The liberal case against race-based affirmative action

Why Sen. James Webb is right to advocate colorblind public policy

Published August 24, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

Some time ago I attended an event in Washington, D.C., in which Virginia Sen. James Webb startled the audience by declaring: "The greatest threat that this country faces is the class system."

Recently Webb shook up the complacent establishment once again with a critique in the Wall Street Journal of race-based preferences in higher education, small business lending and other areas of public policy:

Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners. It can do so by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes.

Webb's intervention is a reminder that, from the 1970s until the mid-1990s, there was a lively debate over race-based affirmative action between integrationist or "colorblind" liberals and liberals of the "identity politics" school. Most of the liberal critics of race-based policy were pro-labor liberals and social democrats, while many of its defenders were found among neoliberals, who favored inexpensive symbols of racial progress even as they sought to deregulate the economy, slash welfare and shrink the government.

In the late 1990s, after the Clinton administration announced its affirmative action policy -- "Mend it, don't end it" -- the editors of liberal journals and other gatekeepers of progressive orthodoxy declared abruptly that the debate was over. Young progressives entering politics in the last decade may not even know that there were and are liberals who oppose race-based affirmative action and that their ranks included Bayard Rustin, who organized Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington. (Rustin was a gay black social democrat; so much for the claim that only conservative white males oppose race-based public policies.)

By the 1990s, the original justification of affirmative action as temporary compensation for black Americans for the wrongs of slavery and segregation gave way to "diversity." The diversity rationale holds that university classes and organizations must mirror, in their internal composition, the ever-changing ethnic and racial composition of society as a whole. The diversity theory is now invoked by university administrations to justify informal racial discrimination in admissions against "over-represented" Chinese- and Indian-Americans on behalf of "under-represented" Mexican-Americans. If the diversity rationale is to be taken seriously, then it should be cause for concern that Protestants, who make up 50 percent of the American population, are grossly "under-represented" on the Supreme Court, where there are now six Catholics and three Jews.

In making the rather Orwellian argument that the sequel to the anti-racist civil rights revolution needed to be a temporary or permanent era of benevolent racial discrimination, contemporary defenders of racial preferences frequently quote President Lyndon Johnson's historic commencement address of June 4, 1965, at Howard University, "To Fulfill These Rights":

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "You are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

I once asked the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who along with Richard Goodwin drafted Johnson's speech, whether these words were intended to be a manifesto for affirmative action. "Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Not," Moynihan replied, in his staccato style. "We were not talking about affirmative action. We were talking about jobs. Safe streets. Good schools. The safety net. Healthcare. Strong families."

Indeed, those goals are what Johnson goes on to propose, in a section of the speech never quoted by those who misread it as an endorsement of race-based public policy:

There is no single easy answer to all of these problems. Jobs are part of the answer. They bring the income which permits a man to provide for his family.

Decent homes in decent surroundings and a chance to learn -- an equal chance to learn -- are part of the answer.

Welfare and social programs better designed to hold families together are part of the answer.

Care for the sick is part of the answer.

In his Howard University speech, Johnson proposed that the formerly abused athlete be rehabilitated and trained so that he could later compete and win in a fair race without help. Race-based preferences, however, are the equivalent of taking the bondage-crippled athlete and, without allotting sufficient time for rehabilitation and training, permitting him to start several laps ahead of the other competitors.

To this the response of the other competitors in the race, along with most of the spectators in the stands, would be the response of most white Americans and significant numbers of nonwhite Americans to race-based preferences: "Hey, that's cheating!" (Note that the integrationist liberal argument applies with equal force against misguided proposals for "class-based" affirmative action, which would substitute a different kind of social promotion for actual skill enhancement.)

Identity politics liberals frequently claim that integrationist liberals neglect race in favor of class. But no important integrationist liberal ever doubted that a caste system is more insidious than a class system. In the era of white supremacy, the most educated, accomplished, famous black American was lower in status than the most ignorant, vicious white. The abolition of the caste system had to come first.

The question was what to do next. "Nothing" has been the answer of most conservatives. Integrationist liberals disagreed. They assumed that the black elite would do well, once the barrier of caste was removed. For the black poor, however, the barrier of class remained. Absent greater social and economic equality and mobility in the U.S., the quasi-hereditary class system would tend to perpetuate racial disparities created by slavery and segregation, even if racial discrimination and racist attitudes ceased to exist.

From this it followed that, once the caste system was dismantled, the civil rights revolution in its second stage needed to focus on class. By its very nature, however, the second stage of civil rights reform had to be race-neutral. Because most poor Americans, in absolute numbers, were and are white, most of the beneficiaries of the second-stage measures would be found among the white poor, even though poor people make up a higher proportion of the black and Latino populations. This theory of an ongoing, two-stage civil rights revolution was endorsed by Johnson in his Howard University speech:

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

"This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights" (emphasis added). Translation: The battle against the social and economic legacy of slavery and segregation, even in the absence of racism, is even more difficult and important than the abolition of formal segregation, which itself came about only after mass jailings of nonviolent protesters, murders, anti-black pogroms and church bombings.

