What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (And Why
It Never Could Have Gone Right)
the past 40 years, furious debate has swirled around affirmative
action. Stirring the pot anew is the U.S. Supreme Court’s announced
plan to revisit the issue this year. At the University of Michigan,
being black automatically counts "20 points" toward admission
– considerably more than any academic or cognitive achievement (a
perfect SAT score, for example, only counts "12 points").
The "point" system is not qualified in any way; as far
as I can tell, Bill Cosby’s kids would be eligible for preferential
admissions at the University of Michigan as members of a "disadvantaged"
or "underrepresented" group. Two white students filed
lawsuits. Given today’s spoils system, why wouldn’t they? Of course,
it is a particular affirmative action program that is on trial.
If I had to guess, based on history, I would predict that the Court
will strike down the program at the University of Michigan as unconstitutional
but stop short of repudiating preferential admissions overall. The
troubled waters of affirmative action thus will remain as murky
as ever. Let’s return to the beginning, and to fundamentals.
is affirmative action? That is the first problem. No one, at the
outset, ever defined it. To its supporters, it meant racial and
social justice, a compensation for past and present discrimination.
To its critics, it has only perpetuated the problem of discrimination
while creating a host of new problems.
term affirmative action was introduced in the context of
civil rights by President John F. Kennedy’s EO 10925, signed in
1961; one passage in the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and again in
President Lyndon Johnson’s EO 11246, in 1965. Each called for organizations
to take "affirmative action" to counter discrimination
based on race, ethnicity, religion, and so on (gender came later).
Kennedy originally spoke of "affirmative steps" to prevent
discrimination, suggesting general efforts to reach out to minority
groups. The term is not defined or explained further; nowhere are
to be found specific instructions how to take "affirmative
action." There is no indication that a specific policy was
term stuck. Its meaning would soon be hammered out by federal agencies
such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice
Department. There seemed to be only one way organizations ranging
from construction companies and their subcontractors to colleges
and universities could "prove" they were not engaging
in discrimination, and that was to start keeping extensive records
of the race, ethnicity, and eventually gender of every job applicant,
every applicant for a promotion, every applicant for admission to
every college and every applicant for a faculty or administrative
appointment. These would be used as a baseline measure to be compared
with records of those hired, promoted, admitted to a university
or appointed to a faculty. The problem was, the new antidiscrimination
laws required the proof of a negative. At the time no one noticed
or commented that this made antidiscrimination law a fatally
flawed concept. Sometimes this problem was solved by introducing
racial quotas, as with Richard Nixon’s version of the 1969 Philadelphia
Plan. Original civil rights law, however, had repudiated all interpretations
of the law that called for preferential treatment, much less quotas.
The following sentence in the 1964 Civil Rights Act is as clear
and explicit as any government document is capable of being:
contained in this title shall be interpreted to require any
employer, any employment agency, labor organization or joint
labor-management committee subject to this title to grant preferential
treatment to any individual or to any group because of the race,
color, religion, sex, or national origin of such individual
or group on account of an imbalance which may exist with respect
to the total number or percentage of persons of any race, color,
religion, sex or national origin … in comparison with the total
number or percentage of persons of such race, color, religion,
sex or national origin in any community, State, section, or
other area, or in the available work force in any community,
State, section or other area. (Title VII, Section 703, (j).)
and quite contrary to this passage in the Civil Rights Act, by 1970
we had begun to see a shift in emphasis away from establishing personal
acts of discrimination as a legal requirement for taking "affirmative
action" toward a preoccupation with statistical ratios. It
was simply assumed that absent discrimination, the percentage of
hires, applicants, etc., from a particular racial or ethnic group
would reflect its percentage in the local population. Conversely,
imbalances (or lack of parity) meant that systemic discrimination
was still occurring even if no systematic discrimination
could be proven. This notion was settling into place at the time
of the Supreme Court’s decision in Griggs v. Duke Power in
1971, which introduced disparate impact as a measure of discrimination
and gave full sanction to the conceptual shift. We also began to
hear phrases like underrepresented group thrown around. The
very concept underrepresentation presupposes another one:
correct representation. What could this be? To the growing
army of affirmative action bureaucrats, it meant proportional
representation – ideally, each group should be represented on campuses,
in workforces, and on corporate boards, relative to its percentage
in the local population.
the time the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
case came up in 1978, it was clear that at least some affirmative
action programs were involving overt preferences where less qualified
minorities were given seats in medical and law schools over more
qualified whites, in the name of achieving greater "balance"
in student populations. This was what plaintiff Allan Bakke alleged
was occurring at the University of California at Davis Medical School.
He had applied for admission in both 1973 and 1974 and been rejected
both times, while blacks who were less qualified by the medical
school’s own criteria were admitted in his place. In other words,
the new rules had led to – amounted to – reverse discrimination
against white men. One might as well use the term Nathan Glaser
chose for the title of his book Affirmative Discrimination
(1975), the first detailed study of what was going on by a major
sociologist. Those charged with implementing the programs, however,
had no idea how else to proceed in proving to the new breed of federal
overseers that they were not discriminating against women
many respects, Bakke was a turning point. This is unfortunate,
because the Court’s reasoning was a hopeless muddle. The Court struck
down the specific admissions policy at the University of California
at Davis Medical School. In other words, Allan Bakke had proven
his case to the Court’s satisfaction. However, while acknowledging
that even "benign" racial classifications are inherently
suspect, Justice Powell’s majority opinion went on to introduce
the notion of a "compelling governmental interest" that
justified taking race into account. Just so they didn’t set hard
quotas. The "compelling governmental interest" was in
"the attainment of a diverse student body." Thus the concept
of diversity entered the picture. In this light, race or
ethnicity could count as a "plus" in decisions who to
admit to a university or who to hire even in the absence of evidence
of intentional discrimination. Precisely where such a rationale
was to be found in the Constitution was never made clear. But Justice
Blackmun was the one who spilled the beans. He opined that it was
not possible to develop an affirmative action program that was completely
race-neutral, without any preferential treatment, and still have
it be successful. "In order to get beyond racism," he
famously wrote, "we must first take account of race. There
is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we
must first treat them differently."
was almost as if Blackmun had studied an essay that had been published
13 years before by Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School educated
cultural Marxist – an essay entitled "Repressive Tolerance."
