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The Last Word on Affirmative Action
Preface I wrote most of this in 2004 as a newly minted ‘black Republican’, and edited a few things in 2017, nine years after my exit from…
I wrote most of this in 2004 as a newly minted ‘black Republican’, and edited a few things in 2017, nine years after my exit from political demagoguery. I can’t say that I really care that much to update this with one obvious exception of the passing of the Tea Party and the election of Donald Trump. That is, that it is clear that the current median American is much less satisfied with the political deals that were struck in the 1970s, also that it is very unclear to me that Affirmative Action remains defined as it was in those days. Specifically, I supported the idea of Affirmative Action under the Bakke Standard, but that has been updated with at least 3 new Supreme Court decisions including Hopwood and Grutter. However there are principles involved that I think I highlight which makes this writing worth keeping around.
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 weenie 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 X 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.