Princeton Historian James McPherson Defends Preferences

Professor James M. McPherson of Princeton, the current president of the American Historical Association, defends racial preferences in his column in the current issue of Perspectives, an AHA publication. He is subjected to some withering criticism by Thomas Sowell on townhall.com this morning. Both articles are worth reading.

Let me say first that I have enormous respect for Prof. McPherson, based in part (but only in part) on personal experience. Many years ago, in a former life, as a privileged “Visiting Fellow” at Princeton, I taught precepts (sections) in Prof. McPherson’s course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. He’s a fine scholar and a fine man, and his comments on affirmative action deserve attention, if for no other reason than that they are almost universally shared in the upper reaches of academia and elsewhere. They do not, however, deserve assent.

In essence, McPherson’s defense of preferences rests on a desire for what could be called a form of redistributive racial justice. “American culture,” by which I think he means the sum total of American history, has rewarded whites and punished blacks, and now we should make amends. Speaking guiltily of his own success, he writes:

The cultural environment that encouraged white males to hope for careers at the top of the professional and business pyramid but discouraged, inhibited, or prohibited women and minorities from doing the same was a more powerful form of affirmative action than anything we have more recently experienced in the other direction.

This quote is emblematic of McPherson’s overall argument. It is based on his own experience: he was a privileged white male; he owed his appointment to Princeton to the old boy network; his education and early career were characterized by an absence of minority colleagues and students; and his later career has been enriched by their presence. “Without the kinds of policies now being challenged in the Michigan case,” he writes, “we would not have benefited from the degree of racial and ethnic diversity among students and faculties that we now have.”

Along the way McPherson makes several references — from someone less generous they would come across as snide — to other forms of affirmative action that readers of this blog have encountered many times, the infamous invidious ubiquitous non-sequitur, as in “the added points given to applicants who are potential varsity athletes or the children of alumni—long-standing affirmative action categories that seem to arouse little public hostility.” Similarly, he writes that the “old boy network” was “surely the most powerful instrument of affirmative action ever devised.” I’ll not repeat the arguments now made here too many times to cite that discrimination on the basis of race is, and should be, regarded as quite different from discrimination on the basis of other characteristics. It is discouraging to see a scholar of Prof. McPherson’s deserved stature putting rewarding someone because of race on the same moral plane with rewarding someone because of musical or athletic ability.

As I’ve said before, I believe this desire for redistributive racial justice does appeal to a strong notion of fairness. It takes the worthy aim of making victims whole and tries to apply it to the whole society. The problem with it, in my view, is that it runs counter to even more fundamental notions of fairness, especially in a society built on individual rights. It assumes a society built not on and composed of individuals, but instead a sort of confederacy of racial groups. In this world, individual rights are subsumed by group rights, and it is thus legitimate to sacrifice the rights (now, interests) of particular individuals based on nothing more than their race in order to benefit individual members of other groups solely because of their race. To his credit, McPherson does recognize that these individual sacrifices are unfortunate. He empathizes with the victims, but he does not regard the sacrifices imposed on them as unjust because he regards them as necessary for the required group compensation. (But if individual rights must be sacrificed to group racial rights, a cynic might ask, why not simply fire all the senior white male professors and appoint minority scholars to their former positions? Why limit the sacrifices to the younger generation who have not benefitted from the unjust enrichment Prof. McPherson ascribes to his own?)

I’m sure Prof. McPherson would appreciate the irony of his preferences for groups over individuals resting on a theoretical foundation closer to John C. Calhoun’s concurrent majority than to the belief in individual rights associated with the tradition of Jefferson and Madison.

Say What? (5)

  1. stu April 23, 2003 at 12:43 pm | | Reply

    You are far too kind to Professor McPherson. His personal charm and kindness give him no cachet in the debate about racial preferences. If anything, his eminence in the field of history–Civil War and Reconstruction history at that–imposes upon him a higher standard when he makes pronouncements about affirmative action.

    He, of all people, should know better. It is hard to imagine anyone greater knowledge of the evils of a racial spoils system and its corrosive effects on an otherwise just society.

    How sad. His comments mean that he has spent a lifetime writing about a subject he never really understood. He has spent a lifetime studying horrific suffering without ever having understood the cause of it. And he has spent a lifetime trying to impart wisdom, and has left us mere sophistry.

    He reminds one of the man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  2. M April 24, 2003 at 9:57 am | | Reply

    Quick Comment. Unless he is willing to resign his position and donate a substantial portion of his “undeserved” earnings to poor blacks of his generation he should shut up.

    His comments are just plain asinine

  3. Richard Aubrey April 24, 2003 at 3:31 pm | | Reply

    Professor McPherson not only looks at groups as having rights which are in competition (or being redistributed from one group to another), he sees the groups as suffering as groups the misfortunes or the benefits accruing to their status.

    This is, of course, bogus. Any black kid who is within twenty points of qualifying for U-Mich (twenty points being the reward for race), has not suffered the misfortunes we imagine imposed on sharecroppers and casual laborers and those of earlier centuries. In fact, that hypothetical kid has done pretty well, since he must have lived in a good neighborhood to be going to a school which would prepare him so well that he’s only twenty points shy (for example). You can do a hell of a lot worse in Michigan and still have a high school diploma. Somebody’s got some money, or if his family doesn’t, some other entity is paying, which is (although this is hard for some to follow) FREE MONEY.

    So this kid did not suffer much.

    The kid who loses the slot because of being white can’t conceivably have been an oppressor. He’s too young and we don’t do much oppression in Michigan ‘burbs anyway.

    All of which is to say that justice-by-group is absurd.

  4. Anonymous November 22, 2003 at 1:59 pm | | Reply

    McPherson fails to mention other ethnic groups that endured discrimination at the hands of the WASP Establishment. Based on his line of reasoning, shouldn’t we grant affirmative action to these historically discriminated against ethnic groups as well. Even if they did not suffer as much as African Americans, Italian Americans and other ethnic groups were certainly discriminated against. And they certainly did not have a “good old boys” network working in their behalf. So how about it? True diversity means ethnic, religious, and ideological diversity as well. If we embrace this principle of remedying group discrimination through affirmative action, then we should apply it to everyone equally.

  5. The New Confederates February 14, 2013 at 12:47 am |

    [...] This new racial and ethnic confederacy, I argued here, [...]

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