One commenter in response to my recent post about Glen Grothman's opposition to affirmative action suggested that such opposition - at least as advanced by Grothman - was an example of intellectual dishonesty, wild oversimplification and masked a lack of concern about racial equality.
I concede that affirmative action (and here we are referring to racial preferences in hiring, college admission, etc.) has been motivated by legitimate concerns. Although it may surprise Eugene Kane and some people on the left, I understand the desire on the part of many whites to look around and see black people. We know our racial history and we want to get past it.
But to think that we can get past it by fiat requires its own oversimplification. Getting past an obsession with race by obsessing on race is rife with danger.
Via David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy, the Tapei Times reports "caste" riots in India. The instigating factor was the desire of members of one caste to move "down" in India's multi-tiered affirmative action and, therefore, move "up" in terms of preferences for government jobs, etc.
There is no getting around the fact that when you treat race as important, you create incentives for people to emphasize their racial identity and the burdens that it is claimed to bring. That is not an unalloyed good. You can't tell people that the deck is stacked against them without inducing a substantial number of them to quit the game.
There is no getting around the fact that when you exclude people on the basis of their race, you create resentment. Telling them that you are doing so in pursuit of cosmic justice or to remove a "white privilege" that doesn't seem to be doing them much good won't change that. If they are prone to an innate culturally imprinted racism, you've just fed them some justification.
Supporters of affirmative action argue that our society is already racialized in a way that cannot really be undone - at least not now. They worry that, without racial preferences, too much that matters would be too white.
I don't buy into that but I also don't dismiss it as intellectually dishonest, simplification or, as is done with Grothman, "stupid." When I have been involved in hiring, I have bought into a lot of things that come under the rubric of affirmative action and maybe even racial preference. I'll probably do so again. But "quotas," "goals" and substantial departures from the criteria that we would otherwise follow in admitting students or hiring people are problematic on a number of levels.
There is some recognition of the problem among affirmative action proponents. Following Justice Powell's lead in Bakke, they generally insist that the operation of racial preferences remain opaque. The move toward "holistic" admissions, whatever its other benefits, has the merit of hiding the ball. Just how are we using race in admissions? No one can really say.
Racial preferences may have remained constitutional in large part due to Justice O'Connor's view that they will probably end in 25 years. This too reflects a recognition that they are problematic. What other reason is there to look for their end?
But how is the end of affirmative action supposed to come about? How easy is it to end a benefit for which we have created a constituency? What will happen to tell us that we no longer need affirmative action? Already, much of the racial disparity that we see in America is tied to the persistence of the black "underclass" - a problem that affirmative action does little or nothing to address.