by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
‘Affirmative action” was the logical sequel to the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. The initial reasoning was attractive enough. New guarantees of equality of opportunity were insufficient to achieve the promised social parity, given the legacy of slavery and the existence of ongoing racial bias. Therefore, to counteract the effects of historical discrimination, the race of individuals must be weighed into contemporary hiring and admissions practices. The key was to avoid the word “quota.” That did not sound very “affirmative” for a program that supposedly was about growing (or “enriching”) the pie, not a crass zero-sum game of taking a college spot or a job from one person and giving it to another on the basis of race.
Second, although slavery was confined to the Confederacy, there was the general assumption that, as blacks in the postbellum era had migrated northward, they were subjected to all sorts of bias, and so the recompense was to be a national, not just a southern, obligation.
Third, it was soon clear that all sorts of groups other than blacks could lodge historical claims against the supposedly dominant “white” culture. Soon Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians likewise petitioned for inclusion in set-aside and compensatory programs. The subtext was that these groups, given racial bias, would not intermarry and assimilate as quickly or to the same degree, and would not do as well economically, as had other terribly persecuted minorities like Jews, Italians, and the Irish, who after decades of discrimination seemingly had morphed into the so-called white majority.
As these original victimized groups experienced success (though at differing rates), and as a legion of other cadres sought inclusion in the preference industries, “affirmative action” insidiously was replaced by a new euphemism, “diversity” — which apparently denoted that almost anyone who was not a white male heterosexual Christian could qualify for preference on the basis of “difference.”
A university, for example, might highlight its “rich diversity” by pointing to gay students, female students, Punjabi students, Arab students, Korean students, and disabled students — even should they all come from quite affluent families and backgrounds. Key here was that “diversity” was admittedly cosmetic, or at least mostly to be distinguishable by the eye — skin color, gender, etc. — rather than internal and predicated on differences in political ideology or values. A Brown or an Amherst worried not at all that its classes included very few Mormons, libertarians, or ROTC candidates; instead, if the students looked diverse, but held identical political and social views, then in fact they were diverse.
But as we near a half-century of racial preferences, the entire industry is now obsolete, as illiberal as it is counterproductive. Quite simply, there were inherent flaws in affirmative action/diversity that were never addressed. And they now have come back to haunt the entire experiment as something as corrupt and unworkable as our far briefer trial with Prohibition. Here are five good reasons to dismantle the Diversity Industry, and simply attempt to judge Americans on the “content of our character” rather than by the way we look.
1. Who is a minority? There were never clear, established rules for racial set-asides. To make such rules would by definition require some sort of racial-purity protocols, whose history, whether in the antebellum South or National Socialist Germany, has been frightening. But America is still the melting pot where intermarriage and assimilation continue — far more so than during the 1960s, when quotas were being established. Thus, are Barack Obama’s children (of one-half African-American, one-fourth Kenyan, and one-fourth white heritage) “black”? Who is Mexican-American? Does one qualify by having a half-Mexican-American father, which ensures a one-quarter-Mexican racial line and a Hispanic last name?
Our universities today are full of Spanish and Latin American elite academics, whose accented last names have allowed them to piggy-back onto the Mexican-American experience. Africans and Caribbeans can claim victimized affinities to American-born blacks, a leap that supposedly translates into an instant shared heritage of centuries of suffering in America and thus the need for redress. If Barack Obama — the son of two academics and himself a middle-class prep-schooler — qualified for affirmative action at Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard, it was apparently only on the logic that he was to the eye indistinguishable from American blacks, and therefore he must have suffered ongoing racial prejudice in the 1970s and 1980s that deserved official redress. Yet it is hard to accept that the racial bias of 1990 was analogous to that of 1965, or that it always trumps other considerations of culture and habit. But to keep this obsession with racial pedigrees going, either we will have to become entirely cynical and allow that the affluent suburbanite with the Cherokee grandmother really is “Native American,” or we will have to establish clear-cut blood laws and hire federal genealogists. And to apply economic litmus tests for affirmative action is taboo: for to admit that many minorities do well in America and do not need preferences is to suggest that race itself does not predetermine one’s fate.
2. Who was victimized? The industry could never quite decide what constituted grounds for favoritism. In 1970, African-Americans might legitimately make the claim that the heritage of slavery and Jim Crow, and ongoing prejudice north of the Mason-Dixon line, made their struggle for equality almost impossible without government help. But do second-generation dark-skinned Pakistanis, first-generation immigrants from Barbados, or Palestinians on student visas qualify for government preferences? In racial terms, one group can be darker than another, and receive no help: but if an Egyptian is not a beneficiary of affirmative action, does that mean racial prejudice no longer exists? Is it the supposed present or past bias that counts — or both? Does an illegal alien of 17 — a Mexican national named Raúl Martínez, who crossed the border in 2009 — qualify on the basis that he looks like a Mexican-American and has an Hispanic surname — and thus can plead that traditional discrimination against Mexican-Americans was immediately turned against him, and to such a degree that he needs government preference? Again, any discussion of culture also became forbidden, as race trumped all: Did racial prejudice alone, rather than patterns of marriage, child-raising, and parental involvement, result in differing rates of success between Korean-Americans and African-Americans? Why on a per capita basis are Punjabi immigrants or Armenian-Americans wealthier than whites of Dust Bowl heritages in Tulare County, given that the latter supposedly enjoy insidious advantages based on their race?