Marcuse had argued that neutrality was a sham, that it would ensure
the continued privileges of the powerful (i.e., white men), and
that the "exercise of civil rights by those who don’t have
them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent
their exercise." This was without question the idea that was
sweeping through both the universities and the upper echelons of
bureaucracies such as the EEOC.
in the end, Bakke widened the door to preferential treatment
– to a universe of double-standards, one for the "oppressors"
and the other for their "victims," and to a subtle cultural
Marxist interpretation of rights. Diversity became the most important
rationale given out to the public. Both affirmative action and calls
for more diversity among both faculty and students became fixtures
in academe – including, obviously, at the University of Michigan
but in one form or another at every public college and university
in the country – and any private one that accepted federal money
in any form.
of specifics in the original legislation – plus the implication
that carrying out its intent meant proving that negative, that one
had not discriminated – had made the original "affirmative
action" an inherently confused notion. It should be no surprise
that a cultural Marxist interpretation developed; there was absolutely
no way to carry out what it seemed to mandate without preferential
machinations. In light of the idea that group classifications were
"suspect," however, the use of preferences led to secrecy
and intellectual dishonesty. As sociologist Frederick R. Lynch would
put it in his pioneering 1989 study Invisible
Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action,
"word comes down but does not go out." Bureaucratic footsoldiers
who wanted to be in compliance and had never so much as heard of
Marcuse or cultural Marxism were not sure what the law really asked
them to do. Did it call for group-based preferences or didn’t it?
They walked a tightrope. No one wanted to be sued.
other concepts were part of the same basic package as "affirmative
action": "equal opportunity" and a "level playing
field." Supposedly, it was the purpose of "affirmative
action" to bring about the former because of the continued
absence of the latter, and possibly the only way to do this was
through race-conscious measures. One thinks of the infamous "shackled
runner" argument used so effectively by President Johnson back
in 1965 – an argument not far removed from Marcuse’s. Let’s look
at these notions.
Reisman, Pepperdine University economist and author of the treatise
defines an opportunity as any state of affairs in which successful
action by a person is possible. This opens a lot of territory. All
kinds of occasions can count as opportunities. Most of us unfortunately
miss all too many potential opportunities, either because we aren’t
looking or aren’t looking in the right place. The opportunity may
come as a job opening, or a perceived need one can meet by starting
a business. But how do we quantify "opportunity" to ensure
that all persons have "equal opportunity"? We can’t! The
question doesn’t even make sense. The most one can do on a small
scale is pursue the opportunities one sees and finds interesting,
and resolve not to interfere with others as they pursue theirs.
The most we can do on a large scale is support governmental arrangements
that respect people’s right to pursue opportunities of their choosing
instead of interfering with them. In this case, government cannot
ensure something called "equal opportunity" (or "equality
of opportunity") but it can recognize the immense value of
freedom of opportunity – by staying out of the way.
From the standpoint of a free society, this is government’s most
who argue for keeping "affirmative action" usually, at
some point, invoke the idea that "the playing field is not
yet level" because of the past. This was the implication of
Blackmun’s remark above. It is also central to the cultural Marxist
view: because of their historical "shackles" the victims
can’t compete with their oppressors even after the instruments of
oppression are removed. But what is this "level playing field"?
How is a policy so poorly conceived as "affirmative action"
supposed to create it? Presumably, the playing field is "level"
if all groups have the same opportunities – and we’re back where
conduct a thought experiment. Suppose we could start over and create
from scratch a hypothetical multiracial or multiethnic population
in which everyone is economically equal and (in whatever sense we
want) has the same opportunities (whatever this means). Let us assume,
furthermore, more or less equal levels of intelligence or cognitive
ability and education between groups throughout our population.
And let us assume, finally, governmental arrangements that leave
people alone and are not subject to the manipulation by one group
to gain unearned advantages over the other.
it still be the case, even in these Utopian circumstances, that
left to their own devices some would make better use of their cognitive
abilities and education than others? Wouldn’t some see opportunities
that are missed by others? Thus wouldn’t a state of affairs soon
develop in which some end up with better know-how than others, because
some would have more confidence in their knowledge and abilities
than others? Wouldn’t some also have more motivation than others,
and some have more physical stamina than others (I am assuming that
our population does not consist of clones or people who are exact
copies of one another!)? Very quickly, then, economic "inequities"
would emerge as some made better use of their equal abilities than
others and took the actions others did not take. It would be neither
possible nor desirable to correct these "inequities" through
a "policy" devised by the central government. The "inequities"
didn’t result from factors government either can or ought to redress.
They sure didn’t result from deliberate acts of sabotage such as
racial discrimination. If members of Group A in our population simply
make better use of the opportunities that they see while Group B
does not, then assuming no specific laws preventing Group
B’s members from taking similar actions, how do the economic differences
that emerge between Group A and Group B amount to "systemic
discrimination"? Our thought experiment proposed egalitarianism
as its ideal, actually gave its people equal intelligence and educations,
and then left them alone. The ideal was quickly subverted by nothing
more than natural differences that boiled down to whether the people
perceived opportunities the same and responded in the same way.
They would not. The next generation in this imaginary world would
grow up in a world containing "inequities" because some
of their parents had taken successful actions and some had not.
As Austrian economist Murray Rothbard showed in great detail, egalitarianism
is simply impossible; it is, to use his phrase, a "revolt against
the real world, there simply is no "level playing field."
