A Journal for Western Man
What Went Wrong with Affirmative Action
(And Why It Never Could Have Gone Right)
Dr. Steven Yates
Issue X- January 29, 2003
1. What is affirmative action? That is the first problem. No one, at the outset, ever defined it. To its supporters, it meant racial and social justice, a compensation for past and present discrimination. To its critics, it has only perpetuated the problem of discrimination while creating a host of new problems.
The term affirmative action was introduced in the context of civil rights by President John F. Kennedy’s EO 10925, signed in 1961; one passage in the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and again in President Lyndon Johnson’s EO 11246, in 1965. Each called for organizations to take "affirmative action" to counter discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, and so on (gender came later). Kennedy originally spoke of "affirmative steps" to prevent discrimination, suggesting general efforts to reach out to minority groups. The term is not defined or explained further; nowhere are to be found specific instructions how to take "affirmative action." There is no indication that a specific policy was intended.
The term stuck. Its meaning would soon be hammered out by federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department. There seemed to be only one way organizations ranging from construction companies and their subcontractors to colleges and universities could "prove" they were not engaging in discrimination, and that was to start keeping extensive records of the race, ethnicity, and eventually gender of every job applicant, every applicant for a promotion, every applicant for admission to every college and every applicant for a faculty or administrative appointment. These would be used as a baseline measure to be compared with records of those hired, promoted, admitted to a university or appointed to a faculty. The problem was, the new antidiscrimination laws required the proof of a negative. At the time no one noticed or commented that this made antidiscrimination law a fatally flawed concept. Sometimes this problem was solved by introducing racial quotas, as with Richard Nixon’s version of the 1969 Philadelphia Plan. Original civil rights law, however, had repudiated all interpretations of the law that called for preferential treatment, much less quotas. The following sentence in the 1964 Civil Rights Act is as clear and explicit as any government document is capable of being:
"Nothing contained in this title shall be interpreted to require any employer, any employment agency, labor organization or joint labor-management committee subject to this title to grant preferential treatment to any individual or to any group because of the race, color, religion, sex, or national origin of such individual or group on account of an imbalance which may exist with respect to the total number or percentage of persons of any race, color, religion, sex or national origin … in comparison with the total number or percentage of persons of such race, color, religion, sex or national origin in any community, State, section, or other area, or in the available work force in any community, State, section or other area. (Title VII, Section 703, (j).)"
Nevertheless, and quite contrary to this passage in the Civil Rights Act, by 1970 we had begun to see a shift in emphasis away from establishing personal acts of discrimination as a legal requirement for taking "affirmative action" toward a preoccupation with statistical ratios. It was simply assumed that absent discrimination, the percentage of hires, applicants, etc., from a particular racial or ethnic group would reflect its percentage in the local population. Conversely, imbalances (or lack of parity) meant that systemic discrimination was still occurring even if no systematic discrimination could be proven. This notion was settling into place at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision in Griggs v. Duke Power in 1971, which introduced disparate impact as a measure of discrimination and gave full sanction to the conceptual shift. We also began to hear phrases like underrepresented group thrown around. The very concept underrepresentation presupposes another one: correct representation. What could this be? To the growing army of affirmative action bureaucrats, it meant proportional representation – ideally, each group should be represented on campuses, in workforces, and on corporate boards, relative to its percentage in the local population.
By the time the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case came up in 1978, it was clear that at least some affirmative action programs were involving overt preferences where less qualified minorities were given seats in medical and law schools over more qualified whites, in the name of achieving greater "balance" in student populations. This was what plaintiff Allan Bakke alleged was occurring at the University of California at Davis Medical School. He had applied for admission in both 1973 and 1974 and been rejected both times, while blacks who were less qualified by the medical school’s own criteria were admitted in his place. In other words, the new rules had led to – amounted to – reverse discrimination against white men. One might as well use the term Nathan Glaser chose for the title of his book Affirmative Discrimination (1975), the first detailed study of what was going on by a major sociologist. Those charged with implementing the programs, however, had no idea how else to proceed in proving to the new breed of federal overseers that they were not discriminating against women and minorities.
In many respects, Bakke was a turning point. This is unfortunate, because the Court’s reasoning was a hopeless muddle. The Court struck down the specific admissions policy at the University of California at Davis Medical School. In other words, Allan Bakke had proven his case to the Court’s satisfaction. However, while acknowledging that even "benign" racial classifications are inherently suspect, Justice Powell’s majority opinion went on to introduce the notion of a "compelling governmental interest" that justified taking race into account. Just so they didn’t set hard quotas. The "compelling governmental interest" was in "the attainment of a diverse student body." Thus the concept of diversity entered the picture. In this light, race or ethnicity could count as a "plus" in decisions who to admit to a university or who to hire even in the absence of evidence of intentional discrimination. Precisely where such a rationale was to be found in the Constitution was never made clear. But Justice Blackmun was the one who spilled the beans. He opined that it was not possible to develop an affirmative action program that was completely race-neutral, without any preferential treatment, and still have it be successful. "In order to get beyond racism," he famously wrote, "we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must first treat them differently."
It was almost as if Blackmun had studied an essay that had been published 13 years before by Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School educated cultural Marxist – an essay entitled "Repressive Tolerance." Marcuse had argued that neutrality was a sham, that it would ensure the continued privileges of the powerful (i.e., white men), and that the "exercise of civil rights by those who don’t have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise." This was without question the idea that was sweeping through both the universities and the upper echelons of bureaucracies such as the EEOC.
