Conservative Hypocrisy on Racial Profiling and Affirmative Action

Victor Davis Hanson is against racial preferences. College applicants should be judged as individuals! But racial profiling? He's okay with that.
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Michael Fleshman/Flickr

An instantly controversial Victor Davis Hanson column recounts a piece of advice handed down through three generations in his family: Watch out if you see young black men on the street or approaching your house or vehicle -- they commit "an inordinate amount of violent crime." A fair number of commenters at National Review agree with that counsel. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates retorts that it is "stupid advice" that betrays "a rote, incurious and addled intellect."

What do I think?

The significance of Hanson's column and its embrace by some conservatives can't be fully appreciated without looking back at his larger body of work on race in America. His attitudes are common, though far from universal, in movement conservatism.

At their core is a glaring contradiction.

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VDH wrote last year that "until the election of Barack Obama, 'white' was an increasingly rare designation." Intermarriage, integration, and assimilation "were making race itself an irrelevant consideration." But then Obama engaged in "race-baiting" and "staged anger" at alleged white racism. 

Hanson sees liberals as race-obsessed, which he regards as anti-American. The "new emphasis on tribe"* ignores human individuality "and assumes that friendships, marriages, and alliances will not dare trump racial and ethnic solidarity," he argues. "Ours is now instead a Galadriel's mirror of the Balkans, of India's castes, of Rwanda, but no longer of a multiracial melting-pot America, where our allegiances were to be political, economic, and cultural and not necessarily synonymous with how we looked." Hanson dismisses prevailing racial categories. "Only in the hyper-racialist America can we take quite distinct Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Chinese third-generation citizens and create from them the artificial rubric 'Asian' in their shared antithesis to 'white,'" he writes, "or take disparate Cubans and Mexicans and likewise reinvent them as identical Latinos, or take Jamaicans, Ethiopians, and American blacks and call them all 'African-Americans' on the similar logic of not being something equally artificial like white -- which I guess covers Americans who used to be Greeks, Irish, Armenians, Jews, Poles, and Danes."

And in a multiracial America, he rejects affirmative action:

Aside from the increasing difficulty of determining the ancestry of multiracial, multiethnic, and intermarried Americans, what exactly is the justification for affirmative action's ethnic preferences in hiring or admissions -- historical grievance, current under-representation due to discrimination, or both? Are the children of President Barack Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder more in need of help than the offspring of immigrants from the Punjab or Cambodia? If non-white ancestry is no longer an accurate indicator of ongoing discrimination, can affirmative action be justified by a legacy of historical bias or current ethnic under-representation?

These views would be tolerable (if unfair to Obama and liberals) if Hanson was a consistent, principled individualist who encouraged colorblindness as an ideal and treated race as a construct. That may well be the best way forward.

But Hanson is not that at all.

On one hand, he grounds his opposition to affirmative action in those values. See, Hanson doesn't deny that black Americans are disproportionately likely (a) to be raised in poor, single parent households; (b) to have a parent or sibling in jail; (c) to reside in failing school districts; (d) to witness or be victimized by violent crime; and (e) to lack access to family wealth due in part to decades of discrimination. It's just that, even knowing that blacks as a group are disproportionately disadvantaged, he believes it's wrong for colleges or employers to grant special treatment to black applicants, rather than assessing them as individuals. Colorblindness is his sacred ideal, group statistics be damned. In the United States, everyone deserves equal treatment. Blacks are to be treated fairly as individuals with no consideration of group traits.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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