There never was, never will be, and never can be. For in the real
world, individuals are obviously not of equal intelligence (this
claim is independent of the one about differences in intelligence
between different racial groups); it is even more obvious that they
do not and could not have "equal educations." Thus if
our imaginary world of ideal initial conditions could not maintain
egalitarianism, we can hardly expect it from a real society. Egalitarianism
is a dream of chronic Utopians.
this goes to the heart of what is wrong with "affirmative action"
and why it could never go right – no matter how conceived. Policies
designed upon premises that are either wrong or don’t make sense
are bound to go off course. If ideas have consequences, then bad
ideas have bad consequences. Those that dissolve into a conceptual
muddle when you scrutinize them have even worse consequences. Affirmative
action is the generic name for a range of policies and programs
that haven’t worked, don’t work, and can’t be made to work in the
real world – not without creating problems worse than what they
were intended to solve. The issue isn’t racism or bigotry. It is
not anyone’s motives – although before the end of this essay it
should be clear that cultural Marxists’ motives are anything but
pure. However, even those with the best of intentions cannot build
a workable policy around wishful thinking draped over a morass of
confusion (and as we’ll also see below, historical illiteracy),
then impose it willy-nilly on a population by force. It is no more
complicated than that. It is unsurprising that the term affirmative
action is not as widely used as it used to be. It has gotten
too bad of a reputation. Terms like diversity, multiculturalism
and inclusion are very much preferred!
we realize all this, what do we do? The appropriate thing to do,
in my judgment, is to scrap affirmative action altogether and replace
it with the idea of complete freedom of association. Likewise, we
should do away with the vague and impossible "equality of opportunity"
and replace it with freedom of opportunity as sketched above. The
federal government, above all (along with its countless minions
at the state and local levels and its fellow travelers in the universities),
should stop imposing policies on populations unilaterally, whether
under the pretext of "social justice" or to "increase
diversity" or for any other reason. This, of course, goes beyond
any call to scrap a particular "diversity" program at
a particular public university such as the University of Michigan.
The logic of our argument calls on Americans to scrap the entire
constellation of confused ideas that brought us to our present point.
Neither the federal government nor any of its branches or agencies
should be allowed to dictate admissions policies or hiring practices
to colleges and universities, corporations, or anyone else. Complete
freedom of association means just that. You hire who you want in
your business – to meet your needs, not satisfy a bureaucrat.
Colleges select a student body ready and able to do college-level
work, not admit students simply to increase "diversity"
as if this were an end in itself. Often this is common horse sense.
The question, after all, still remains: would you want to
be operated on by, e.g., a surgeon who got into medical school because
of a racial preference program and then got employed by a hospital
striving to increase its "diversity"?
I am more than aware, will not be satisfied with any of this. Nor
will some women. For don’t racism and sexism still exist? Isn’t
prejudice still a problem? Don’t too many people still favor their
own, which means excluding others? Don’t too many students still
associate only with their own? Isn’t "preferential treatment"
for, e.g., standout athletes, or the children of alumni, as reprehensible
as "preferential treatment" based on race and gender?
things first. No one denies that prejudice is still around. But
we cannot mechanically infer that something called "affirmative
action" (or "diversity" or whatever you want) will
magically erase it. If people are forced together against their
will, with some getting favors based on group identity and others
disfavored, this might make prejudice worse. Moreover, when members
of a favored group are taught to demonize the disfavored group ("their
ancestors enslaved and brutalized your ancestors"), whatever
friction already existing between them is likely to worsen rather
than diminish. Small wonder, that is, that after three decades of
"disparate impact" based university admissions and hiring
practices we have songs by black rapsters about killing white police
officers (to cite just one example). Such results are not accidental.
Thomas Sowell has documented in great detail, especially in his
Policies: A Worldwide Perspective, that whenever the state
mandates favors for some at the expense of others, whatever problems
already existed are aggravated, not relieved. If the policies are
not reversed, and legal recourse seems less and less of an option,
eventually outbreaks of violence occur between the favored and disfavored
haven’t seen much open violence in our society, not compared with
the genocide that has occurred elsewhere, especially when governments
simply liquidated undesirable groups. America’s overall infrastructure
has proven too resilient for that. The prosperity we had achieved
by the 1950s supplied us with a significant cushion of economic
and social stability. However, this doesn’t mean that the mindset
affirmative action programs have encouraged hasn’t begun to wreak
havoc on our institutions. Most of the damage has been cultural.
I will focus on one area: the effects on higher education of hiring
and then tenuring people who were members of politically and bureaucratically
favored groups (women, blacks, eventually gays and lesbians) manifestly
not qualified to be there.
is well known that a coterie of "tenured radicals," most
of them products of preferential hiring for university faculty,
began to make waves during the supposedly conservative 1980s. Their
writings read like those of 1960s student revolutionaries who never
grew out of it. The claims they made were frequently ludicrous by
most standards and would not have been considered publishable, much
less scholarly, even a decade earlier. Consider a few examples (some
will be familiar): radical feminist law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon
of the University of Michigan described how, in her view, voluntary
sexual intercourse is a form of rape because of the power wielded
by men as a group over women as a group. Radical feminist philosophy
professor Alison Jaggar (now at the University of Colorado at Boulder)
contended, for essentially the same reason, that a romantic candlelight
dinner between a man and a woman is a form of prostitution. Note
the cultural Marxism at work here: one person is in a "victim
group"; the other, in an "oppressor group." The conclusion
falls out mechanically. Another radical feminist, Sandra Harding
then of the University of Delaware turned her attention to the "masculinist"
nature of modern science (most of whose practitioners, of course,
were men) and described Newton’s and Bacon’s writings as constituting
a "rape manual." These are just three cases. There are
we can site such examples illustrates a significant feature of affirmative
action in university hiring: the primary beneficiaries were (and
still are) white women. Not all, of course. Leonard Jeffries, a
black professor at City College of the CUNY system, advanced the
pseudoscientific thesis that whites were descended from aggressive,
competitive "ice people" and persons of color, from peaceful,
communal "sun people." Molefi Kete Asante and others invented
"afrocentricity." One of its primary tenets of which was
that the real cradle of civilization was Africa. Of course, ancient
Greek intellectuals such as Aristotle are known to have visited
Egypt, and Egypt is on the African continent. Therefore Western
civilization was stolen from blacks, under the assumption, made
without evidence, that the ancient Egyptians were black. Wild leaps
of illogic like this permeate what I called affirmative action scholarship
in my Civil
Wrongs. A few extreme-leftist whites got into this act,
such as Cornell’s Martin Bernal (author of Black
Athena, arguing essentially the same thesis). Such notions
became the subject of serious debate at academic conferences. By
the mid-1990s, more and more scholarly journals in fields such as
philosophy were publishing their "feminist philosophy"
issues or "feminist theories of science" issues; later,
they would publish issues on "African-American philosophy"
or "gay rights" and so on as academe became a kind
of free-for-all of group-victimology. This environment encouraged
a "star" system, with the academic equivalent of the Hollywood
celebrity. Such "stars" as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel
West have built careers "university-hopping" and bidding
up their salaries – capitalizing fully on their favored status as
members of a victimized group to earn amounts that most white male
professors will never see.
