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.