The End of an Idea — Why Affirmative Action Should Stop

2011, not 1970?

We have had about a half-century of racial preferences and often unspoken but real quotas for hiring and admission based on racial identity. If the original intent was to level the playing field for African-Americans and Latinos, who had been subject to systematic and often gratuitously mean discrimination throughout much of the American South and Southwest, nonetheless the current rationale for sustaining affirmative action has become a veritable nightmare of contradictions, biases, and incoherence that is now well beyond reform. Conservatives mostly believe this; an increasing number of liberals quietly think it.

Who Is What?

First, what exactly is race today in America in which intermarriage and immigration have increasingly made it — and its ugly twin racial purity — often irrelevant? We are no longer a country largely 85-90% “white” and 10-12% “black," but something almost hard to categorize in racial terms. Do university admission officers adopt the 1/16, one-drop racial rule of the old Confederacy? Does being one fourth African-American qualify one for consideration; three-fourths Japanese; half Mexican-American? Does a simple surname add — and often by intent — authenticity and credulity? The son of Linda Hernandez and Jason Smith — a Bobby Smith — is not considered, without genealogical investigation, Hispanic, but the son of Linda Smith and Jason Hernandez — a Roberto Hernandez of equal 50/50 ancestry — is almost instantly? If so, is race a state of mind and personal choice more than circumstances of birth? What exactly is white and what a minority — a dark-skinned Armenian-American is the former, a light-skinned Colombian American is the latter? A dark Sicilian-American is white, Barack Obama is black?

We are reaching the point in a multiracial and intermarried America where admissions officers and employers simply would have to hire British genealogists to trace our bloodlines — and instead, in millions of cases, therefore resort ad hoc to what Americans profess or think they are. Plenty of societies in history have predicated preferences on race — apartheid South Africa, Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, and the Confederacy are the most obvious — but all at some point had to codify their prejudices by some sort of repugnantly explicit genealogical science. We differ only in that our racial categories are said to be for preferences and recompense rather than for discrimination and punishment, and that we believe in our intellectual and moral arrogance that racial biases can, in our careful hands, be used for good purpose.

Sins of the Father

Second, there is no longer an easy yardstick by which to calibrate skin color or racial identity with past or present oppression. The original, noble enough justification of affirmative action rested on two principles: a sort of reparations that extended preference to atone for undeniable past discrimination; and a leveling of the playing field that assumed ongoing prejudice based on outward appearance and accompanying stereotyping — usually in terms of white privilege used against the darker other. But in 2011, such notions have become surreal. Someone with quite dark skin from India or Egypt surely is more easily recognizable as “the other” than someone indistinguishable from the “white” majority who has a Latino surname; yet would not a college admissions officer more likely admit a Pedro Gomez than a Tarsam Singh?

Is there a color-coded graph somewhere that says the darker one is, the more consideration one is due? Apparently not — given that most East Asians and Arabs are not usually extended affirmative action status. OK, but do third-generation affluent Japanese-Americans qualify for preferences on the rationale that their parents as children were interned in camps in the American West; or fifth-generation Chinese because their great-great-grandparents were treated horribly while building the transcontinental railroad?