"We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result." Observe that "equality of result" is to be brought about, not by different standards for underrepresented groups, but by the equalization of acquired "human ability" among all groups of Americans, so that individuals can compete with others on an equal basis with no need for compensatory favoritism.

In his books and speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with Johnson and Moynihan that the second phase of the civil rights revolution should be race-neutral economic reform:

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other ... Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes who have a double disability will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle. [Emphasis added]

While King distinguished between the white poor, with the single disability of poverty, and the black poor, who struggle with the double disability of still-existing prejudice and poverty, he proposed measures that would aid both groups. In the Howard speech, Johnson similarly noted that white poverty and black poverty are not necessarily alike: "For Negro poverty is not the same as white poverty."

Nevertheless, Johnson, like King, saw the solution as universal, race-neutral policies in the realms of employment, healthcare, housing and education that would benefit the poor of all races, even as they disproportionately benefited the black poor.

This approach underlay the "Freedom Budget," which A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin prepared with the aid of Leon Keyserling, the chairman of President Harry Truman's Council of Economic Advisers, and published in October 1967, with an introduction by Martin Luther King Jr. The 11 goals of the Freedom Budget, a 10-year program that would have cost around $120 billion a year in today's dollars, were all race-neutral economic policies: the abolition of poverty; guaranteed full employment; full production and high economic growth; adequate minimum wages; income parity for farmers; guaranteed incomes for those unable to work; a decent home for every family; healthcare for all; educational opportunity for all; reforms of Social Security and welfare; and equitable tax policies.

Although the conservative backlash doomed the Freedom Budget, in the last half-century the black and Latino poor, along with the white, Asian-American and American Indian poor, have been greatly helped by colorblind economic policies like Medicaid and the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit (EITC). Racial preferences at selective schools or in small business lending benefit few poor people.

If today's progressive supporters of race-based public policy were consistent, they would reject the reasoning of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson. If racial double standards are legitimate in college admissions and small business loans, then why shouldn't progressives insist that EITC wage subsidies to poor black and Latino janitors be much higher than those to equally poor non-Hispanic white and Asian-American janitors? Should poor non-Hispanic whites and poor Asian-Americans pay higher premiums for healthcare than equally poor blacks and Latinos? Should the white and Asian-American poor receive a lower minimum wage than the black and Latino poor?

Race-based affirmative action is as irrelevant to combating present-day racial discrimination as it is to reducing poverty. If an individual is the victim of racial discrimination by a restaurant, the appropriate response is the prosecution of that particular restaurant -- not ethnic quotas in the restaurant industry.

Why not both? Can't we have both something like the Freedom Budget that would benefit the black poor disproportionately but not exclusively, and race-based policies that benefit black Americans exclusively? King was ambivalent, and if he had lived, like most black leaders he might have supported both, rather than rejecting racial preferences, as his ally Rustin did.

But Rustin was right to warn that race-based affirmative action would make a social democratic coalition of black Americans and the white working class even more difficult than it would have been otherwise. Even with the immigration-induced growth of Latino and Asian numbers in the U.S., in the relevant future there cannot be a next New Deal, of the kind envisioned by King, Johnson, Rustin, Randolph and Moynihan in the 1960s, without the support of the white American majority. And the majority within the white American majority is made up of working-class women and men who do not believe that they are privileged and will never support policies that penalize them and their children in the name of compensation or diversity.

In wanting the university and the corporate boardroom to "look like America," both liberal opponents of racial preferences and their liberal supporters share a common goal. No integrationist liberal can be satisfied with a post-racist society in which, as a result of racism in the past, some groups are grossly underrepresented in higher education and high-income professions and grossly overrepresented among the poor, generation after generation. And integrationist liberals support affirmative action in the sense of greater efforts at outreach in recruitment, as distinct from formal or informal quotas determined in advance.

But race-based public policy has been a generation-long diversion from the second phase of the civil rights revolution, which remains to be fought and won.

What if, in the last 30 years, progressives had put as much passion into the campaign to turn the minimum wage into a living wage as they have put into defending racial preferences at universities? What if campus activists had channeled the energy they poured into demonstrating against insufficiently multicultural college curricula into pushing for full employment and service-sector unionization?

What if most white liberals had viewed the disproportionately Southern white poor as victims of American history along with the black poor, as King and Johnson did and as Sen. James Webb does? What if the civil rights revolution had been followed by a serious campaign to create, not the comforting appearance of an integrated society, but the reality?

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

MORE FROM Michael Lind

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Education Martin Luther King Jr.