Reply to Gerald Early

by Ed Whelan

A few weeks ago, I objected to Washington University professor Gerald Early’s “ugly and outrageous assertion of a ‘common conservative belief that blacks are inherently dysfunctional.’” Here is Early’s fuller passage (from his review of Randall Kennedy’s For Discrimination):

Moreover, even if the common conservative belief that blacks are inherently dysfunctional is true, how would that fact make them immune to being wronged or damaged? Here, the conservatives seem simply to be retreading “the prostitute cannot be raped” argument as a defense for the hatred that affirmative action is meant to defang.

As Roger Clegg observed in his follow-on post, “it’s hard for me to understand these two sentences as saying anything except: ‘Conservatives are racist.’”

In the second half of this essay, Professor Early states that my objection “puzzles [him] greatly,” and he proceeds to explain why he chose the words he did. I don’t find his explanation satisfactory. A few comments:

1. Early states, “I purposely did not use the phrase ‘innately inferior’ or ‘innately dysfunctional’ because I did not want to wrongly ascribe to conservatives the idea that they believe that blacks are biologically inferior nor did I want to accuse them of racism.” I do not see how the phrase “inherently dysfunctional” is meaningfully different from either of the phrases that Early chose not to use.

2. Early shifts to a “general characterization of black culture by conservatives.” Had he originally written of a “common conservative belief that black culture is inherently dysfunctional,” I think that he still would have swept too broadly, as I don’t know that many conservatives believe that there is a single and uniform black culture. That said, I wouldn’t dispute that there is a common conservative belief that there is a black subculture (what some might call the inner-city black culture) that is dysfunctional. For what it’s worth, there is also a common conservative belief that there are white subcultures that are dysfunctional in similar ways. (Early mentions Charles Murray; Murray’s Fishtown illustrates my last point.)

3. Early ends by asserting that he “accused conservatives of believing something they surely must believe if their political position is going to make any sense at all.” I confess that I don’t understand his point at all. In his review, Early writes:

The right is opposed to affirmative action on the grounds that it denies or perverts merit; that it emphasizes the group over the individual; that it generates reverse discrimination, which is pernicious; that it insists on equal results instead of equal opportunity, a goal that is patently un-American and can be realized only through egregious social engineering; and that it intensifies racial consciousness by creating a compensatory racial caste system as a form of bourgeois patronage.

I don’t see how any of these objections to racial preferences depends on any assessment that there exists a black culture that is dysfunctional. (Nor, contrary to Early’s second sentence in the objectionable passage, do I see how they involve a “defense” of “hatred.”)