race. IOW, the "negative action" opposed by the new policy was not one of colorblindedness, but of a "see no evil" policy among upper management, which did not actively encourage racial discrimination at lower levels in the company, but didn't seem to be trying very hard to stop it, either.

Posted by: Xrlq at January 20, 2006 09:37 AM

A certain disgraced former Chairman/CEO of a certain document company used BWF like a club to bring the number of blacks in that company down from 25% to 13% of the workforce. He even announced (in so many words) that he would at the first national conference of that company's black employees.

Posted by: brotherbrown [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2006 06:28 PM

Have you checked out little Stevie Sailer and the Pioneer Fund boys? They want race to matter in a big way, and more and more respectable white folks are joining in.

My read on their program is that they want to force upwardly mobile black folks out of white workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. Maybe I'm paranoid, but it looks to me like we're headed for a big showdown.

Posted by: odocoileus at January 22, 2006 11:35 AM

Sailer is a pleasant jackass, and a racialist of the first order. I'm not entirely clear about his motivations, but I find most of his conclusions offensive and morally suspect.

I wrote about him last in September.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2006 11:44 AM