It’s rare to hear a conservative express optimism in the culture wars, but I want to suggest that there is reason for cheerfulness on three important fronts: racial preferences, illegitimacy, and assimilation.
The number of people willing to defend racial preferences anymore is dwindling. I know this from my own speaking at dozens of law schools over the past several years. The arguments from students are becoming rarer and limper. Frequently there is no faculty member willing to debate the issue with me. When there is a debate, it is likely to be on narrow issues, and to involve arguments that are, legally speaking, nonstarters.
That is because those skeptical of such preferences include, importantly, a majority of the Supreme Court, as evidenced by its rejection this year of race-based student assignments in the Seattle and Louisville public school systems. Those rejecting preferences also include voters in blue states like California, Washington, and Michigan, all of which have voted overwhelmingly in referenda to end such discrimination. More states will follow next year; ballot initiatives are under way in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
To be sure, politicians in either party are reluctant to condemn preferences. But even Democratic leaders are, likewise, reluctant to endorse them. What is increasingly popular, instead, is income-based (rather than race-based) affirmative action. Barack Obama, for instance, clearly prefers to praise the former rather than the latter. When asked about affirmative action in an interview this month with The Chronicle of Higher Education, that’s what he spent most of the time talking about.
The number of people who admit that illegitimacy is a big problem — and it is, indeed, the single biggest problem — for blacks is growing. For example, a study this month by the Educational Testing Service, a member in good standing of the liberal establishment, acknowledged the link between bad educational outcomes and growing up in a single-parent home, and suggested that this is a reason for black-white educational disparities. (Seven out of ten blacks are born out of wedlock, versus one out of four non-Hispanic whites.)
Conservatives of all colors have been lamenting out-of-wedlock births for a while, and black liberals are joining the chorus. Bill Cosby, who has recently coauthored a book on the need for black accountability in this and other areas with Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, is a prominent example. National Public Radio analyst Juan Williams is another.
A survey released this month by the Pew Research Center asked African Americans to choose between two statements: “Racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days,” and “Blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Fifty-three percent answered the latter, and only 30 percent the former. This flips the percentages from ten years ago.
Finally, there seems to be a growing consensus that assimilation is not a dirty word, and that encouraging it ought to be a central part of immigration policy.
The Bush administration has created an assimilation task force, made up of various government officials. The Department of Homeland Security has an office devoted to this issue. The president himself has emphasized the importance of English acquisition. Immigration bills increasingly include various pro-assimilation provisions. Three states — California, Arizona, and Massachusetts — have passed anti-bilingual education referenda.
Liberal political scientist Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam concluded in a study published this summer that immigration and ethnic diversity can, in the short term, reduce social solidarity and social capital; as one remedy he suggests, therefore, expanded support for English instruction. And this month in the House of Representatives some moderate Democrats — 36 of them, in fact — crossed party lines to vote for an amendment that bars the federal government from suing employers who designate English as their exclusive workplace language. (A similar bill has already passed the Senate, with three Democratic votes in the committee.)
To be sure, the war on all three fronts is far from over, and elections especially will continue to matter (the fight in Congress about the English-in-the-workplace bill is not over). Still, on these issues the tide now is running in our favor.
As I said at the beginning, it is rare for a conservative to sound a note of optimism in the culture wars. Thus, so as not to end on too happy a note, I should stress that the question really ought to be: How could anyone ever have thought, and why are there still so many who think, that racial preferences make sense, that having children out of wedlock is no big deal, and that assimilation is unnecessary?
– Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Falls Church, Virginia.