of these people are really scholars, because intellectual curiosity
and a desire to learn and communicate the truth are not what motivates
them. The very ideas of group-neutral or culture-neutral standards
of truth, knowledge, rationality, logicality, etc., had become an
anathema by the 1990s. They had been under sustained attack before
then. Here, the motives of the affirmative action generation dovetailed
nicely with the (Frankfurt School influenced) postmodernism imported
from Europe. Writers such as France’s Jean-François Lyotard,
Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida had issued such denials decades
before. With truth and logic demoted to the status of "white
male social constructs," academic radicals felt free to indulge
their preoccupations with power, their alleged victimization and,
of course, sex (every variety). They saw themselves as comprising
an intellectual vanguard – a postmodern equivalent of Marx’s proletariat,
revolutionizing academe by wresting it from its white male
oppressors. The fact that their European heroes were all white men
seemed mostly to escape them, and this illustrates the ideological
blinders these people had on. What we were really seeing was the
rise to power of a generation of extremely alienated, chronically
angry individuals who had come of age during the 1960s, stayed on
campus as graduate students and then as faculty members who received
tenure in the 1980s. They rose, empowered by what were by then systemic
preferences which now favored the opinions of women and minorities
who took the cultural Marxist view of the world, to transform academic
life from top to bottom during the 1990s. By that decade, support
for "diversity" was literally written into job descriptions,
especially those at the administrative level. This meant that known
critics of "diversity" would simply be refused interviews
for faculty or administrative posts. None of the radicals, of course,
could have survived outside of academe. They hated their
own civilization and its "bourgeois" values. But they
thrived on campuses, which had all long been well to the left of
the rest of the country. They came to be very well organized and
were often well funded. Their support sometimes came through top
administrators at their universities; some of it also came from
enormous tax-exempt foundations (e.g., the Ford and Rockefeller
Foundations). Thus they had the organization, the backing and the
resources to bend all the humanities and all the social sciences
except economics in the direction they wanted the university to
few dissident scholars tried to expose what was going on beginning
in the late 1980s. Some of these offered readers a close look at
the views of the affirmative action generation (e.g., Stephen J.
Balsh’s and Herbert London’s seminal article "The Tenured Left"
in Commentary in 1986 and Roger Kimball’s Tenured
Radicals first published in 1990). Others documented the
effects affirmative action was having on actual opportunities for
white men in what had become hostile enclaves of extreme-left radicalism
(I mentioned Frederick R. Lynch’s Invisible
Victims above). To the affirmative action generation, these
sorts of investigations were unacceptable. As they put it, the "advances
made by women and minorities" were experiencing a "backlash"
(as radical feminist writer Susan Faludi called it in her book of
that title). White men themselves were getting organized, forming
"white student unions" on at least two campuses. Something
had to be done, and done quickly.
correctness soon emerged to protect affirmative action programs
and their beneficiaries (and affirmative action scholarship) from
criticisms like these, and intimidate would-be critics. The initial
exposés began in 1991 with articles such as John Taylor’s "Are
You Politically Correct" (originally in New York magazine)
and Dinesh D’Souza’s book Illiberal
Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. These
exposés drew a flurry of media attention but otherwise had little
effect. With the affirmative action generation entrenched and having
gathered countless followers, many of them students driven by the
same rage against the "bourgeoisie," the early 1990s saw
the meteoric rise of what Taylor had described as a "new fundamentalism,"
one based on a race-and-gender orthodoxy instead of religion. One
of its aims was clearly to suppress open discussion of subjects
such as affirmative action and feminism – and eventually other touchy
subjects such as homosexuality and open-borders immigration. The
new watchword became, "Watch what you say!"
speech codes began to appear on some campuses (usually to be struck
down as unconstitutional when challenged on First Amendment grounds).
Doctrines such as multiculturalism, rationalizing the "diversity"
agenda, indeed had become orthodoxies as firmly entrenched in dominant
universities as any religious beliefs ever had been. Those who criticized
these ideas and agendas on their campuses found themselves denounced
as racists – even if they had published major works and established
themselves as leaders in their disciplines. Stephan Thernstrom of
Harvard is an example, having had to give up a popular American
history course on race relations entitled "The Peopling of
America." Such subjects were no longer teachable in any traditional
way. Radical feminists demonized critics such as Christina Hoff
Sommers who exposed the cultural Marxism behind their views and
revealed the statistical flummery involved in claims about "one
in four" women on campus will be raped sometime during their
college career. They were soon joined by gays and lesbians, and
we began hearing of the "homophobia" of, e.g., Christians.
The use of the suffix phobia was deliberate, of course; a
phobia is an irrational fear, and thus to be cured therapeutically
with sensitivity sessions, not responded to with rational arguments.
Thus arose "queer theory" around the same cultural Marxist
premise that homosexuals were suppressed victims deserving the same
affirmative action preferences. That idea that homosexuality and
heterosexuality were equal "alternative lifestyle choices"
also rose in popularity during the 1990s – given early prominence
by Bill Clinton’s "gays in the military" campaign which
began before he assumed the presidency in 1992. Arguably, Clinton
was our first politically correct president – and our first postmodernist
one, delivering nonsensical lines to the media like: "It depends
on what the meaning of is is."
good discussion of where we stood by 1997 can be found in Alan Charles
Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate’s The
Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.
