Everything is(n’t) Fair.

cross-posted at my place

Judging from the past month of political controversy, you could be forgiven for thinking that the United States had mysteriously warped back to the early 1990s.  After all, the similarities are striking: not only are Republicans again trying to sink a young Democratic president’s ambitious attempt at health care reform, but once more, economic difficulties have made race-based affirmative action policies a fertile field for controversy.  As other commentators have pointed out, the main effect of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has been exactly that: a renewed effort on part of conservatives to destroy affirmative-action’s (already shaky) standing in the court of public opinion.  With that in mind, it’s not at all surprising to see the New York Times’ resident conservative come out against continuing affirmative-action:

By 2023, if current demographic trends continue, nonwhites — black, Hispanic and Asian — will constitute a majority of Americans under 18. By 2042, they’ll constitute a national majority. As Hua Hsu noted earlier this year in The Atlantic, “every child born in the United States from here on out will belong to the first post-white generation.”

As this generation rises, race-based discrimination needs to go. The explicit scale-tipping in college admissions should give way to class-based affirmative action; the de facto racial preferences required of employers by anti-discrimination law should disappear.

A system designed to ensure the advancement of minorities will tend toward corruption if it persists for generations, even after the minorities have become a majority. If affirmative action exists in the America of 2028, it will be as a spoils system for the already-successful, a patronage machine for politicians — and a source of permanent grievance among America’s shrinking white population.

I’ll give credit to Douthat for at least implicitly acknowledging that affirmative-action is still basically necessary in contemporary America.  That said, he comes to that conclusion by way of a very unusual – and mistaken – premise.  Namely, that we can assess the “quantity” of racial justice in a society by simply tallying up the number of underprivileged minorities in said society.  By Douthat’s lights, we still need affirmative-action because minorities are still that, minorities.  In the future however, that won’t be the case.  Even if the definition of “white” expands to include people we currently consider “Hispanic” or “Asian,” it’s still likely that nonwhites will constitute a plurality – if not a majority – of the United States.  Under those conditions, Douthat argues, it doesn’t make any sense for affirmative-action to exist.

Douthat’s argument sounds intuitive, but it doesn’t actually make any sense.  For starters, he misplaces the source of racial injustice; it’s not that affirmative action is necessary because there aren’t very many nonwhites or even because of the still-present personal bias towards nonwhites.  Rather, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, if affirmative action is necessary, it’s because of widespread systemic bias stemming from generations of overt and covert institutional discrimination.  Years of study and empirical observation have revealed, consistently, that the mere fact of being nonwhite (and particularly of being African-American or Latino) puts you at a distinct disadvantage, either acutely, as is the case when looking for employment, or generally, as in discussions of wealth, health outcomes, educational opportunity and social networks.

The critical part is that none of these things are population dependent.  Indeed, it is entirely possible for systemic bias against nonwhites to exist in a majority-minority society.  To use an obvious example, South Africa is still marred by widespread discrimination and bias, despite the fact that whites are a distinct minority within the country.  We can see this dynamic play out in the United States, at least regard to individual states.  After California – a majority-minority state – voted to ban race, ethnicity or gender-based affirmative action in 1996, there was an immediate and sharp decline in the number of black and Hispanic students accepted into the UC system.  In fact, among the more selective schools like UC Berkley, the acceptance rate for African-American students fell from 49 percent in 1997 to 24 percent in 1998.  Not surprisingly, the picture is the same in majority-white states which have outlawed – or greatly restricted – affirmative action.  In 2004, after the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision forcing the University of Michigan to reevaluate its affirmative action program, admission officers at the University reported to that:

The number of African American freshman applications to the university declined 28 percent, from 1,868 to 1,337. The number of black freshmen this year was the smallest since 1989, though the overall freshman class is the largest in Michigan’s 187-year history.

The easy – and predictable – answer to this is that African-American and Hispanic students are simply not good enough to be admitted into elite universities.  Their scores are not high enough, their grades not good enough etc.  But, again, that ignores the vast number of systemic factors that have an impact on whether any given person attends college – income, parental educational attainment, educational opportunity, etc. – as well as the fact that admissions themselves are only partially based off of “objective” criteria like grades and test scores.  My main point though is that the mere presence of a substantial minority presence doesn’t guarantee any mitigation in systemic biases.  Even if the United States becomes majority-minority, there is still the very real possibility that, in the absence of any concerted efforts otherwise, the systemic biases against nonwhites will become even more entrenched.

Contra Douthat, affirmative action (and especially race-based affirmative action) will be necessary for as long as our political institutions refuse to address systemic discrimination in any meaningful way.  Indeed, if conservatives were genuinely interested in eliminating race-based preferences in academia or hiring, the first step they could take towards that goal would simply be to begin investing resources in improving education, health care and job opportunities for under-privileged and historically disadvantaged communities.  Account for those problems and maybe – maybe – we’ll see an America where preferences and set-asides aren’t necessary.

