Politics & Policy

The New Affirmative Action

Making diversity the goal of preferences doesn’t eliminate bias.

Sometime in the first years of the new millennium, “global warming” evolved into “climate change.” Amid growing controversies over the planet’s past temperatures, Al Gore and other activists understood that human-induced “climate change” could explain almost any weather extremity — droughts or floods, temperatures too hot or too cold, hurricanes and tornadoes — better than “global warming” could.

Similar verbal gymnastics have gradually turned “affirmative action” into “diversity” — a word ambiguous enough to avoid the innate contradictions of a liberal society affirming the illiberal granting of racial preferences.

In an increasingly multiracial society, it has grown hard to determine the racial ancestry of millions of Americans. Is someone who is ostensibly one-half Native American or African-American classified as a minority eligible for special consideration in hiring or college admissions, while someone one-quarter or one-eighth is not? How exactly does affirmative action adjudicate our precise ethnic identities these days? These are not illiberal questions — given, for example, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s past claims of being Native American to gain advantage in her academic career.

Aside from the increasing difficulty of determining the ancestry of multiracial, multiethnic, and intermarried Americans, what exactly is the justification for affirmative action’s ethnic preferences in hiring or admissions — historical grievance, current underrepresentation due to discrimination, or both?

Are the children of President Barack Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder more in need of help than the offspring of immigrants from the Punjab or Cambodia? If non-white ancestry is no longer an accurate indicator of ongoing discrimination, can affirmative action be justified by a legacy of historical bias or current ethnic underrepresentation?

Does a recent arrival from Oaxaca who fled the racism and poverty of Mexico warrant special compensation upon arrival in the United States? And if so, when? A day, a month, a year, or a decade after crossing the border? How about a Chilean, Korean, or Iraqi immigrant? Should particular lines of employment match the nation’s racial composition — jobs on the faculty, but not jobs in the NBA, or in the Postal Service?

How do we fairly allocate compensation for collective sins against a bygone generation? Slavery, Jim Crow, internment of Japanese-Americans, racially exclusionary immigration laws, the denial of U.S. admission to Jews fleeing the Holocaust: All were reprehensible, but it is difficult to know the degree to which these injustices still distort the career paths of individual Americans, or who still alive is to blame.

In 2009, the University of California system changed its admissions policy allegedly to curtail the number of Asian-Americans on its campuses. Such anti-affirmative action arose not because UC was a racist institution, but because, as an applicant group, Asian-Americans were outperforming most other ethnic groups, in numbers disproportionate to the general population.

In other words, just as the Ivy League turned away qualified Jews in the 1920s and ’30s, so some UC administrators apparently thought that engineering a campus “to look like America” was more important than simply admitting those with the strongest academic achievement.

Affirmative action — fossilized for a half-century — also made few allowances for class. Asian-Americans, for example, have higher per capita incomes than Americans as a whole. Were affluent minority individuals eligible for affirmative action?

Will the children of multimillionaire Tiger Woods — or of Jay-Z and Beyoncé — qualify for special consideration on the theory that their racial pedigrees or statistical underrepresentation in some fields will make their lives more challenging than the lives of poor white children in rural Pennsylvania or second-generation Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Mich.?

If ossified racial preferences don’t work in 21st-century multiracial America, then the generalized idea of “diversity” — just picking and choosing people without any rationale other than ensuring lots of different races and ethnic groups — seems a more defensible reason for extending preferences in lieu of using strictly meritocratic criteria.

Yet “diversity” no more alleviates the problem of bias than “climate change” ends controversy over global warming. And we really do not mean “diversity” in the widest sense of the word. No Ivy League law school is worried that its faculty is disproportionately 90 percent liberal, or that it lacks a contingent of fundamentalist Christians commensurate with their numbers in the general population.

The idea of diversity, racial and otherwise, is deeply embedded in our politics, but not consistently applied. President George H. W. Bush was not especially lauded for appointing an African-American Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas — apparently because Thomas was considered conservative. Liberal attorney general Eric Holder was seen by the media as a genuinely diverse appointment in a way that a conservative predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, was not.

Like Prohibition, affirmative action and then diversity were originally noble efforts that were doomed — largely by their own illiberal contradiction of using present and future racial discrimination to atone for past racial discrimination.

It is well past time to move on and to see people as just people.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals will appear in the spring from Bloomsbury Books.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.


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