I like the way Leonard Pitts’ column in the Miami Herald on affirmative action begins:
The strongest argument against affirmative action I’ve ever heard was only one sentence long.
The setting was a room full of black journalists in Seattle in the summer of 1999, the year after Washingtonians voted their state out of the affirmative action business. The speaker was Shelby Steele, the conservative black author. And the argument — a question, actually — went something like this:
Why should black people hinge their hopes on something white people can vote out of existence in an afternoon?
But when Pitts turns his attention to the Michigan AA cases he reverses field, becomes conventional, and repeats what I find to be one of the few offensive arguments of the preferentialists (I disagree with their other arguments but don’t find them offensive), an offensiveness that is magnified by its ubiquity.
It’s hard to buy the argument that white students are materially harmed by what is, in essence, a fairly innocuous attempt to shake up the mix of a campus population. Would we even be having this conversation if the students who got in ahead of the plaintiffs had done so on the basis of, say, life experience or athletic ability?
Discrimination on the basis of race, in other words, is no different from discrimination on the basis of anything else — athletic ability, life experience, whatever.
If this is true, then we really don’t need any civil rights laws at all. In fact, we’d have to scrap more than a few laws that over the years, after great struggle, have outlawed discrimination on the basis of race. We’d have to scrap what I believe is the central tenet of what has often been called (by Gunnar Myrdal and others) “The American Creed”: that everyone should be judged “without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin.” The transition from colorblindness to race preference, if allowed to proceed, requires that everyone has a right to be judged with regard to race, color, and national origin — and in the future perhaps with regard to creed as well.