Thus in the end, Bakke widened the door to preferential treatment – to a universe of double-standards, one for the "oppressors" and the other for their "victims," and to a subtle cultural Marxist interpretation of rights. Diversity became the most important rationale given out to the public. Both affirmative action and calls for more diversity among both faculty and students became fixtures in academe – including, obviously, at the University of Michigan but in one form or another at every public college and university in the country – and any private one that accepted federal money in any form.
Lack of specifics in the original legislation – plus the implication that carrying out its intent meant proving that negative, that one had not discriminated – had made the original "affirmative action" an inherently confused notion. It should be no surprise that a cultural Marxist interpretation developed; there was absolutely no way to carry out what it seemed to mandate without preferential machinations. In light of the idea that group classifications were "suspect," however, the use of preferences led to secrecy and intellectual dishonesty. As sociologist Frederick R. Lynch would put it in his pioneering 1989 study Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action, "word comes down but does not go out." Bureaucratic footsoldiers who wanted to be in compliance and had never so much as heard of Marcuse or cultural Marxism were not sure what the law really asked them to do. Did it call for group-based preferences or didn’t it? They walked a tightrope. No one wanted to be sued.
2.Two other concepts were part of the same basic package as "affirmative action": "equal opportunity" and a "level playing field." Supposedly, it was the purpose of "affirmative action" to bring about the former because of the continued absence of the latter, and possibly the only way to do this was through race-conscious measures. One thinks of the infamous "shackled runner" argument used so effectively by President Johnson back in 1965 – an argument not far removed from Marcuse’s. Let’s look at these notions.
George Reisman, Pepperdine University economist and author of the treatise Capitalism, defines an opportunity as any state of affairs in which successful action by a person is possible. This opens a lot of territory. All kinds of occasions can count as opportunities. Most of us unfortunately miss all too many potential opportunities, either because we aren’t looking or aren’t looking in the right place. The opportunity may come as a job opening, or a perceived need one can meet by starting a business. But how do we quantify "opportunity" to ensure that all persons have "equal opportunity"? We can’t! The question doesn’t even make sense. The most one can do on a small scale is pursue the opportunities one sees and finds interesting, and resolve not to interfere with others as they pursue theirs. The most we can do on a large scale is support governmental arrangements that respect people’s right to pursue opportunities of their choosing instead of interfering with them. In this case, government cannot ensure something called "equal opportunity" (or "equality of opportunity") but it can recognize the immense value of freedom of opportunity – by staying out of the way. From the standpoint of a free society, this is government’s most "compelling interest."
Those who argue for keeping "affirmative action" usually, at some point, invoke the idea that "the playing field is not yet level" because of the past. This was the implication of Blackmun’s remark above. It is also central to the cultural Marxist view: because of their historical "shackles" the victims can’t compete with their oppressors even after the instruments of oppression are removed. But what is this "level playing field"? How is a policy so poorly conceived as "affirmative action" supposed to create it? Presumably, the playing field is "level" if all groups have the same opportunities – and we’re back where we started.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Suppose we could start over and create from scratch a hypothetical multiracial or multiethnic population in which everyone is economically equal and (in whatever sense we want) has the same opportunities (whatever this means). Let us assume, furthermore, more or less equal levels of intelligence or cognitive ability and education between groups throughout our population. And let us assume, finally, governmental arrangements that leave people alone and are not subject to the manipulation by one group to gain unearned advantages over the other.
Wouldn’t it still be the case, even in these Utopian circumstances, that left to their own devices some would make better use of their cognitive abilities and education than others? Wouldn’t some see opportunities that are missed by others? Thus wouldn’t a state of affairs soon develop in which some end up with better know-how than others, because some would have more confidence in their knowledge and abilities than others? Wouldn’t some also have more motivation than others, and some have more physical stamina than others (I am assuming that our population does not consist of clones or people who are exact copies of one another!)? Very quickly, then, economic "inequities" would emerge as some made better use of their equal abilities than others and took the actions others did not take. It would be neither possible nor desirable to correct these "inequities" through a "policy" devised by the central government. The "inequities" didn’t result from factors government either can or ought to redress. They sure didn’t result from deliberate acts of sabotage such as racial discrimination. If members of Group A in our population simply make better use of the opportunities that they see while Group B does not, then assuming no specific laws preventing Group B’s members from taking similar actions, how do the economic differences that emerge between Group A and Group B amount to "systemic discrimination"? Our thought experiment proposed egalitarianism as its ideal, actually gave its people equal intelligence and educations, and then left them alone. The ideal was quickly subverted by nothing more than natural differences that boiled down to whether the people perceived opportunities the same and responded in the same way. They would not. The next generation in this imaginary world would grow up in a world containing "inequities" because some of their parents had taken successful actions and some had not. As Austrian economist Murray Rothbard showed in great detail, egalitarianism is simply impossible; it is, to use his phrase, a "revolt against nature."
In the real world, there simply is no "level playing field." There never was, never will be, and never can be. For in the real world, individuals are obviously not of equal intelligence (this claim is independent of the one about differences in intelligence between different racial groups); it is even more obvious that they do not and could not have "equal educations." Thus if our imaginary world of ideal initial conditions could not maintain egalitarianism, we can hardly expect it from a real society. Egalitarianism is a dream of chronic Utopians.
All this goes to the heart of what is wrong with "affirmative action" and why it could never go right – no matter how conceived. Policies designed upon premises that are either wrong or don’t make sense are bound to go off course. If ideas have consequences, then bad ideas have bad consequences. Those that dissolve into a conceptual muddle when you scrutinize them have even worse consequences. Affirmative action is the generic name for a range of policies and programs that haven’t worked, don’t work, and can’t be made to work in the real world – not without creating problems worse than what they were intended to solve. The issue isn’t racism or bigotry. It is not anyone’s motives – although before the end of this essay it should be clear that cultural Marxists’ motives are anything but pure. However, even those with the best of intentions cannot build a workable policy around wishful thinking draped over a morass of confusion (and as we’ll also see below, historical illiteracy), then impose it willy-nilly on a population by force. It is no more complicated than that. It is unsurprising that the term affirmative action is not as widely used as it used to be. It has gotten too bad of a reputation. Terms like diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion are very much preferred!
Once we realize all this, what do we do? The appropriate thing to do, in my judgment, is to scrap affirmative action altogether and replace it with the idea of complete freedom of association. Likewise, we should do away with the vague and impossible "equality of opportunity" and replace it with freedom of opportunity as sketched above. The federal government, above all (along with its countless minions at the state and local levels and its fellow travelers in the universities), should stop imposing policies on populations unilaterally, whether under the pretext of "social justice" or to "increase diversity" or for any other reason. This, of course, goes beyond any call to scrap a particular "diversity" program at a particular public university such as the University of Michigan. The logic of our argument calls on Americans to scrap the entire constellation of confused ideas that brought us to our present point. Neither the federal government nor any of its branches or agencies should be allowed to dictate admissions policies or hiring practices to colleges and universities, corporations, or anyone else. Complete freedom of association means just that. You hire who you want in your business – to meet your needs, not satisfy a bureaucrat. Colleges select a student body ready and able to do college-level work, not admit students simply to increase "diversity" as if this were an end in itself. Often this is common horse sense. The question, after all, still remains: would you want to be operated on by, e.g., a surgeon who got into medical school because of a racial preference program and then got employed by a hospital striving to increase its "diversity"?
3. Blacks, I am more than aware, will not be satisfied with any of this. Nor will some women. For don’t racism and sexism still exist? Isn’t prejudice still a problem? Don’t too many people still favor their own, which means excluding others? Don’t too many students still associate only with their own? Isn’t "preferential treatment" for, e.g., standout athletes, or the children of alumni, as reprehensible as "preferential treatment" based on race and gender?
First things first. No one denies that prejudice is still around. But we cannot mechanically infer that something called "affirmative action" (or "diversity" or whatever you want) will magically erase it. If people are forced together against their will, with some getting favors based on group identity and others disfavored, this might make prejudice worse. Moreover, when members of a favored group are taught to demonize the disfavored group ("their ancestors enslaved and brutalized your ancestors"), whatever friction already existing between them is likely to worsen rather than diminish. Small wonder, that is, that after three decades of "disparate impact" based university admissions and hiring practices we have songs by black rapsters about killing white police officers (to cite just one example). Such results are not accidental. Thomas Sowell has documented in great detail, especially in his book Preferential Policies: A Worldwide Perspective, that whenever the state mandates favors for some at the expense of others, whatever problems already existed are aggravated, not relieved. If the policies are not reversed, and legal recourse seems less and less of an option, eventually outbreaks of violence occur between the favored and disfavored groups.
We haven’t seen much open violence in our society, not compared with the genocide that has occurred elsewhere, especially when governments simply liquidated undesirable groups. America’s overall infrastructure has proven too resilient for that. The prosperity we had achieved by the 1950s supplied us with a significant cushion of economic and social stability. However, this doesn’t mean that the mindset affirmative action programs have encouraged hasn’t begun to wreak havoc on our institutions. Most of the damage has been cultural. I will focus on one area: the effects on higher education of hiring and then tenuring people who were members of politically and bureaucratically favored groups (women, blacks, eventually gays and lesbians) manifestly not qualified to be there.
It is well known that a coterie of "tenured radicals," most of them products of preferential hiring for university faculty, began to make waves during the supposedly conservative 1980s. Their writings read like those of 1960s student revolutionaries who never grew out of it. The claims they made were frequently ludicrous by most standards and would not have been considered publishable, much less scholarly, even a decade earlier. Consider a few examples (some will be familiar): radical feminist law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon of the University of Michigan described how, in her view, voluntary sexual intercourse is a form of rape because of the power wielded by men as a group over women as a group. Radical feminist philosophy professor Alison Jaggar (now at the University of Colorado at Boulder) contended, for essentially the same reason, that a romantic candlelight dinner between a man and a woman is a form of prostitution. Note the cultural Marxism at work here: one person is in a "victim group"; the other, in an "oppressor group." The conclusion falls out mechanically. Another radical feminist, Sandra Harding then of the University of Delaware turned her attention to the "masculinist" nature of modern science (most of whose practitioners, of course, were men) and described Newton’s and Bacon’s writings as constituting a "rape manual." These are just three cases. There are many others.
That we can site such examples illustrates a significant feature of affirmative action in university hiring: the primary beneficiaries were (and still are) white women. Not all, of course. Leonard Jeffries, a black professor at City College of the CUNY system, advanced the pseudoscientific thesis that whites were descended from aggressive, competitive "ice people" and persons of color, from peaceful, communal "sun people." Molefi Kete Asante and others invented "afrocentricity." One of its primary tenets of which was that the real cradle of civilization was Africa. Of course, ancient Greek intellectuals such as Aristotle are known to have visited Egypt, and Egypt is on the African continent. Therefore Western civilization was stolen from blacks, under the assumption, made without evidence, that the ancient Egyptians were black. Wild leaps of illogic like this permeate what I called affirmative action scholarship in my Civil Wrongs. A few extreme-leftist whites got into this act, such as Cornell’s Martin Bernal (author of Black Athena, arguing essentially the same thesis). Such notions became the subject of serious debate at academic conferences. By the mid-1990s, more and more scholarly journals in fields such as philosophy were publishing their "feminist philosophy" issues or "feminist theories of science" issues; later, they would publish issues on "African-American philosophy" or "gay rights" and so on as academe became a kind of free-for-all of group-victimology. This environment encouraged a "star" system, with the academic equivalent of the Hollywood celebrity. Such "stars" as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West have built careers "university-hopping" and bidding up their salaries – capitalizing fully on their favored status as members of a victimized group to earn amounts that most white male professors will never see.
Few of these people are really scholars, because intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn and communicate the truth are not what motivates them. The very ideas of group-neutral or culture-neutral standards of truth, knowledge, rationality, logicality, etc., had become an anathema by the 1990s. They had been under sustained attack before then. Here, the motives of the affirmative action generation dovetailed nicely with the (Frankfurt School influenced) postmodernism imported from Europe. Writers such as France’s Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida had issued such denials decades before. With truth and logic demoted to the status of "white male social constructs," academic radicals felt free to indulge their preoccupations with power, their alleged victimization and, of course, sex (every variety). They saw themselves as comprising an intellectual vanguard – a postmodern equivalent of Marx’s proletariat, revolutionizing academe by wresting it from its white male oppressors. The fact that their European heroes were all white men seemed mostly to escape them, and this illustrates the ideological blinders these people had on. What we were really seeing was the rise to power of a generation of extremely alienated, chronically angry individuals who had come of age during the 1960s, stayed on campus as graduate students and then as faculty members who received tenure in the 1980s. They rose, empowered by what were by then systemic preferences which now favored the opinions of women and minorities who took the cultural Marxist view of the world, to transform academic life from top to bottom during the 1990s. By that decade, support for "diversity" was literally written into job descriptions, especially those at the administrative level. This meant that known critics of "diversity" would simply be refused interviews for faculty or administrative posts. None of the radicals, of course, could have survived outside of academe. They hated their own civilization and its "bourgeois" values. But they thrived on campuses, which had all long been well to the left of the rest of the country. They came to be very well organized and were often well funded. Their support sometimes came through top administrators at their universities; some of it also came from enormous tax-exempt foundations (e.g., the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations). Thus they had the organization, the backing and the resources to bend all the humanities and all the social sciences except economics in the direction they wanted the university to go.
A few dissident scholars tried to expose what was going on beginning in the late 1980s. Some of these offered readers a close look at the views of the affirmative action generation (e.g., Stephen J. Balsh’s and Herbert London’s seminal article "The Tenured Left" in Commentary in 1986 and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals first published in 1990). Others documented the effects affirmative action was having on actual opportunities for white men in what had become hostile enclaves of extreme-left radicalism (I mentioned Frederick R. Lynch’s Invisible Victims above). To the affirmative action generation, these sorts of investigations were unacceptable. As they put it, the "advances made by women and minorities" were experiencing a "backlash" (as radical feminist writer Susan Faludi called it in her book of that title). White men themselves were getting organized, forming "white student unions" on at least two campuses. Something had to be done, and done quickly.
Political correctness soon emerged to protect affirmative action programs and their beneficiaries (and affirmative action scholarship) from criticisms like these, and intimidate would-be critics. The initial exposés began in 1991 with articles such as John Taylor’s "Are You Politically Correct" (originally in New York magazine) and Dinesh D’Souza’s book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. These exposés drew a flurry of media attention but otherwise had little effect. With the affirmative action generation entrenched and having gathered countless followers, many of them students driven by the same rage against the "bourgeoisie," the early 1990s saw the meteoric rise of what Taylor had described as a "new fundamentalism," one based on a race-and-gender orthodoxy instead of religion. One of its aims was clearly to suppress open discussion of subjects such as affirmative action and feminism – and eventually other touchy subjects such as homosexuality and open-borders immigration. The new watchword became, "Watch what you say!"
Actual speech codes began to appear on some campuses (usually to be struck down as unconstitutional when challenged on First Amendment grounds). Doctrines such as multiculturalism, rationalizing the "diversity" agenda, indeed had become orthodoxies as firmly entrenched in dominant universities as any religious beliefs ever had been. Those who criticized these ideas and agendas on their campuses found themselves denounced as racists – even if they had published major works and established themselves as leaders in their disciplines. Stephan Thernstrom of Harvard is an example, having had to give up a popular American history course on race relations entitled "The Peopling of America." Such subjects were no longer teachable in any traditional way. Radical feminists demonized critics such as Christina Hoff Sommers who exposed the cultural Marxism behind their views and revealed the statistical flummery involved in claims about "one in four" women on campus will be raped sometime during their college career. They were soon joined by gays and lesbians, and we began hearing of the "homophobia" of, e.g., Christians. The use of the suffix phobia was deliberate, of course; a phobia is an irrational fear, and thus to be cured therapeutically with sensitivity sessions, not responded to with rational arguments. Thus arose "queer theory" around the same cultural Marxist premise that homosexuals were suppressed victims deserving the same affirmative action preferences. That idea that homosexuality and heterosexuality were equal "alternative lifestyle choices" also rose in popularity during the 1990s – given early prominence by Bill Clinton’s "gays in the military" campaign which began before he assumed the presidency in 1992. Arguably, Clinton was our first politically correct president – and our first postmodernist one, delivering nonsensical lines to the media like: "It depends on what the meaning of is is."
A good discussion of where we stood by 1997 can be found in Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate’s The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. The affirmative action generation simply cannot stand the free and open expression of views other than its own. Hence the rise of what I called tolerance totalitarianism last week. More than one student has had his college experience ruined, and more than one professor literally driven from his campus as a result of one of the nasty hate campaigns launched by local representatives of this crowd. Examples of horror stories are too numerous to recount here, although I discuss several early cases in my Civil Wrongs. Kors and Silverglate discuss others from more recent years. There are cases of professors having to sue their institutions to block efforts to remove their tenure when they ran afoul the new speech codes, written down or merely understood, that had appeared everywhere. A few have had their property vandalized. A handful (City College philosophy professor Michael Levin is an example) have even had to be accompanied to their classes by armed security guards due to death threats.
All the political correctness and tolerance totalitarianism in the universe, however, could not prevent the rising tendency toward self-segregation between different groups on college and university campuses, and in society at large. It is arguable that blacks and whites indeed have come to live in separate conceptual universes, each one incorporating a suspicion toward the other always on the edge of inching over into open hostility. Consider the rousing cheers that went up throughout black America when O.J. Simpson was found innocent of the murder of his (white) wife Nicole. Or consider what happens when someone, usually a white student with "conservative" ideas is able to get an article, say, critical of the movement to offer blacks reparations for slavery, into a student newspaper. There are now several cases of all the copies of that day’s issue being angrily confiscated and destroyed by black student groups. University administrators are far more likely to accuse the white student of racism than they are to penalize the black students.
Nor can political correctness block the evidence that group favoritism has contributed to the overall dumbing down of the country. Here, just one example will do. David Howard, who worked in Washington, was forced to resign from a job in 1999 after blacks took offense at his use of the word niggardly in a staff meeting. They had no idea that the word has no racial connotation but merely shares a couple of syllables with a well-known racial slur. Nevertheless, Howard was accused by his superiors of having used "poor judgment" in using the word. His resignation was demanded. To paraphrase what columnist Tony Snow would write a few days later, it was as if he was expected to apologize for their ignorance as well as their apparent inability to look up a word in a dictionary.
This is what close to 40 years of affirmative action has wrought. As noted above, we have now seen the widening of the affirmative action universe to include homosexuals – something that would never have occurred to its advocates back in the 1960s and 1970s. We have seen the near-destruction of traditional academic disciplines and the creation of new ones ("women’s studies," "Afro-American studies," "Hispanic studies," "queer theory," and so on). Finally, political correctness long ago spread from the campuses to the rest of society through its influence on the legal system, on government and on professional organizations. Even large corporations have adopted it, as I also noted last week. American culture has become the first in history to institutionalize a philosophy alien to and resolutely hostile toward its own founding principles. We have seen, finally, the beginnings of a structured edifice of thought control in America – in the name of sensitivity to the special needs of the government-designated victim groups in our diverse society. This runaway train long ago ceased to be about discrimination and took on a life of its own, a destructive trajectory in which individuals are not simply forced to resign from jobs but can be arrested and thrown in jail for what is perceived as an ethnic slur, as was Janice Barton of Michigan.
5. What about the students? One would suppose that black students actually benefited from this. Might it not be possible that the transformed academic culture really is increasing their overall opportunities?
Here I will offer a single anecdote – one that if my correspondence both at the time and more recently can be trusted, is not atypical. For a while I taught logic at Auburn University. In 1991, a federal judge in Montgomery, Ala., handed down the sort of unilateral command for which federal judges have become notorious, calling Auburn a "racist institution" because the percentage of blacks on its campus did not reflect their percentage in Alabama. There was a brief flurry of media attention given the "underrepresentation" of blacks on campus at Auburn University. No actual evidence was produced that blacks had been suffering at Auburn either from discrimination or anything else. But questions of evidence never stopped a bureaucrat or a federal judge. The ruling forced the university to seek out and admit more blacks.
Prior to the decision there were usually two or three black students enrolled in my classes. Their performances were not significantly different from that of the white students. After the decision, the number jumped from two or three up to around seven or eight. The first two or three were again usually okay. The others often found themselves in trouble in a subject where there were definite right and wrong answers (I feel funny having to say to readers I presume are adults that the laws of logic are race-neutral). The culmination occurred one day near the end of one of the quarters when a black student, a freshman admitted preferentially under the new policy, came to see me crying his eyes out in frustration. He was not merely failing, but failing badly – to the point of handing in blank tests! He found the subject matter of the course utterly baffling. There was very little I could do for someone so hopelessly unprepared to do college-level work. No one – no instructor, no administrator, no affirmative action program, no government bureaucrat, no federal judge – can simply pull people off the streets and give them the skills they need to succeed in college. All they can do – as Thomas Sowell has also argued at length – is put them in positions where they are at constant risk of failure. The claim that government favoritism does bona fide favors for more than a few black students is illusory.
These days I no longer teach regularly – but routinely catch rumors emanating from those still imprisoned in the transformed academy that the situation has grown worse. I have heard of cases of professors who have been quietly advised not to give low grades to black students. If these rumors are true, they indicate that it is no longer possible for a professor to maintain a grading system with any integrity. Other professors are simply lowering their requirements for all their students, across the board, along with a general lowering of admissions standards. I had discovered as early as 1993 that certain aspects of formal logic were simply not teachable to public university undergraduates anymore. There were just too many students, white and black, who were too unprepared for work at that level. One thing is for sure: anything seen as critical of special programs for blacks or capable of being interpreted as demeaning to black students is not tolerated. In the fall of 2001, an incident at an off-campus fraternity Halloween party in Auburn where a couple of fraternity men showed up in "blackface" made headlines. The spotlight of media political correctness descended on the campus. Now, just a few weeks ago, Auburn University dedicated its huge new Center for Diversity and Race Relations.
6.In the final analysis, the things "affirmative action" set out to end are not to be eliminated by top-down policy. To the extent they can be ended, they belong to the realm of moral discussion. In some cases, we are talking about human nature itself – invariably a stumbling block to every attempt by a political or social Utopian to build a perfect Tower of Babel. I do not, of course, endorse racism or racial prejudice. Racism I define as an attitude of hatred and hostility – perhaps combined with a feeling of superiority – directed at an entire race such as blacks or whites. Prejudice is the expression of this attitude. I don’t consider either one to belong in the mindset of an educated person. One reason is that none of us has sufficient experience with members of other groups (whose memberships number in the millions, after all) to warrant such an attitude. Groups themselves are pretty diverse entities. In a moment of almost unbelievable clarity, I once heard a professor of health science in a class I was attending in 1998 state that there was considerably more diversity within racial groups than between them. As someone who had worked on numerous health promotion projects in minority communities, he had plenty of evidence to back up this assertion. Even if by some chance there really are inherent differences in intelligence and cognitive ability between the races, as authors such as J. Philippe Rushton and Michael Levin have argued, then one can answer: so what? Such differences are statistical averages that say nothing about the intelligence or potential of any particular individual, and it should be obviously fallacious to think any constructive policy could be based on them. The only rational procedure is to treat people as individuals and to regard identity-politics as a mistake, whatever its source.
If racism and prejudice are to be discouraged, then the wisest course of action would be to find the best means to this end. "Affirmative action" is not it. It has led to more, not less racism – not to mention the nightmare world of rapidly accelerating political correctness. It has led, more generally, to the mindset Larry Elder describes in his timely and provocative Ten Things You Can’t Say In America. One of the things "you can’t say" is that many young blacks are now more racist than whites – in accordance with the sense of hostility mentioned above that always threatens to erupt into something more. They got that way partly because of the failures of affirmative action for their elders, partly because of the destruction of their families and communities for reasons actually having little to do with racism or bigotry by whites, and finally because of the incessant demonizing of whites by their teachers and in American culture generally ("never forget, their ancestors owned your ancestors as slaves!"). Given this, and given the general demotion of the teaching of real thinking skills in today’s government schools, why wouldn’t black youths as a group be angry at whites as a group?
What is the most appropriate means to this end of discouraging racism and prejudice? Education – the real thing, not the facsimile acquired in government classrooms. Education for freedom, in the "classroom" of life, demonstrating what works and eschewing what does not work. It is true enough that we live in a diverse society. One of the things we learn through observation is that blacks and whites (and members of other groups as well) can work together side by side just fine if they came together voluntarily, have agreed-upon goals, and if they have learned to see each other primarily as individuals and only secondarily as members of a distinct ethnic group. I recommend paying close attention to the praxeological method developed by the economist Ludwig von Mises and applying it to these problems. Praxeology is the general science of human action. It informs us how all actions are taken by individuals employing means to achieve ends in a world governed by cause and effect. Such truths hold regardless of the race or gender of the acting person. Groups exist only as aggregates that have no capacity for action (here we may acknowledge Ayn Rand who observed in an essay on capitalism that "there is no such thing as a collective brain").
I also have no problem recommending reading books by authors such as Richard Wright, e.g., Black Boy and Native Son – authors who were recognized as important, by the way, long before the affirmative action generation came along. I recall reading Native Son when I was in grade school and being very moved by it. The point is, the characters emerged in their individuality and the reader is exposed to their humanness. It is true enough that blacks have sometimes been mistreated by prejudiced whites – and that whites have sometimes been mistreated by prejudiced blacks. Racism and prejudice are manifestations of collectivism, which always robs people of their human essence which is to be an individual, not simply a cipher to be filed away in one’s mind (or on a bureaucrat’s file folder). Each individual must decide, based on a moral view of the world: I am not going to be like that. I am not going to repeat those mistakes. This decision cannot be forced out of a person. My thesis is that the current collectivized environment has made it less, not more likely, that members of any race will make that decision.
Next, I also recommend the study of history – especially the history of the role of the federal government in helping institute whatever structures of "systemic discrimination" blacks can legitimately complain about. Today we suffer from extreme historical illiteracy on the subject. It is important that the slavery of blacks by whites in America was hardly the only institutionalized form of slavery. Serious students of this history now know that blacks were sold into slavery in Africa not by whites but by other blacks; and they were made slaves in the United States not because whites hated them but because they represented free, available labor. Moreover – and I can just see purveyors of reparations for slavery blowing several gaskets apiece if and when they read this – the claim that whites systematically mistreated their black slaves doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to anyone who spends time thinking it over. Surely plantation owners wanted their slaves to be able to work. If they routinely beat them, or tortured them, maimed them, etc., their slaves wouldn’t work as effectively (if at all). If anything, the application of a little critical thought to the topic suggests that while beatings, etc., may have sometimes occurred they couldn’t have been the norm. The agricultural system of which slavery was an integral part at the time would have collapsed! (Eventually, of course, with growing industrialization, it would have collapsed anyway, without the War Between the States.)
After the end of slavery several Supreme Court decisions – not racism or prejudice on the part of whites collectively – reinforced the legal inferiority of blacks to whites (Dred Scott in 1857 and Plessy in 1896 being the most important). Later, the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, a product of the U.S. Department of Labor (again not the "white race" as a collective entity) created a purely economic incentive for discrimination against blacks. Unfortunately, few people other than specialists in the history of labor law are even likely to be familiar with the Davis-Bacon Act, much less aware of its relationship to discrimination against nonwhites. It tried to establish protections (jobs, wage rates) for union members as America reeled toward the Great Depression. But most blacks were not members of unions, and thus were not protected. Ergo, Davis-Bacon encouraged racial discrimination, and there is evidence from the Congressional Record of the time that this was at least one of its purposes, born of fear that highly motivated blacks and immigrants would take jobs away from whites. Black scholars who are honestly interested in the origins of whatever systemic discrimination has existed in American society should look not at whites as if whites comprised some collective agency that has been out to get them but at a specific institution: government. (A look at the history of unions and their relationship to government wouldn’t hurt, either!) They should study the relevant Supreme Court cases and relevant laws like Davis-Bacon. Then they should ask: can government really be counted on to solve problems that government created in the first place?
Lastly, those concerned to educate for a free society must incorporate strong doses of logic and genuine critical thinking into their curricula. It is absolutely essential that basic concepts of truth, rationality and objectivity be restored – not as academic games but as important tools of human survival and advancement that hold for everyone. It is essential to teach that empirical claims (e.g., in history) be backed up with empirical evidence, and that demonizing, arguing ad hominem ("so-and-so cannot be considered credible because his words and associates indicate that he is a closet racist"), etc., are fallacies. America has been by and large successful because it was founded on a body of ideas – rights inhere in individuals, not groups; they antecede government and are not products of government, which should be limited to a few specific functions like the protection of rights including the protection of our borders, and abolished or seceded from if it oversteps these bounds; free enterprise is superior to socialism because of fundamental economic laws of human action. It is true that these ideas have not been applied consistently, but this does not invalidate them as important principles. To the extent they have been applied, they have been a staggering success, creating the most prosperous society in human history. The best explanation for their success is that they correspond to reality.
But America is not indestructible. It will not withstand institutionalized assaults on its founding principles indefinitely. If enough people actually come to believe that the world comes divided up into oppressors and victims; that learning what is true is just one option among many; that government can solve racial problems through coercive programs of affirmative action; that logic, rationality and objectivity are "white male social constructs," and that "all lifestyle choices are equal," they will not repeal the laws of logic, rationality and objectivity. They will eventually repeal America.
7.Where do we go from here? We set about developing educational institutions and programs embodying these ideas. We here does not mean government schools, of course. Those are hopeless. We means those of us who care about these things as individuals and are willing to take the time and resources to develop them, or at least support them financially. Our best bet is to promote a philosophy of society respecting complete freedom of association and complete freedom of opportunity. Would these bring about a racial Utopia? No, because there is no such thing. The "balances" sought by federal judges, EEOC bureaucrats, agitator-professors in the universities and professional agitators generally have never existed in any society, anywhere in the world. There isn’t the slightest evidence that "diversity" social engineering can magically create them.
Given freedom of association and freedom of opportunity, would we be better off than we are now? Almost certainly! This applies to the challenge about, e.g., preferences for children of alumni at universities. Given freedom of association, there simply is not a problem here. Everyone tends to look out for his own. This is human nature. Neither blacks nor any other minority groups are exempt from it.
The agitators for "diversity" are hot and bothered at the evidence that a certain level of self-segregation reappears whenever legal edifices of coercive integration are removed. The question, however, is again whether we want members of different groups to be able to live with one another peacefully. Perhaps allowing their free movement is a better means to this end than coercive attempts to achieve "balance" or "diversity." Note my phrase above: a certain level. Self-segregation would never be universal unless it, too, were forced – and I hope it is obvious I am not advocating that! (Indeed, coerced self-segregation would be a contradiction in terms.) The self-segregation that would occur would not reflect hatred of other groups; it would only reflect the fact that everyone has a comfort zone and that the majority of people are more comfortable around their own. Such barriers would fall when and where members of one group recognized an opportunity or saw an advantage in trading with members of another – for whatever reason – and could gain willing customers or clients in the other group.
The diversity police don’t want to acknowledge such things; as tolerance totalitarians, they would like to block all discussion of the subject on these terms. I would submit that what they are really trying to change is nothing less than human nature itself, not to mention protecting what has become a lucrative racket. If the problems preventing whites and blacks both from living side by side peacefully and prospering economically really were resolved to the point where all anyone had to gripe about was a "lack of statistical balance," then more and more members of both groups would tell them to go get real jobs and leave us alone!
8.n Let us sum up. It is time for federally mandated "affirmative action" and all its variations ("diversity," etc.) and protective mechanisms ("sensitivity training," etc.) to be scrapped: lock, stock and barrel. All laws requiring employers and college admissions boards to prove a negative – that they have not engaged in discrimination, however we define it – must go – along with the other machinations of the modern welfare system. Although this essay has been lengthy, there are many aspects of the problem we have had to leave aside. The most important is how the affirmative action mindset has vastly expanded the reach of the leviathan state and increased its ability to suffocate everyone with regulations and the fear of lawsuits. The sort of government compatible with ideals of freedom of association and freedom of opportunity will not interfere with hiring practices, college and university admissions policies, or with the natural movements of peoples seeking to maximize their opportunities. It will seek to protect these as fundamental rights, on which peaceful civilization must depend. It will follow that if institutions such as the University of Michigan wish to continue handing out special favors, that is their own business and they must live with the consequences. But those wishing to scrap such programs as an encumbrance embodying one of the most destructive mistakes of recent U.S. history will be allowed to do so without political, legal or bureaucratic obstruction.
All of this means, of course, exposing and repudiating the cultural Marxism that emerged alongside the civil rights movement and hijacked whatever sincere concerns for the plight of black Americans existed among the rank and file back in the 1960s. Cultural Marxism offers a pseudo-intellectual universe devoid of logic and evidence. Only within this universe does it make sense to say that a black man is poor, uneducated and angry because his great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave. Only within this universe does it make sense to portray all white males as having "advantages"; said advantages are mysteriously absent among the multitudes of whites living in, e.g., trailer parks spread all across America outside the cities. Repudiating the cultural Marxist universe means that blacks must look elsewhere than the supposed racism of whites for the source of their problems. They must look, for example, at the destruction of the black family and at the phenomenal percentages of black babies born out of wedlock. They must look at what welfare dependency does to a person’s level of motivation generally no matter what race or ethnicity he or she is – and this again means questioning the leviathan welfare state.
And they must learn to see through their indoctrination at the hands of cultural Marxists. This means a close look at the motives of these people, and some of their most powerful backers whether in university administrations, in government, or in organizations such as the United Nations. In the latter, one will find fervent advocates of global redistribution of wealth and the creation of a global leviathan state ("global governance"). There is nothing wrong with a healthy distrust of any concentration of power, or of signs that all the power is flowing in a single ideological direction as has happened in America for several decades now. These are not cultural Marxist notions, although the former is one Marxists have exploited when whites held the power. This is important, because as long as whites and blacks look at each other with suspicion and hostility, they are not looking at those who would repress the masses of all groups: re-engineering all Western societies under a single global order, servicing a global elite. The various minions of this elite have partially destroyed the value of our currency, destroyed modern education, undermined our ability to protect our borders from hostile foreigners, surrounded our professional lives with a suffocating blanket of regulations and taxes, and polluted our private lives with a nonstop barrage of mindless entertainment. Who is this elite? It can be found, again, in the UN, in its countless satellite "non-governmental organizations," in the fraudulent Federal Reserve system and in shadowy organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations; it can be found in the upper echelons of Hollywood and among the dominant media empires; it can be found, finally, in huge tax-exempt foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie financial empire, among others. The latter have been bankrolling leftist and culturally destructive projects for decades, frequently in government schools. Looked at against this larger backdrop, there is a sense in which the debate over "affirmative action" is just one more distraction – just one more in a long series of Supreme Court cases, something to generate more op-eds, more news conferences for media talking heads, more punditry, more denunciations from university-based radicals, while the real elites continue their quiet work of undermining U.S. sovereignty and advancing their real goal, which is to eventually merge this country into a world government that would be vastly more powerful than the present leviathan state!
Now consider the alternative. It would be very interesting to observe what kind of society would emerge once all peoples have freedom of association and freedom of opportunity, under a government limited to protecting individual’s private property rights and to punishing those who infringe upon the rights of others. Its main features would not be those favored by today’s affirmative action generation or other Utopians; it certainly wouldn’t be favored by the above elites. All their rackets would disappear; there would be no market for their services. What would result might not be a society in which corporations strive to achieve "parity" or to "celebrate diversity." It might well be a society in which there are fully desegregated workplaces, but also businesses run by blacks, employing mostly blacks and catering primarily to blacks; and businesses run by whites, employing mostly whites and catering primarily to whites. (These observations also apply, obviously, to Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups.) It may just turn out that different races are suited for different kinds of occupations, meaning that patterns of work will develop spontaneously regardless of anyone’s personal beliefs about race or anyone’s ideas about how they should develop. The success or failure of their members will be determined by their values, their ingenuity and by the market. We might see, moreover, highly segregated neighborhoods along with a few integrated ones. Predicting what percentage would be as pointless as the attempt to dictate a politically correct ratio. The "correct ratio" would change from place to place, because it would result from the free, unhampered movements and choices of the peoples directly involved. In such a society, the amount of racial hostility and tension would surely decrease. When members of different races or ethnic groups interacted, the interactions would be mostly free of tension, resentment and hostility because the interaction would be products of bottom-up choice and not top-down coercion. And the overall amount of freedom, peace and opportunity for everybody would increase.
Is there any hope of creating such a society in the near future? That is the fifty-dollar question. The answer is that it is up to us. Independent organizations such as the Ludwig von Mises Institute are places where sound economic principles are routinely studied and taught. There are countless groups emerging, sometimes around Christian principles and sometimes around libertarian ones, who are beginning the task of educating interested young people in sound morals and individual freedom. We could call these parallel institutions, as they are developing entirely outside of, and parallel to, the dominant ones. There is a great need for financial resources, for more alliances and more coordination between the different organizations. My fear is that things are going to have to get worse before they can begin to get better – the full effects of the mindset of the affirmative action generation will have to become even more visible publicly than they are now, by affecting still more people economically and personally. They and other observers of what is happening will hopefully begin scouting around for alternatives and discover our developing parallel institutions. And then we will find out if a free society, one based on individualism, freedom of association and freedom of opportunity for all is possible in America.
Author’s note: This essay is a greatly expanded version of an op-ed entitled simply "Affirmative Action" which I published in the now-defunct The Edgefield Journal in September, 1999 under the pseudonym W.W. Carrington. At the time, many of us were writing such articles and resorting to pseudonyms out of the fear of losing our jobs – a fear pervasive in contemporary America after ten years of political correctness. (For those of us who began to think outside the box and became self-employed independent contractors, the fear of starvation became less of a problem. Which is why I now recommend a curriculum of university study that would lead to self-employment. But that is another article.)
Steven Yates [send him mail] has a PhD in philosophy and is a Margaret "Peg" Rowley Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994), and numerous articles and reviews. His new book In Defense of Logic will be completed shortly. He is beginning work on a new book to be entitled The Twilight of Materialism, and is also at work on a sci-fi novel tentatively entitled Skywatcher’s World.
This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.
Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.