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11 thoughts on “Everything is(n’t) Fair.

  1. bitchphd July 20, 2009 at 11:26 am Reply

    it is entirely possible for systemic bias against nonwhites to exist in a majority-minority society

    Indeed; in fact, if you look at the historic roots of American racism, what you see is that black inferiority was *legally* enshrined in part because early European colonists were outnumbered by their slaves, and used the law to counterbalance their fears of insurrection.

    • shani-o July 20, 2009 at 11:58 am Reply

      Helloooooo, Jamaica. Also, India. And Vietnam. And South Africa. And…etc.

    • Winslowalrob July 20, 2009 at 12:17 pm Reply

      BPD, in the US context this is not exactly true. A lot of the legal histories I have come across look at slavery through the Old Dixie Narrative (a lot of slaves, mostly concentrated in the South, all growing cotton), instead of the long and complicated procedure of constructing american racism. To be a (black) slave in 1650 Virginia was quite different than being a (black) slave in 1850 Virginia.

  2. G.D. July 20, 2009 at 12:07 pm Reply

    Fam, you nailed it. Not only did you beat me to this post, but you made all the points I was gonna make — even using my South Africa example. Good shit.

    He also uses some other specious logic in his column:

    But the senators are yesterday’s men. The America of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is swiftly giving way to the America of Sonia Maria Sotomayor and Barack Hussein Obama.

    There are 100 U.S. senators. One of them is black. Three of them are Hispanic/Latino. Two of them are Asian-American. There are no Natives. Of the country’s 50 governors, only 4 are nonwhite: Bill Richardson, Bobby Jindal, Deval Patrick and David Patterson. Of the 9 SCOTUS justices, 1 of them is nonwhite (Sotomayor will make 2).

    And yet he sees this as some sort of sea-change in American governance.

    • Winslowalrob July 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm Reply

      This is NOT like South Africa, though, as the black population did not really take off there until the middle of the 20th century (before that the whites and the blacks had comparable populations).

      The other thing to keep in mind in all of this is the pressing need to integrate before the whites become outnumbered. I used to think 1968 was bad, but man 2068 might be worse.

      • G.D. July 20, 2009 at 12:28 pm Reply

        but toward the tail end of the apartheid era, whites made up roughly ten percent of the population. The numbers probably made the perpetuation of that dynamic untenable, but it didn’t bring it to an end by itself.

        • Winslowalrob July 20, 2009 at 12:34 pm Reply

          You are totally right, but a lot of people have the idea that a) apartheid was always part of the SA political system and b) the whites were ALWAYS a minority of tyrants to the black majority.

          • G.D. July 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm Reply

            oh, of course. it wasn’t always like that. indeed, it wasn’t always like that *in the States*, as you pointed out. The slide to the deep, codified dehumanization/discrimination that became the rule for black life in the U.S. was a gradual one from 1619.

            But this still line’s up with J’s point: political power isn’t necessarily tethered to population numbers.

            • Winslowalrob July 20, 2009 at 1:05 pm Reply

              Yeah, you are right (the whites were not even white for much of their history in the US either). Should power be tied up with numbers though? Is that not Democracy?

              I say no, but I do not trust people to make political decisions anyways.

              • G.D. July 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm Reply

                yeah, good point. i don’t think it should be neatly correlated with numbers, either; the tyranny of the majority and all that.

                But then what? I mean, the push for diversity in governance and leadership is in part an acknowledgment that proportionality matters. But it’s not the only thing that should matter, right?

                • Winslowalrob July 20, 2009 at 2:03 pm Reply

                  at this point i would be more than satisfied having senators allocated by race, gender, and sexual orientation (not that they would be better or, even more mischeviously, more empathetic senators mind you, but mostly to keep up appearances). But everyone has different things they are trying to accomplish. I am trying to get everyone to integrate and to assimilate into a perfected American political system, so in order for people to buy into the system they have to believe its representative. And yes, I know I am batshit crazy (and that integration and assimilation are problematic).

                  Just because I am reading through Nixonland at the moment (I could not get whatever it takes at the library!) the evolution of the idea and role of affirmative action in society is really fascinating, and it is a political battle steeped in symbolism over substance (which might be said of all american political battles). Still, if I were a politico I would look at not just the growing non-white population but white indifference (and hostility) to AA to try and craft something else, and during a sleight of hand while at the same time doing something that will affect the lives of everyone involved (like i dunno, freezing or insuring housing property rates a la some chicago suburbs and giving tax credits for people who live in integrated neighborhoods).

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