The affirmative action generation simply cannot stand the free and
open expression of views other than its own. Hence the rise of what
I called tolerance totalitarianism last week. More than one student
has had his college experience ruined, and more than one professor
literally driven from his campus as a result of one of the nasty
hate campaigns launched by local representatives of this crowd.
Examples of horror stories are too numerous to recount here, although
I discuss several early cases in my Civil Wrongs. Kors and
Silverglate discuss others from more recent years. There are cases
of professors having to sue their institutions to block efforts
to remove their tenure when they ran afoul the new speech codes,
written down or merely understood, that had appeared everywhere.
A few have had their property vandalized. A handful (City College
philosophy professor Michael Levin is an example) have even had
to be accompanied to their classes by armed security guards due
to death threats.
the political correctness and tolerance totalitarianism in the universe,
however, could not prevent the rising tendency toward self-segregation
between different groups on college and university campuses, and
in society at large. It is arguable that blacks and whites indeed
have come to live in separate conceptual universes, each one incorporating
a suspicion toward the other always on the edge of inching over
into open hostility. Consider the rousing cheers that went up throughout
black America when O.J. Simpson was found innocent of the murder
of his (white) wife Nicole. Or consider what happens when someone,
usually a white student with "conservative" ideas is able
to get an article, say, critical of the movement to offer blacks
reparations for slavery, into a student newspaper. There are now
several cases of all the copies of that day’s issue being angrily
confiscated and destroyed by black student groups. University administrators
are far more likely to accuse the white student of racism than they
are to penalize the black students.
can political correctness block the evidence that group favoritism
has contributed to the overall dumbing down of the country. Here,
just one example will do. David Howard, who worked in Washington,
was forced to resign from a job in 1999 after blacks took offense
at his use of the word niggardly in a staff meeting. They
had no idea that the word has no racial connotation but merely shares
a couple of syllables with a well-known racial slur. Nevertheless,
Howard was accused by his superiors of having used "poor judgment"
in using the word. His resignation was demanded. To paraphrase what
columnist Tony Snow would write a few days later, it was as if he
was expected to apologize for their ignorance as well as
their apparent inability to look up a word in a dictionary.
is what close to 40 years of affirmative action has wrought. As
noted above, we have now seen the widening of the affirmative action
universe to include homosexuals – something that would never have
occurred to its advocates back in the 1960s and 1970s. We have seen
the near-destruction of traditional academic disciplines and the
creation of new ones ("women’s studies," "Afro-American
studies," "Hispanic studies," "queer theory,"
and so on). Finally, political correctness long ago spread from
the campuses to the rest of society through its influence on the
legal system, on government and on professional organizations. Even
large corporations have adopted it, as I also noted last week. American
culture has become the first in history to institutionalize a philosophy
alien to and resolutely hostile toward its own founding principles.
We have seen, finally, the beginnings of a structured edifice of
thought control in America – in the name of sensitivity to the special
needs of the government-designated victim groups in our diverse
society. This runaway train long ago ceased to be about discrimination
and took on a life of its own, a destructive trajectory in which
individuals are not simply forced to resign from jobs but can be
arrested and thrown in jail for what is perceived as an ethnic slur,
as was Janice Barton of Michigan.
about the students? One would suppose that black students actually
benefited from this. Might it not be possible that the transformed
academic culture really is increasing their overall opportunities?
I will offer a single anecdote – one that if my correspondence both
at the time and more recently can be trusted, is not atypical. For
a while I taught logic at Auburn University. In 1991, a federal
judge in Montgomery, Ala., handed down the sort of unilateral command
for which federal judges have become notorious, calling Auburn a
"racist institution" because the percentage of blacks
on its campus did not reflect their percentage in Alabama. There
was a brief flurry of media attention given the "underrepresentation"
of blacks on campus at Auburn University. No actual evidence was
produced that blacks had been suffering at Auburn either from discrimination
or anything else. But questions of evidence never stopped a bureaucrat
or a federal judge. The ruling forced the university to seek out
and admit more blacks.
to the decision there were usually two or three black students enrolled
in my classes. Their performances were not significantly different
from that of the white students. After the decision, the number
jumped from two or three up to around seven or eight. The first
two or three were again usually okay. The others often found themselves
in trouble in a subject where there were definite right and wrong
answers (I feel funny having to say to readers I presume are adults
that the laws of logic are race-neutral). The culmination occurred
one day near the end of one of the quarters when a black student,
a freshman admitted preferentially under the new policy, came to
see me crying his eyes out in frustration. He was not merely failing,
but failing badly – to the point of handing in blank tests!
He found the subject matter of the course utterly baffling. There
was very little I could do for someone so hopelessly unprepared
to do college-level work. No one – no instructor, no administrator,
no affirmative action program, no government bureaucrat, no federal
judge – can simply pull people off the streets and give them
the skills they need to succeed in college. All they can do – as
Thomas Sowell has also argued at length – is put them in positions
where they are at constant risk of failure. The claim that government
favoritism does bona fide favors for more than a few black students
days I no longer teach regularly – but routinely catch rumors emanating
from those still imprisoned in the transformed academy that the
situation has grown worse. I have heard of cases of professors who
have been quietly advised not to give low grades to black
students. If these rumors are true, they indicate that it is no
longer possible for a professor to maintain a grading system with
any integrity. Other professors are simply lowering their requirements
for all their students, across the board, along with a general lowering
of admissions standards. I had discovered as early as 1993 that
certain aspects of formal logic were simply not teachable to public
university undergraduates anymore. There were just too many students,
white and black, who were too unprepared for work at that level.
One thing is for sure: anything seen as critical of special programs
for blacks or capable of being interpreted as demeaning to black
students is not tolerated. In the fall of 2001, an incident at an
off-campus fraternity Halloween party in Auburn where a couple of
fraternity men showed up in "blackface" made headlines.
The spotlight of media political correctness descended on the campus.
