Here’s the link to a very odd piece by Juan Williams in the Washington Post. It’s disappointing, since Williams often is pretty good on race issues (see his recent book, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America — and What We Can Do about It). Not this time, though.
The piece is not without its good points, like the first sentence: “Affirmative action, age 45, is dead.” And I like the last: “It’s time to think about how to deal with racial inequity without affirmative action.” But the part in the middle misses the boat.
The problem is that Williams’s tone is lugubrious rather than celebratory. Affirmative action is indeed dying — it’s certainly not yet dead, as anyone who knows anything about university admissions, government contracting, and the corporate “celebration of diversity” knows — but its death is all to the good.
As is typical of affirmative-action apologists, Williams never defines the term, but the only kind of affirmative action that is controversial or legally problematic today is preferential treatment on the basis of race (or ethnicity or sex) — that is, to use Nathan Glazer’s felicitous phrase, affirmative discrimination.
Williams seems to believe that, so long as discrimination exists, we ought to have racial preferences. But of course discrimination will always exist and, Williams’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding, the critics of affirmative action do not assert that colorblind nirvana has been achieved. The question is whether the best way to fight discrimination is with more discrimination, rather than simply enforcing the very available and effective laws we have on the books against discriminating. And the answer is no, given the high costs of preferential treatment (the inherent unfairness of racial discrimination against anyone, of course, as well as the resulting resentment, stigmatization, mismatching, etc., etc.), and particularly since it can no longer be claimed with a straight face that old-fashioned discrimination is so institutionalized and intractable that there is no other way to combat it.
Nor is affirmative action the only or best way to fight various racial disparities, and on that point Williams should read his own book, cited above. Those disparities will not end so long as seven out of ten African Americans are being born out of wedlock.
Much of Williams’s piece is couched in legal terms, but on this basic point Williams again completely misses the boat. General, historical discrimination and disparities have long been rejected by the Supreme Court as a justification for racial preferences. So his rationale for affirmative action is not only unpersuasive as a policy matter, but is a complete nonstarter as a matter of law.
Finally, racial preferences are especially problematic, as Williams grudgingly recognizes, in a country that is increasingly multiracial and multiethnic — and, indeed, where individual Americans (like, say, Barack Obama) are themselves more and more commonly multiracial and multiethnic. In such a nation, it is simply untenable to have a legal regime that sorts us by skin color and what country our ancestors came from, and treats some better and others worse depending on which box is checked.
Williams is right that the law, including the just-decided New Haven firefighters case, is limiting more and more the use of racial preferences. He’s right that the country’s changing demographics make the end of affirmative action inevitable. And he’s right that President Obama himself seems to have concluded that its time is passing.
So, lighten up, Juan, and join the celebration. Discrimination can still be fought, and social inequities can still be addressed, but in ways that play no racial favorites.