Monday, July 20, 2009

The End of Affirmative Action

Ross Douthat tries to make the case that we don’t need affirmative action any more.

Whither affirmative action in an age of America’s first black president? Will it be gradually phased out, as the Supreme Court’s conservatives seem to prefer? Or will it endure well into this century and beyond?

To affirmative action’s defenders, Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings have been an advertisement for the latter course. Here you have a Hispanic woman being grilled by a collection of senators who embody, quite literally, the white male power structure. Her chief Republican interlocutor, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, even has a history of racially charged remarks.

But the senators are yesterday’s men. The America of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is swiftly giving way to the America of Sonia Maria Sotomayor and Barack Hussein Obama.

The nation’s largest states, Texas and California, already have “minority” majorities. By 2023, if current demographic trends continue, nonwhites — black, Hispanic and Asian — will constitute a majority of Americans under 18. By 2042, they’ll constitute a national majority. As Hua Hsu noted earlier this year in The Atlantic, “every child born in the United States from here on out will belong to the first post-white generation.”

As this generation rises, race-based discrimination needs to go. The explicit scale-tipping in college admissions should give way to class-based affirmative action; the de facto racial preferences required of employers by anti-discrimination law should disappear.

The problem with that is that just because a minority is now a majority, it doesn’t mean they have the power. Lest we forget, fifty years ago the states that made up the Confederacy had a majority population of African Americans, and yet they were still powerless either by law or by tradition. It doesn’t matter who has the numbers; it’s who holds the reins. As long as senators like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III can sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee and basically ask Sonia Sotomayor where she gets the gall to be so uppity as to assume that her world view and experience as a Latina or as a woman make her as qualified to sit on the Supreme Court as your average white patriarch, race and gender will be a factor in the American discourse.

Mr. Douthat expects affirmative action to fade away just because Barack Obama has been elected president. I chalk that sentiment up to his youthful optimism and the fact that since he was born in 1979, he has no recollection of what life was like in America when racism was so ingrained in American society that very few people gave it a second thought. I’m not talking about segregated schools and “white” and “colored” rest rooms and drinking fountains in courthouses and train stations; I’m talking about corporate America that put programs like Amos ‘n’ Andy on CBS, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben on the kitchen table, and Sambo’s restaurants on the interstate rest stops. The very idea of a white man kissing a black woman on an episode of Star Trek had NBC’s Standards and Practices office so worried that they made sure that the storyline made it show that it was done under duress. Segregation and discrimination may have been championed by George Wallace in Alabama in 1962, but it was practiced silently and politely in every element in America, and in every state in the union.

Mr. Douthat thinks that keeping affirmative action will breed resentment and corruption.

If affirmative action exists in the America of 2028, it will be as a spoils system for the already-successful, a patronage machine for politicians — and a source of permanent grievance among America’s shrinking white population.

You can see this landscape taking shape in academia, where the quest for diversity is already as likely to benefit the children of high-achieving recent immigrants as the descendants of slaves. You can see it in the backroom dealing revealed by Ricci v. DeStefano, where the original decision to deny promotions to white firefighters was heavily influenced by a local African-American “kingmaker” with a direct line to New Haven’s mayor. You can hear it in the resentments gathering on the rightward reaches of the talk-radio dial.

The people who resent affirmative action the most are the ones who never needed it or don’t remember a time when it was needed.

Affirmative action isn’t perfect. Every system designed to try to shift the culture and advance our society can fall prey to resentment and corruption. But so far no one has come up with a solution that is better. It may not be fair to some people, but, as John F. Kennedy noted, life isn’t fair, and the people who have been treated with institutional unfairness, be they black, brown, red, or LGBT, can speak to the efficacy of letting the system balance out on its own. In the end, it would have been a lot better if we had never needed it in the first place.