Now, just a few weeks ago, Auburn University dedicated its huge
new Center for Diversity and Race Relations.
the final analysis, the things "affirmative action" set
out to end are not to be eliminated by top-down policy. To the extent
they can be ended, they belong to the realm of moral discussion.
In some cases, we are talking about human nature itself – invariably
a stumbling block to every attempt by a political or social Utopian
to build a perfect Tower of Babel. I do not, of course, endorse
racism or racial prejudice. Racism I define as an attitude
of hatred and hostility – perhaps combined with a feeling of superiority
– directed at an entire race such as blacks or whites. Prejudice
is the expression of this attitude. I don’t consider either one
to belong in the mindset of an educated person. One reason is that
none of us has sufficient experience with members of other groups
(whose memberships number in the millions, after all) to warrant
such an attitude. Groups themselves are pretty diverse entities.
In a moment of almost unbelievable clarity, I once heard a professor
of health science in a class I was attending in 1998 state that
there was considerably more diversity within racial groups
than between them. As someone who had worked on numerous
health promotion projects in minority communities, he had plenty
of evidence to back up this assertion. Even if by some chance there
really are inherent differences in intelligence and cognitive ability
between the races, as authors such as J. Philippe Rushton and Michael
Levin have argued, then one can answer: so what? Such differences
are statistical averages that say nothing about the intelligence
or potential of any particular individual, and it should be obviously
fallacious to think any constructive policy could be based on them.
The only rational procedure is to treat people as individuals and
to regard identity-politics as a mistake, whatever its source.
racism and prejudice are to be discouraged, then the wisest course
of action would be to find the best means to this end. "Affirmative
action" is not it. It has led to more, not less racism – not
to mention the nightmare world of rapidly accelerating political
correctness. It has led, more generally, to the mindset Larry Elder
describes in his timely and provocative Ten
Things You Can’t Say In America. One of the things "you
can’t say" is that many young blacks are now more racist than
whites – in accordance with the sense of hostility mentioned above
that always threatens to erupt into something more. They got that
way partly because of the failures of affirmative action for their
elders, partly because of the destruction of their families and
communities for reasons actually having little to do with racism
or bigotry by whites, and finally because of the incessant demonizing
of whites by their teachers and in American culture generally ("never
forget, their ancestors owned your ancestors as slaves!").
Given this, and given the general demotion of the teaching of real
thinking skills in today’s government schools, why wouldn’t black
youths as a group be angry at whites as a group?
is the most appropriate means to this end of discouraging racism
and prejudice? Education – the real thing, not the facsimile acquired
in government classrooms. Education for freedom, in the "classroom"
of life, demonstrating what works and eschewing what does not work.
It is true enough that we live in a diverse society. One of the
things we learn through observation is that blacks and whites (and
members of other groups as well) can work together side by side
just fine if they came together voluntarily, have agreed-upon goals,
and if they have learned to see each other primarily as individuals
and only secondarily as members of a distinct ethnic group.
I recommend paying close attention to the praxeological method developed
by the economist Ludwig von Mises and applying it to these problems.
Praxeology is the general science of human action. It informs
us how all actions are taken by individuals employing means to achieve
ends in a world governed by cause and effect. Such truths hold regardless
of the race or gender of the acting person. Groups exist only as
aggregates that have no capacity for action (here we may acknowledge
Ayn Rand who observed in an essay on capitalism that "there
is no such thing as a collective brain").
also have no problem recommending reading books by authors such
as Richard Wright, e.g., Black Boy and Native Son
– authors who were recognized as important, by the way, long before
the affirmative action generation came along. I recall reading Native
Son when I was in grade school and being very moved by it. The
point is, the characters emerged in their individuality and the
reader is exposed to their humanness. It is true enough that blacks
have sometimes been mistreated by prejudiced whites – and that whites
have sometimes been mistreated by prejudiced blacks. Racism and
prejudice are manifestations of collectivism, which always robs
people of their human essence which is to be an individual,
not simply a cipher to be filed away in one’s mind (or on a bureaucrat’s
file folder). Each individual must decide, based on a moral view
of the world: I am not going to be like that. I am not going
to repeat those mistakes. This decision cannot be forced out
of a person. My thesis is that the current collectivized environment
has made it less, not more likely, that members of any race will
make that decision.
I also recommend the study of history – especially the history of
the role of the federal government in helping institute whatever
structures of "systemic discrimination" blacks can legitimately
complain about. Today we suffer from extreme historical illiteracy
on the subject. It is important that the slavery of blacks by whites
in America was hardly the only institutionalized form of slavery.
Serious students of this history now know that blacks were sold
into slavery in Africa not by whites but by other blacks; and they
were made slaves in the United States not because whites hated them
but because they represented free, available labor. Moreover – and
I can just see purveyors of reparations for slavery blowing several
gaskets apiece if and when they read this – the claim that whites
systematically mistreated their black slaves doesn’t make a whole
lot of sense to anyone who spends time thinking it over. Surely
plantation owners wanted their slaves to be able to work. If they
routinely beat them, or tortured them, maimed them, etc., their
slaves wouldn’t work as effectively (if at all). If anything, the
application of a little critical thought to the topic suggests that
while beatings, etc., may have sometimes occurred they couldn’t
have been the norm. The agricultural system of which slavery was
an integral part at the time would have collapsed! (Eventually,
of course, with growing industrialization, it would have collapsed
anyway, without the War Between the States.)
the end of slavery several Supreme Court decisions – not racism
or prejudice on the part of whites collectively – reinforced the
legal inferiority of blacks to whites (Dred Scott
and Plessy being the most important). Later, the Davis-Bacon
Act of 1931, a product of the U.S. Department of Labor (again not
the "white race" as a collective entity) created a purely
economic incentive for discrimination against blacks. Unfortunately,
few people other than specialists in the history of labor law are
even likely to be familiar with the Davis-Bacon Act, much less aware
of its relationship to discrimination against nonwhites. It tried
to establish protections (jobs, wage rates) for union members as
America reeled toward the Great Depression. But most blacks were
not members of unions, and thus were not protected. Ergo,
Davis-Bacon encouraged racial discrimination, and there is evidence
from the Congressional Record of the time that this was at
least one of its purposes, born of fear that highly motivated blacks
and immigrants would take jobs away from whites. Black scholars
who are honestly interested in the origins of whatever systemic
discrimination has existed in American society should look not at
whites as if whites comprised some collective agency that has been
out to get them but at a specific institution: government.
