Caste Benefit Analysis

In the past few years the din of diversity has so thoroughly drowned out all other defenses of racial preferences that it is difficult to recall that such was not always the case, that other justifications were once prominent and even dominant. And to those of us critical of racial preference, the diversity rationale is so thin and transparently disingenuous that it is especially difficult for us to acknowledge that there is a strong moral base to much of its appeal.

Critics of preferences argue — persuasively, in my view — that the arguments put forward to justify them undermine the principle of non-discrimination, but that should not lead us to ignore or deny that those arguments do have an appealing moral component. Just as with the ill-fated experiment of busing to achieve racial balance, they are intended to promote integration and, perhaps most powerfully, to do away with caste.

In fact, many of the most prominent defenders of preferences have based their arguments on the necessity of eradicating caste. Nathan Glazer, for example, abandoned his earlier (and quite trenchant) criticism of preferences (discussed most recently here, and earlier here) because he came to believe that without them blacks would remain a lower caste. (See James Traub, “Nathan Glazer Changes His Mind, Again,” New York Times Magazine, June 28, 1998) Similarly, Owen Fiss, an influential Yale law professor who has always defended preferences, found the diversity rationale “wanting” as recently as 1997. Fiss, too, found the eradication of caste to be the only compelling justification for the discrimination inherent in preferences.

The diversity rationale seems shallow and lacking the compelling quality needed to justify the hardships created by preferential treatment. It has little appeal outside the university context — for example, among production workers or guard-rail contractors. Even in the university, diversity seems an incomplete justification, since it doesn’t provide any basis for choosing what kinds of diversity we should favor. Why, we are left to wonder, should we give a plus to blacks but not to members of religious groups that might be underrepresented?


Rather than thinking of affirmative action in terms of diversity or compensation, we should see it as a structural remedy for a structural problem: as a means of eradicating the caste structure that now mars our society and that has its roots in slavery and the segregation of Jim Crow. By giving blacks a greater share of the privileged positions of society, affirmative action improves the relative position of the group that lies at the bottom of the heap. It aims to end the racial ordering of American society. (Owen Fiss, “Affirmative Action: Beyond Diversity,” Washington Post OpEd, May 27, 1997)

This is not the place to argue with Fiss’s failure to explain what precisely is bad about “the racial ordering of American society” if discrimination on the basis of race is not wrong in and of itself. (If I were to make that argument, I would begin by observing that society has to be “ordered” some way or other. If racial discrimination is no different from or worse than other forms of discrimination — class, geography, where your parents went to school, etc., etc. — then why is racial ordering worse than other forms of ordering? Most of us instinctively know that it is, because we have internalized the very principle that Fiss et. al. would have us discard — that every person has a right be treated “without regard” to race.)

Given their commendable sensitivity to matters of caste, it is surprising that more liberals have not shown more concern about the caste society that is rapidly being created by the combustible mixture of their softness on “multiculturalism” with the dramatic increase in immigration from Mexico and Latin America over the past generation.

This subject is addressed — eloquently, as usual — by Victor Davis Hanson in his new book, Mexifornia: A State of Becoming. Hanson warns, with evidence, that we are faced with a very real possibility of becoming an “apartheid nation, with great distances between its elite and mass, which threatens all prosperity and turns the state into the poorest part.” Racial preferences in college admissions, even if practiced as widely as liberals in their wildest dreams would like, would be as nothing against this threat. (See reviews of Hanson and here.)

It has often been said that in America conservatives stand on the shoulders of dead revolutionaries, but it is no less true that today’s liberals depend on the success of dead racists. In that regard, I have often pointed to the irony of contemporary liberals celebrating the failure of Reconstruction radicals to write colorblindess into the 14th Amendment and hence their (the liberals’) rejection of Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissenting view, in Plessy, that “our Constitutution is colorblind.” (See, for example, here and here.) Further demonstrating the conservative roots of contemporary liberalism, the caste-like cultural confederacy called for by the multiculturalism so popular on the left — and that is in fact now emerging — must be making that great theorist of minority rights, John C. Calhoun, smile from down below.

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  1. Andrew Lazarus July 21, 2003 at 11:02 pm | | Reply

    I don’t know much about upward mobility for Mexican farm workers (or, for that matter, the remaining Anglo farm workers), but it looks to me like urban Hispanic Californians are acculturating, and moving up economically, at a pretty fair clip. (We had a maid five years ago who came once a week who asked me if it were a good time to refinance the mortgage. A homeowner, all kids college bound, and yes, she barely spoke English.)

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