Principles And Orlando Patterson

Orlando Patterson’s OpEd in today’s New York Times confirms that he is one of the wiser people writing on race in America. (Apologies to those who become upset at seeing an adjective being forced into service as an antecedent.) Thus it seems almost churlish to criticize (and no, it will not do to ask what blogs are for if not to hurl churl), especially when Patterson’s comments contain so much that is right on target. But I suppose for the sake of the debate someone’s got to do it….

Both the problem and the promise of Patterson’s piece are nicely encapsulated in his first sentence:

No issue better reveals the American tension between principle and pragmatism than the debate over affirmative action.

That may have been true when affirmative action began in the late 1960s — I believe it was — but it is definitely not true today, and hasn’t been for some time. Now, the tension is not between principle and pragmatism but principle and principle: the old bedrock American principle that everyone should be judged “without regard” to race, national origin, etc., is being challenged by the new diversity principle that positively requires “taking race into account” in all aspects of American life and law.

Patterson himself seems to recognize that principle is far more important than policy when he observes, in his third sentence, that “[m]ore important than the decision the court reaches [in deciding the Michigan cases] will be the reasoning it uses.” What I find hopeful here is Patterson’s obvious respect for the principle of non-discrimination — he attempts to preserve as much affirmative action as possible without undermining it. What is distressing is how far he is willing to go to compromise it (his “pragmatism,” as he would put it) and the unpersuasiveness of the arguments he puts forward to support the compromises.

Patterson begins by emphasizing (I believe exaggerating) the good that affirmative action does and de-emphasizing the bad. To me, of course, this is the weakest part of his piece, but it is possible that this laudatory introduction is merely a device to establish his politically correct credentials so that readers of the NYT, who can be presumed to be primarily preferentialists, will accept his proposals for revision at the end.

“As pragmatic public policy,” he begins, “it is easy to show that the benefits of affirmative action far outweigh its social or individual costs.” Not on the arguments and evidence presented here, it isn’t.

It ensures the integration of our best universities and thereby promotes (if indirectly) a heterogeneous professional elite. In conjunction with antidiscrimination laws, it has directly fostered the growth of an African-American and Latino middle class.

Our best universities would, in the absence of racial preferences, be segregated? If creation into the middle class is the object, why preferences instead of, say, direct cash grants, racial tax exemptions, etc.? This sort of argument — that affirmative action “works” — always reminds me of the observation that at least Mussolini got the trains running on time.

Corporate America has also embraced the policy, mostly by choice. As a result, minorities make up a large part of the middle and top ranks at many of the country’s most recognizable firms. On Fortune magazine’s latest list of the 50 best companies for minorities, for example, 24 percent of officials and managers are minorities. Affirmative action has transformed the American military, making it the most ethnically varied at all levels of its organization of all the world’s great forces. And, along with changing ethnic and racial attitudes, affirmative action has helped promote a powerful global popular culture, many areas of which are dominated by minorities.

If preferences have been so successful, why are they still needed? Who are those “minorities”? Asians? One can usually count on preferentialists to count Asians when they are needed to bolster an argument, and to discount them when preferences are being distributed. Affirmative action as promoter of “a powerful global popular culture”?! This one, whatever it actually means, seems like an uncharacteristic stretch for a writer as perceptive as Patterson.

Negative achievements – that is, what affirmative action has spared us – are hard to prove. But it is surely reasonable to attribute the relative infrequency of ethnic or racial riots in America to the presence of minority leadership in many of the nation’s mainstream institutions.

Proving a negative is indeed hard, but is riot insurance a good justification for preferences. Certainly some think so: just last week I heard Jesse Jackson on CNN attributing the rioting in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to anger over criticism of preferences at the University of Michigan. Really.

There are indeed costs at the individual level, borne by those whites who may not have gained places or jobs as a result of preferences for minorities. But nearly all research indicates that these costs are minuscule. Repeated surveys indicate that no more than 7 percent of Americans of European heritage claim to have been adversely affected by affirmative action programs, and it has been shown that affirmative action reduces the chances of whites getting into top colleges by only 1.5 percentage points.