(A look at the history of unions and their relationship to government
wouldn’t hurt, either!) They should study the relevant Supreme Court
cases and relevant laws like Davis-Bacon. Then they should ask:
can government really be counted on to solve problems that government
created in the first place?
those concerned to educate for a free society must incorporate strong
doses of logic and genuine critical thinking into their curricula.
It is absolutely essential that basic concepts of truth, rationality
and objectivity be restored – not as academic games but as important
tools of human survival and advancement that hold for everyone.
It is essential to teach that empirical claims (e.g., in history)
be backed up with empirical evidence, and that demonizing, arguing
ad hominem ("so-and-so cannot be considered credible
because his words and associates indicate that he is a closet racist"),
etc., are fallacies. America has been by and large successful because
it was founded on a body of ideas – rights inhere in individuals,
not groups; they antecede government and are not products of government,
which should be limited to a few specific functions like the protection
of rights including the protection of our borders, and abolished
or seceded from if it oversteps these bounds; free enterprise is
superior to socialism because of fundamental economic laws of human
action. It is true that these ideas have not been applied consistently,
but this does not invalidate them as important principles. To the
extent they have been applied, they have been a staggering success,
creating the most prosperous society in human history. The best
explanation for their success is that they correspond to reality.
America is not indestructible. It will not withstand institutionalized
assaults on its founding principles indefinitely. If enough people
actually come to believe that the world comes divided up into oppressors
and victims; that learning what is true is just one option among
many; that government can solve racial problems through coercive
programs of affirmative action; that logic, rationality and objectivity
are "white male social constructs," and that "all
lifestyle choices are equal," they will not repeal the laws
of logic, rationality and objectivity. They will eventually repeal
do we go from here? We set about developing educational institutions
and programs embodying these ideas. We here does not mean
government schools, of course. Those are hopeless. We means
those of us who care about these things as individuals and are willing
to take the time and resources to develop them, or at least support
them financially. Our best bet is to promote a philosophy of society
respecting complete freedom of association and complete freedom
of opportunity. Would these bring about a racial Utopia? No, because
there is no such thing. The "balances" sought by federal
judges, EEOC bureaucrats, agitator-professors in the universities
and professional agitators generally have never existed in any society,
anywhere in the world. There isn’t the slightest evidence that "diversity"
social engineering can magically create them.
freedom of association and freedom of opportunity, would we be better
off than we are now? Almost certainly! This applies to the challenge
about, e.g., preferences for children of alumni at universities.
Given freedom of association, there simply is not a problem here.
Everyone tends to look out for his own. This is human nature. Neither
blacks nor any other minority groups are exempt from it.
agitators for "diversity" are hot and bothered at the
evidence that a certain level of self-segregation reappears whenever
legal edifices of coercive integration are removed. The question,
however, is again whether we want members of different groups to
be able to live with one another peacefully. Perhaps allowing their
free movement is a better means to this end than coercive attempts
to achieve "balance" or "diversity." Note my
phrase above: a certain level. Self-segregation would never
be universal unless it, too, were forced – and I hope it is obvious
I am not advocating that! (Indeed, coerced self-segregation
would be a contradiction in terms.) The self-segregation that would
occur would not reflect hatred of other groups; it would only reflect
the fact that everyone has a comfort zone and that the majority
of people are more comfortable around their own. Such barriers would
fall when and where members of one group recognized an opportunity
or saw an advantage in trading with members of another – for whatever
reason – and could gain willing customers or clients in the other
diversity police don’t want to acknowledge such things; as tolerance
totalitarians, they would like to block all discussion of the subject
on these terms. I would submit that what they are really trying
to change is nothing less than human nature itself, not to mention
protecting what has become a lucrative racket. If the problems preventing
whites and blacks both from living side by side peacefully and prospering
economically really were resolved to the point where all anyone
had to gripe about was a "lack of statistical balance,"
then more and more members of both groups would tell them to go
get real jobs and leave us alone!
us sum up. It is time for federally mandated "affirmative action"
and all its variations ("diversity," etc.) and protective
mechanisms ("sensitivity training," etc.) to be scrapped:
lock, stock and barrel. All laws requiring employers and college
admissions boards to prove a negative – that they have not
engaged in discrimination, however we define it – must go – along
with the other machinations of the modern welfare system. Although
this essay has been lengthy, there are many aspects of the problem
we have had to leave aside. The most important is how the affirmative
action mindset has vastly expanded the reach of the leviathan state
and increased its ability to suffocate everyone with regulations
and the fear of lawsuits. The sort of government compatible with
ideals of freedom of association and freedom of opportunity will
not interfere with hiring practices, college and university admissions
policies, or with the natural movements of peoples seeking to maximize
their opportunities. It will seek to protect these as fundamental
rights, on which peaceful civilization must depend. It will follow
that if institutions such as the University of Michigan wish to
continue handing out special favors, that is their own business
and they must live with the consequences. But those wishing to scrap
such programs as an encumbrance embodying one of the most destructive
mistakes of recent U.S. history will be allowed to do so without
political, legal or bureaucratic obstruction.
of this means, of course, exposing and repudiating the cultural
Marxism that emerged alongside the civil rights movement and hijacked
whatever sincere concerns for the plight of black Americans existed
among the rank and file back in the 1960s. Cultural Marxism offers
a pseudo-intellectual universe devoid of logic and evidence. Only
within this universe does it make sense to say that a black man
is poor, uneducated and angry because his great-great-great-great
grandfather was a slave. Only within this universe does it make
sense to portray all white males as having "advantages";
said advantages are mysteriously absent among the multitudes of
whites living in, e.g., trailer parks spread all across America
outside the cities. Repudiating the cultural Marxist universe means
that blacks must look elsewhere than the supposed racism of whites
for the source of their problems. They must look, for example, at
the destruction of the black family and at the phenomenal percentages
of black babies born out of wedlock. They must look at what welfare
dependency does to a person’s level of motivation generally no matter
what race or ethnicity he or she is – and this again means questioning
the leviathan welfare state.
