Critics of affirmative action have long pointed out — and even supporters agree — that it is based on the notion of group rights, on the notion that it is legitimate to impose burdens on some individuals because of their race or ethnicity in order to provide benefits to others because of their membership in different racial or ethnic groups. This privileging (if you will excuse my using a noun as a verb) of group over individual has in turn moved race and ethnicity to the fore, resulting in an identity politics that amounts to little more than pure tribalism. We are now much more an uneasy confederacy of racial and ethnic groups than a union of states or a community of individuals.
As Nathan Glazer (whom I quoted in “Separation Of Race And State” over a decade ago) predicted back in 1975 , affirmative action has thus led to
a real Balkanization, in which group after group struggles for the benefits of special treatment…. The demand for special treatment will lead to animus against other groups that already have it, by those who think they should have it and don’t….
The rising emphasis on group difference which government is called upon to correct might mean the destruction of any hope for the larger fraternity of all Americans.
Nowhere is this Balkanization more evident than the conflict that recently burst forth in California (discussed here yesterday) between Asian Americans who are victimized by affirmative action and Hispanics and blacks who benefit from it.
For a stark view of the demands of tribal politics in action, consider the comments of Karin Wang, of the Los Angeles civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, quoted in this revealing article in the San Jose Mercury News. She regards “the embrace of affirmative action in hiring, but not admissions, as “morally inconsistent,” without explaining — at least as quoted in the article — her own inconsistency. Moreover, and far worse than mere inconsistency, she obviously regards maintaining tribal alliances as more important than protecting individual rights. Criticizing the Asian Americans, primarily Chinese, who recently derailed the reintroduction of racial preferences, she commented:
”In our really diverse state, communities like ours have to learn to build bridges and coalitions on all of these issues.” Yes, she added, a group of Chinese-Americans altered the political process, but “at the expense of alienating other communities.”
Think about that. Here’s the leader of what purports to be an organization seeking justice for Asian Americans telling Chinese American parents that they should quietly accept discrimination against their children, because they are Chinese, so that blacks and Hispanics can receive preferential treatment because they are black and Hispanic.
This willing sacrifice of an individual right to be free from racial or ethnic discrimination to some purported greater social good — in this case, maintaining friendly tribal relations — has unfortunately been aided and abetted by modern liberalism’s embrace of the dark strain of communitarian social theory. Consider, for example, the views of the most eminent communitarian, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, in his Democracy’s Discontent and other books. I quoted a typical example here:
Here lies the far-reaching assumption underlying the diversity argument for affirmative action: admission is not an honor bestowed to reward superior virtue. Neither the student with high test scores nor the student who comes from a disadvantaged minority group morally deserves to be admitted. Provided the criteria of admission are reasonably related to a worthy social purpose, and provided applicants are admitted accordingly, no one has a right to complain. [Sandel, "Picking Winners," THE NEW REPUBLIC, December 1, 1997, p. 17]
Belonging to a community inevitably requires individuals to subordinate some of their preferences and interests to the common good. Childless people, for example, pay taxes to support schools, pacifists pay taxes to support the Defense Department, Libertarians pay taxes to support what they regard as oppressive government regulation, etc. Liberals like Sandel, however, confuse not having a right to attend the school of one’s choice (which is true) with not having a right not to be excluded based on race (which is not true).
As I concluded (in the Sandel-quoting post linked above) over a decade ago (and since then things have gotten much worse), “What a sad and bedraggled thing liberalism has become.”