Miniscule? Let’s assume that these numbers are correct and that “Americans of European heritage” means “white.” According to the 2000 Census, there are roughtly 211,500,000 whites in the U.S. Thus 7% of them would amount to about 15 million people claiming to have been affected adversely. Of course, many of those whites are too young to have experienced such effects, or at least to respond to surveys, and so the percentage of adults who have may well be much higher. Finally, numbers such as these don’t reveal the amount of residual anger and bitterness such “adverse effects” leave behind.

So much for the achievements.

For all its achievements, however, many critics fear that affirmative action violates fundamental principles that have guided this country. It is indeed difficult to reconcile affirmative action with the nation’s manifest ideals of individualism and merit-based competition. But America’s history is replete with just such pragmatic fudging of these ideals.

Here, however, I believe Patterson subtly misstates “the nation’s manifest ideals.” In my view, as I ‘ve often said here, the commitment to merit is secondary; primary is the “without regard” principle that fairness requires judging everyone by the same standard, whether it’s merit or something else.

In foreign policy the United States has defended dictators, destabilized democracies and invaded other countries in the pragmatic promotion of the national interest. Domestically, Congress regularly passes laws that favor special interests – veterans, millionaire ranchers, farmers, oil-well owners, holders of patents about to expire, people with home mortgages – many with no economic justification, all costing billions of tax dollars.

In other words, we’ve compromised our principles so often in so many areas, what’s the big deal about compromising our principle against racial discrimination? Well, for one thing, as I’ve argued in all my IUNS (invidious ubiquitous non-sequirur) posts, race is, and should remain, a “suspect classification.” Discriminating on the basis of race is simply not the same as discriminating for or against tobacco growers, oil well owners, etc., no matter how unappealing examples of that sort of discrimination may be. If that weren’t true, there would be no point to civil rights laws outlawing racial discrimination.

Why, then, the obsession with the principle of colorblindness, especially among right-wing activists who otherwise exhibit little enthusiasm for the equality principle enshrined in the Declaration of Independence? It is hard to resist the conclusion that principles are invoked in public life to rationalize the control of the vulnerable. In relations among equals, meanwhile, pragmatism trumps virtue.

Again, what’s involved here is not pragmatism but a competing principle, and in any event it is, I believed, unjustified to attack critics of that competing principle as simply evil people seeking “the control of the vulnerable.” Patterson should, and I suspect does, know better than that.

Not only does Patterson portray the critics of preferences as hypocrites; they are dumb hypocrites.

Yet these critics miss a more compelling, and more subtle, argument against affirmative action. In spite of its benefits, there are serious problems in the long run for its beneficiaries if affirmative action is not decisively modified

For the remainder of the article, Patterson explains how preferences should be revised.

First, while diversity is a goal that deserves to be pursued in its own right, it was a major strategic error for African-American leaders to have advocated it as the main justification for affirmative action. In doing so, they greatly expanded the number of groups entitled to preferences – including millions of immigrants whose claims on the nation pale in comparison to those who have been historically discriminated against. Such a development understandably alarmed many whites who were otherwise prepared to turn a pragmatic blind eye to their principled concerns about affirmative action.

Patterson, in short, rejects diversity altogether as a justification for preferences, and here I believe his argument begins to get some traction. In what could have been his major point, he writes that the gravest danger of adopting the diversity rationale,

and what perhaps alarms the majority most, is the tendency to view affirmative action as a permanent program for preferred minorities and, simultaneously, the refusal even to consider it a topic for public discourse. Indeed, among the black middle class, especially on the nation’s campuses, blind support for affirmative action has become an essential signal of ethnic solidarity and commitment.

This is true, and very perceptive. What it misses is that the current demand for the permanence of preferences is not a “tendency”; it is a logical, required, and direct outgrowth of the fact that “diversity” is not seen as a “pragmatic” compromise to a valid non-discrimination principle but rather as the requirement of a new and incompatible principle.

Using diversity as a rationale for affirmative action also distorts the aims of affirmative action. The original, morally incontestable goal of the policy was the integration of African-Americans in all important areas of the public and private sectors from which they had been historically excluded. But if diversity is the goal, the purpose of affirmative action shifts from improving the condition of blacks to transforming America into a multicultural society. Thus the pursuit of inclusion is replaced by the celebration of separate identities.

“Affirmative action,” of course, doesn’t have any aims. Only its advocates do. Thus Patterson here is merely restating his view that these advocates made “a major strategic error” in abandoning compensation, or integration, as the justification for racial preference. And I believe he’s right; it was a major turning point, and the preferentialists went around the (wrong) bend.

Patterson would thus sever preferences from diversity, and he would limit them by excluding all immigrants, confining them to

African-Americans, Native Americans and most Latinos. It should include an economic means test. Only those who are poor or grew up in deprived neighborhoods should benefit. At the same time, poor whites from deprived neighborhoods should be phased into the program, a development that would counter the arguments of right-wing critics.

Wow! It is here that one begins to suspect that Patterson has consciously attempted to lull preferentialists into a comfortable stupor, for these “revisions” would end preferences as we know them. Leave aside the unexplained inconsistency of including “most Latinos.” Making them means-tested and including poor whites would amount to a virtual scrapping of the current race-based system.

But whether intending to or not, Patterson has revealed what I think could be the basis of compromise between preferentialists and their critics. Currently, the conflict between advocates of the colorblind non-discrimination principle and those who have come to believe that the presence of “diversity” is more compelling than the absence of discrimination can’t be resolved by compromise, because the competing principles are irreconcilable. But if the preferentialists would reconsider their rejection of the non-discrimination principle, then some of us colorblinders may well be willing to consider some specific, temporary (a crucial requirement) “pragmatic” compromises.

This may seem far-fetched, or worse. But consider, for example, censorship in war time. Even most First Amendment absolutists are willing to entertain a modest amount of censorship while the nation is at war. We have proven that this can be tolerated without repealing the Bill of Rights. Honoring something in the breach, after all, is considerably different from abandoning it altogether. Or to pick another example: speaking only for myself (but who else would I be speaking for?), I would be willing to consider sympathetically something as difficult to justify as reparations for slavery if they could be limited in amount, in duration, and be paired with abandoning all forms of racial preference. At least that would be worth discussing.

Once the conflict over principle is avoided, then the “pragmatism” that Patterson lauds could come to the fore. If that’s what he means, then sign me up.

Say What? (3)

  1. Arnold June 23, 2003 at 5:08 am | | Reply

    There’s a debate (starting at comment 30) about reparations here:

  2. Jian Li March 15, 2007 at 12:56 pm | | Reply

    The nation needs this policy, but it must be modified. For starters, it should exclude all immigrants and be confined to African-Americans, Native Americans and most Latinos. It should include an economic means test. Only those who are poor or grew up in deprived neighborhoods should benefit. At the same time, poor whites from deprived neighborhoods should be phased into the program, a development that would counter the arguments of right-wing critics.

    John, I think you were too easy on Patterson here. His classification of those who should benefit from preferences is ludicrously incoherent. He seems to be hinting (somewhat ambiguously) at a race-neutral form of socioeconomic affirmative action that would favor poor whites as well, thus having wasted him time justifying why we should trash the principle of colorblindness. But even here, his policy will still be race-conscious in that it would give whites preference above any minority who is not African American, Native American, or a member of “most Latinos.” Why do poor whites deserve more preference than poor African immigrants, poor “some-Latinos” (Latinos who are not “most Latinos”), and all poor Asians? Are whites included just because he wants to shut those pesky “right-wing” critics up? Under Patterson’s system, Asian Americans would be held to an even higher standard than whites! Can you imagine such a ridiculous…oh wait, that’s how it works right now.

  3. Coasian Bargains February 19, 2012 at 11:57 pm |

    [...] resembles an idea of mine about how to end the impasse over affirmative action. Way back in 2003 I wrote that “I would be willing to consider sympathetically something as difficult to justify as [...]

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