they must learn to see through their indoctrination at the hands
of cultural Marxists. This means a close look at the motives of
these people, and some of their most powerful backers whether in
university administrations, in government, or in organizations such
as the United Nations. In the latter, one will find fervent advocates
of global redistribution of wealth and the creation of a global
leviathan state ("global governance"). There is nothing
wrong with a healthy distrust of any concentration of power, or
of signs that all the power is flowing in a single ideological direction
as has happened in America for several decades now. These are not
cultural Marxist notions, although the former is one Marxists have
exploited when whites held the power. This is important, because
as long as whites and blacks look at each other with suspicion and
hostility, they are not looking at those who would repress the masses
of all groups: re-engineering all Western societies under a single
global order, servicing a global elite. The various minions of this
elite have partially destroyed the value of our currency, destroyed
modern education, undermined our ability to protect our borders
from hostile foreigners, surrounded our professional lives with
a suffocating blanket of regulations and taxes, and polluted our
private lives with a nonstop barrage of mindless entertainment.
Who is this elite? It can be found, again, in the UN, in its countless
satellite "non-governmental organizations," in the fraudulent
Federal Reserve system and in shadowy organizations such as the
Council on Foreign Relations; it can be found in the upper echelons
of Hollywood and among the dominant media empires; it can be found,
finally, in huge tax-exempt foundations such as the Rockefeller
Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie financial empire,
among others. The latter have been bankrolling leftist and culturally
destructive projects for decades, frequently in government schools.
Looked at against this larger backdrop, there is a sense in which
the debate over "affirmative action" is just one more
distraction – just one more in a long series of Supreme Court cases,
something to generate more op-eds, more news conferences for media
talking heads, more punditry, more denunciations from university-based
radicals, while the real elites continue their quiet work of undermining
U.S. sovereignty and advancing their real goal, which is to eventually
merge this country into a world government that would be vastly
more powerful than the present leviathan state!
consider the alternative. It would be very interesting to observe
what kind of society would emerge once all peoples have freedom
of association and freedom of opportunity, under a government limited
to protecting individual’s private property rights and to punishing
those who infringe upon the rights of others. Its main features
would not be those favored by today’s affirmative action generation
or other Utopians; it certainly wouldn’t be favored by the above
elites. All their rackets would disappear; there would be no market
for their services. What would result might not be a society in
which corporations strive to achieve "parity" or to "celebrate
diversity." It might well be a society in which there are fully
desegregated workplaces, but also businesses run by blacks, employing
mostly blacks and catering primarily to blacks; and businesses run
by whites, employing mostly whites and catering primarily to whites.
(These observations also apply, obviously, to Hispanics, Asians,
and other ethnic groups.) It may just turn out that different races
are suited for different kinds of occupations, meaning that patterns
of work will develop spontaneously regardless of anyone’s personal
beliefs about race or anyone’s ideas about how they should develop.
The success or failure of their members will be determined by their
values, their ingenuity and by the market. We might see, moreover,
highly segregated neighborhoods along with a few integrated ones.
Predicting what percentage would be as pointless as the attempt
to dictate a politically correct ratio. The "correct ratio"
would change from place to place, because it would result from the
free, unhampered movements and choices of the peoples directly involved.
In such a society, the amount of racial hostility and tension would
surely decrease. When members of different races or ethnic groups
interacted, the interactions would be mostly free of tension, resentment
and hostility because the interaction would be products of bottom-up
choice and not top-down coercion. And the overall amount of freedom,
peace and opportunity for everybody would increase.
there any hope of creating such a society in the near future? That
is the fifty-dollar question. The answer is that it is up to us.
Independent organizations such as the Ludwig von Mises Institute
are places where sound economic principles are routinely studied
and taught. There are countless groups emerging, sometimes around
Christian principles and sometimes around libertarian ones, who
are beginning the task of educating interested young people in sound
morals and individual freedom. We could call these parallel institutions,
as they are developing entirely outside of, and parallel to, the
dominant ones. There is a great need for financial resources, for
more alliances and more coordination between the different organizations.
My fear is that things are going to have to get worse before they
can begin to get better – the full effects of the mindset of the
affirmative action generation will have to become even more visible
publicly than they are now, by affecting still more people economically
and personally. They and other observers of what is happening will
hopefully begin scouting around for alternatives and discover our
developing parallel institutions. And then we will find out if a
free society, one based on individualism, freedom of association
and freedom of opportunity for all is possible in America.
note: This essay is a greatly expanded version of an op-ed entitled
simply "Affirmative Action" which I published in the now-defunct
The Edgefield Journal in September, 1999 under the pseudonym
W.W. Carrington. At the time, many of us were writing such articles
and resorting to pseudonyms out of the fear of losing our jobs –
a fear pervasive in contemporary America after ten years of political
correctness. (For those of us who began to think outside the box
and became self-employed independent contractors, the fear of starvation
became less of a problem. Which is why I now recommend a curriculum
of university study that would lead to self-employment. But that
is another article.)
on airport security mentioned litigation having begun by the
Monahans. This was premature; I have been unable to confirm that
a lawsuit was filed.
on tolerance totalitarians and the Confederate flag mentioned
a 23-year old employee fired by Kodak for protesting the
company’s homosexual-friendly policies; the sentence should have
read: "as Kodak did recently with a 23-year long employee."
I am grateful to those readers who drew my attention to the error.
Yates [send him mail] has
a PhD in philosophy and is a Margaret "Peg" Rowley Fellow at
the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
He is the author of Civil
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press,
1994), and numerous articles and reviews. His new book In
Defense of Logic will be completed shortly. He is beginning work
on a new book to be entitled The Twilight of Materialism,
and is also at work on a sci-fi novel tentatively entitled Skywatcher’s
© 2003 LewRockwell.com