3. Who needs help? There was always the sneaking suspicion that affirmative action was based not just on historical claims but on present performance levels — or at least sort of. In theory, Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans could claim a toxic collective prejudice that matches anything turned against blacks, Native Americans, or Mexican-Americans, given immigration exclusion laws, zoning prejudices, and internment. But at some magical moment, suddenly “Asian” was no longer grounds for redress, but rather a reason for discrimination. We see this clearly in the University of California system, and especially at the flagship Berkeley campus, where the GPA and SAT scores of Asian students have to be higher than those of their black or Hispanic counterparts for them to gain admission.
As “affirmative action” transmogrified into “diversity,” and Asians became “overrepresented” on some campuses, universities stealthily began discriminating against them — almost as if to say, “Yes, your Japanese grandmother was put into a camp during World War II, but obviously that trauma, or lingering anti-Asian discrimination, did not haunt you at all, given your 4.0 GPA and your 1,500 SAT score, so therefore we see no need to offer you an advantage.” Or is it worse still?: “Obviously such past bias not only did not hurt you but also did not hurt thousands like you, who outperform others and therefore must be collectively curtailed in order to allow space for others.” But note here that success must be collective: The children of elite suburban African-Americans and Mexican-Americans still do benefit from affirmative action, on the logic that the barrio and the ghetto are still with us in a manner that sweatshops and internment camps are not.
4. Who must be diverse? Affirmative action and diversity were never applied uniformly throughout the economy, and for two reasons. It was apparently one thing for an ascendant dean to insist on a diverse Department of Sociology, but quite another for an airline executive to insist that his 747 pilots reflect the ethnic makeup of the United States, or that neurosurgery departments be subject to court-imposed rulings that would ensure that brain surgeons reflect a diverse profile. No one complained that the NBA and NFL employed blacks in vastly disproportionate fashion (79 percent and 65 percent, respectively), or suggested that each team should have quotas for whites and Asians commensurate with their numbers in the general population. Merit, then, was considered vital for some jobs — where lives depended on racially blind proven skill and experience, or where vast sums of money were involved — but not so for others, where, at least in the short term, qualifications need not hinge on “constructed” norms.
Second, elite whites never saw much contradiction in using their status, influence, and capital to ensure that their own were not subject to tougher standards. If a university was devoted to the idea that historically oppressed groups deserve special consideration, and that as a result some white (and now Asian) students would have to step aside, it was also equally devoted to the archaic and illiberal notion that money and contacts still trumped such considerations. A university provost can preach at noon about his record in improving diversity, and at dinner promise a big donor his child will be admitted to the university, even if his grades and test scores might not be competitive in the new diverse atmosphere. If there were to be losers in the race industry, it would be mostly the white clingers of the middle class (and now Asians), who lacked both the correct color and influential parents.
5. Who can control us all? Once the government insisted on proportional representation, there really was no limit to extending that logic. But do we really wish for a Ministry of Diversity that will begin to ask all sorts of repugnant questions? After all, in 2011, professional sports teams are not very diverse. The Postal Service, with its coveted benefits, has a disproportionate number of African-American employees. Women are vastly overrepresented as K-8 teachers, and they graduate from college at disproportionately high rates compared to their male counterparts. We have not had a white-male secretary of state in 15 years. The Latino community in California still refers to itself as a “minority,” even though it is now the largest so-called ethnic group in the state, where there is no longer any majority. Are we to worry that combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq fell on the “white” community in numbers disproportionate to those in both the US military and the general population? Once one goes down this odious “disproportionate” path of an illiberal sectarianism, the road gets increasingly bleak.
I note superficially that here in central California optometrists and dentists seem overwhelmingly to be Asian; owners of small quick-stop stores seem disproportionately to be Punjabi or Pakistani; the lucrative raisin-packing industry is still inordinately controlled by Armenian-Americans. Dry cleaners and donut shops don’t seem very diversely operated. The employees at the DMV seem largely Latino. Do we wish to live in a society that makes such observations and in response takes steps to racially tinker? Because if we do, the future will not be a multiracial population bound by a common culture and swirling continuously in a melting pot, but something akin to the Balkans, Iraq, or Rwanda, where our appearances and self-claimed identities are essential, not incidental, to our characters — a nightmare of endless competitive claims that can only end in violence and chaos.
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson