Sometimes doctrines just vanish, once they appear as naked as the proverbial emperor in his new clothes.
Something like that seems now to be happening with affirmative action. Despite all the justifications for its continuance, polling shows the public still strongly disagrees with the idea of using racial criteria for admissions and hiring.
Its dwindling supporters typically include those who directly benefit from it, or who are not adversely affected by it. Arguments for the continuance of affirmative action are half-hearted and may explain why some supporters descend into name-calling directed at those who dare question its premises.
The Supreme Court, by a 6–2 majority, recently upheld the decision by Michigan voters that their state would neither favor nor discriminate against applicants to the state’s public universities on the basis of race.
Recently, a group of liberal Asian-American state lawmakers in California — a state that is over 60 percent non-white — successfully blocked a proposed return to racial considerations in college admissions.
Asian-American students are now disproportionately represented in the flagship University of California system at nearly three times their percentages in the state’s general population. If race were reintroduced as a consideration for admission, Asian-Americans would have their numbers radically reduced in the California system in favor of other ethnic-minority students, regardless of their impressive ethnically blind grades and test scores.
Expect more such pushback.
In the 1950s, when the country was largely biracial — about 88 percent so-called white and 10 percent African American — and when the civil-rights movement sought to erase historical institutionalized bias in the South against blacks, affirmative action seemed to be well intentioned and helpful.
But more than a half-century later, and in a vastly different multiracial America, affirmative action has been re-engineered as something perpetual and haphazardly applicable to a variety of ethnicities.
Class divisions are mostly ignored in admissions and hiring criteria, but in today’s diverse society, they often pose greater obstacles than race. The children of one-percenters such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z will have doors opened to them that are not open to those in Pennsylvania who, according to President Obama, “cling to guns or religion.”
Race itself also is increasingly a problematic concept in 21st-century America. The more we talk about Latinos, blacks, Asians, and others as if they were easily distinguishable groups, the less Americans fit into such neat rubrics. In an age of intermarriage, assimilation, and global immigration, almost every American family has been redefined by members who are one-half this or one-quarter that.
Yet if verifiable hyphenation is to be our touchstone to career or academic identity, how do we certify minority status in an increasingly intermarried and multiracial society where there soon will be, as in California, no majority ethnic group? Are we to wear DNA badges to certify the exact percentages of our racial pedigrees — to prevent another Elizabeth Warren or Ward Churchill from gaming the system?
Affirmative action once was defended as redress for the odious sins of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. But almost 150 years after the end of slavery, and a half-century after the establishment of civil-rights legislation, it is hard to calibrate the interplay between race, relative past oppression, and the need for compensatory action.
In a zero-sum, multiracial society, how do we best appreciate past suffering? How do we compare the Jewish American whose grandparents were wiped out in the Holocaust with the grandchildren of those Japanese who were interned during World War II?
If compensation is not historically based, what then are the criteria that calibrate ongoing victimization? Would a European-Argentinian immigrant with a Hispanic name be better qualified for affirmative action than a Bosnian Muslim refugee?
Affirmative action was also predicated on America’s history of discrimination. It was never intended to apply to those who had recently arrived in America without proof of past discrimination in this country.
Who among the newly arrived immigrants from South Korea, Oaxaca, the Punjab, or Nigeria becomes eligible for affirmative action, and who does not — and on what reasoning are their claims of hardship more valid than those of poor fourth-generation Americans of any ethnic background?
There is also not always consistency in the application of affirmative action. Late-night talk-show hosts are not proportionally racially diverse. Neither are Silicon Valley CEOs, the directorship of the Sierra Club, or employees of the U.S. Postal Service or the NBA.
The public is confused about why we might consider ethnic criteria in hiring in the college anthropology department, but not so much when selecting transatlantic airline pilots, neurosurgeons, or nuclear-plant designers.
Should gender considerations be used to encourage more males on campuses? Female bachelor’s-degree recipients now far outnumber their male counterparts and are skewing notions of gender equality.
Given these complexities and contradictions, the public, the Supreme Court, and state legislators increasingly believe that a multiracial United States is unique precisely because race and tribe — unlike most other places in the world — are incidental rather than essential to our American identities.
The advice of Martin Luther King — judge Americans only by the content of their characters — is not only the simplest but in the end the only moral standard.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.