Affirmative Action's Staying Power

by Conor Friedersdorf

Randall Kennedy writes:

The true measure of affirmative action's staying power is that its absence now is virtually inconceivable. Liberalism has made racial homogeneity uncool and unacceptable. Even many conservatives are made uncomfortable by lily-white gatherings -- hence the enhanced value to the right of Clarence Thomas, Shelby Steele, Condoleezza Rice, Linda Chavez, and any well-spoken Negro or Latino who consorts with the Tea Party crowd. That conservatives practice affirmative action even as they condemn it is a tribute to liberalism's handiwork.

It's a provocative paragraph that is largely true. Few would deny that conservatives sometimes factor the optics of race and gender into personnel decisions, and tout examples of racial and gender diversity when they're available.

But Mr. Kennedy also reveals an inescapable cost of this embrace: he's implied that Condoleezza Rice and Shelby Steele, to cite two examples, were affirmative action cases. Suffice it to say that the former was more competent and qualified than a lot of the white men in the Bush Administration, and that the latter is a more talented writer and thinker than all sorts of people regularly published and bankrolled by the conservative movement.

That they're also black people on the right is reason enough for a lot of people to presume that merit doesn't explain their rise.

It's impossible to feel good about that.

This passage is worth reading too:

The rise of the diversity rationale for affirmative action has not been costless, but it has ensured that appreciable numbers of racial minorities are in strategic positions, while dampening certain side effects that attend any regime of racial selectivity. Unlike affirmative action based on grounds of compensatory justice, the diversity rationale is non-accusatory. It doesn't depend on an assumption of culpability for some past or present wrong, and it minimizes the anger ignited when whites are accused of being beneficiaries of racial privilege. Everyone can be a part of diversity....

The diversity rationale also facilitates the evasion of prickly subjects -- for instance, the fact that racial minorities selected for valued positions sometimes have records that, according to certain criteria such as standardized tests, are inferior to those of white competitors. The diversity rationale moves the spotlight from the perceived deficiencies of racial minorities to their perceived strengths. Unlike other justifications for affirmative action that seek to make exceptions to meritocracy, the diversity rationale is consistent with meritocratic premises. This is the most striking and historically significant aspect of affirmative action: It enables racial-minority status for the first time in American history to be seen as a valuable credential. Instead of the presence of blacks and other racial minorities constituting an expiation of past sins, the diversity rationale makes their presence a welcome and positive good.

The biggest concern I have about affirmative action is its inevitable trickiness in an increasingly multi-ethnic society. Is it going to pit various minority groups against one another in some situations? Does its logic lead to occasions when privileged but numerically small minority groups will be advantaged over more numerous but less advantaged people? Doesn't the fact of multiracial Americans make standard-setting about who qualifies an increasingly arbitrary affair, more likely to reflect the power of political constituencies than justice? There is also diversity-based affirmative action's implicit judgment that race is the most relevant measure of diversity, something that is true in some but not all circumstances.

On the whole, I tend to think that racial diversity is sometimes important, and that color blindness before the law is even more important -- enough to prohibit government sponsored affirmative action efforts, as California voters have done, while acknowledging that private entities sometimes have legitimate diversity interests.

And diversity proponents ought to take heart, as I do, that this country's institutions -- both public and private -- are going to grow more diverse with or without affirmative action. Racists are disproportionately old, and steadily dying at a faster rate than less racist people and non-racists. Its actually one of the few positive trends we've got going. Of course, racial disparities are more complicated than "racists are holding minorities down," but an ever less prejudiced America isn't nothing.