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?
But wait, it can become even more Orwellian: does a Japanese or Chinese immigrant simply arrive in America and claim victim status by virtue of an identity superficially akin to those in the past oppressed? Or are these claims not enough to qualify Asians for the sort of preferences extended to Latinos? If so, does an illegal immigrant who crosses the border, and whose entire family has always lived in Oaxaca, suddenly deserve special consideration in American college admittance because he can far better claim some sort of tenuous connection to a supposedly victimized collective? I challenge universities to explain a logical system for their admissions and hiring, which specifies what racial characteristics and what precise formulas of racial heritage they use, and on what basis of present and past discrimination they are predicated on. My assumption is that they simply embrace “diversity” and in ad hoc, rather sloppy fashion decide themselves who at any given moment contributes to the “rich mosaic” and who does not.
People of Poverty?
Third, there is no longer a truism that being “the other” is de facto equivalent to greater poverty than the white majority. Will Eric Holder’s children qualify for affirmative action on the basis of need, or being alienated from the corridors of power? Does an abjectly poor white Billy Sabinksi from Tulare deserve no special consideration to Harvard, but a rich George Rainbird from a Native-American casino-owning tribe does? On what basis — society’s insidious and embedded assumptions of “privilege” that make irrelevant the fact that Sabinski’s bus driver father makes $40,000 and Rainbird’s $200,000? In my frequent rural bike rides, I notice that immigrants from the Punjab — often quite dark — are constructing huge rural palatial mansions, resembling the estates of India’s picture postcards, among central California’s vineyards and orchards. How is this possible, given traditional exegeses about race and oppression?
Minorities, Majorities, and All Mixed Up
Fourth, demography has turned the notion of being a “minority” upside down. Are blacks or Latinos true minorities in Los Angeles municipal hiring and politics, the former a shrinking minority in southern California, the latter a near majority? In many communities of central California, minorities are now, in fact, white citizens. Are they, under traditional minority rationales, at a disadvantage in hiring and admission at local agencies and schools? Do they deserve special consideration, if for only purposes of “diversity” — or will they soon, when present demography suggests that the so-called “white" population (to be defined racially as what: ¼, ½, ¾?) will be less than 50% of California’s population. No one has to this day quite ever answered the proverbial NBA question — why is it OK for professional sports teams to predicate selection entirely on merit when the ensuing result is often the opposite of “diverse”? The L.A. Lakers governs the appointment of multimillion-dollar positions on proven ability and ignores whether the result does not “reflect” America or the demography of California, but USC, a nearby equally private entity, apparently should not? The truth is that majority/minority is already an archaic term in many regions of America, and diversity has lost much of its currency.
We Are What We Say We Are?
Fifth, affirmative action, as anyone knows who has spent a life in academia, has become a sort of high-stakes careerist game. Names and identities come and go, predicated on assumptions of what best works and in what landscape. When did a Barry Dunham/Obama become Barry/Barack Soetoro become Barack Obama — and why? The number of hyphenated names — Smith-Lopez, Martinez-Becker — or remanufactured first names — Pedro Jones or Juan Lopez — proliferates where perceived advantage is greatest. The truth is that when jobs are tight, it is a very human thing to find advantage beyond just consideration of merit and preparedness, and for the last thirty years that fact has sent millions rushing to reinvent themselves as something other than they would otherwise be. I have had numerous conversations in which a candidate or colleague has assured me “I am really one-eighth Cherokee” or “I am African-American because my grandparents were Coptic immigrants” or “I am Latino because I immigrated from Chile.” I have seen numerous affluent second- and third-generation Portuguese and Basque faculty who counted as “Latinos.” At one point I remember our chairman assuring our department that we “were OK” with the dean, due to the presence of Basque and South Americans with properly ethnic Latino first and last names — most from the upper-classes of foreign societies.
All of the above are observations not about how and why affirmative action no longer works, but why and how it is no longer believed in, except at the most cynical and operational level. Yes, we are reminded often of nebulous noble aims — ensuring equal opportunity among the burdens of past prejudices. But do self-declared exalted ends ever justify ignoble means — the use of racial identify rather than merit or non-racial criteria? We have all sorts of illiberal prejudices in hiring and admissions — special considerations for the children of rich donors, gifted baseball pitchers, birth connections to a boss — but none predicated entirely on racial identity that for so long plagued the United States.
It is a very human thing to identify with a tribe and see race as essential rather than incidental to the individual. It is also very human to seek advantage wherever it appears and not to give it up when it brings such dividends. Ending affirmative action will be acrimonious. The demagoguery will be unmatched, as millions who benefit from it will cite all sorts of reasons why it must continue. Articles like this will win charges of “racism” (last time I touched on the issue, I ended up in the Stanford Daily, with calls to my employer to mete out politically correct punishment).
Wrong is Wrong — Always
But no amount of explication and good intentions can mask an obsolete idea, whose time has come and gone. Its contradictions outlined above are not aberrant, but logical given the eternal truth that it is wrong to judge humans on their outward appearance or racial heritage — always.