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The Diversity Scam

By Michael Lind
Whitehead Senior Fellow

The New Leader
July 1, 2000

During the Democratic Presidential primary campaign, Vice President Al Gore, addressing the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in San Diego, told the assembled business executives and investors, "Affirmative action is really good for our country." He promised to fight for racial preference policies that discriminate in favor of American citizens of Latin American descent-at the expense, though Gore did not say so, of Americans of European and Asian descent. His affluent Latino listeners rose to their feet in a standing ovation.

The imminent replacement of African Americans by Latinos as the largest officially-defined "minority" in the United States promises to change the nature of the debate about racial preference policies, better known by the euphemism of "affirmative action." For a generation after the Civil Rights Revolution, supporters of racial preferences in college admissions, hiring, business set-asides, and Congressional redistricting could claim that these represented a form of compensation for the injustices blacks or their ancestors had suffered in the eras of slavery and segregation. No such argument can be made for Latino citizens. The majority of them in California today were born abroad, mostly in Mexico. Only a minority of Latino Americans can claim ancestors who suffered de facto discrimination in the United States in the pre-Civil Rights era. (Unlike blacks and Asian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the tiny number of Latinos in the white-supremacist U.S. almost never were victims of de jure discrimination.)

Why, then, should post-1965 immigrants from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America have the right to get into selective colleges with lower test scores than their white and Asian-American competitors, and also have Congressional districts drawn in their favor? The educational and income disparities between Latinos and whites reflect the characteristics of the immigrants who tend to be poor, from backward countries, with little or no knowledge of English-rather than discrimination encountered in the U.S. The Ku Klux Klan is not forcing Mexican-American high school students to do relatively poorly on college entrance exams.

Despite the history of harsh anti-Asian discrimination in the United States, Asian-American students do better than Latinos-and better on average than old-stock white Americans. To their discredit, liberal judges and college admissions officers have seen to it that "Asian and Pacific Islanders" do not belong to a "protected category" for purposes of racial favoritism. In 1997, the last year affirmative action was practiced at the University of California's Berkeley campus, 1,266 Latinos, 562 blacks, 2,911 whites and 2,925 Asians were accepted; in 1999,741 Latinos, 276 blacks, 3,018 whites and 3,196 Asians were accepted. As the statistics demonstrate, a significant number of Asian-American and white applicants had previously lost their places to less qualified Latinos and African Americans.

Many countries have discriminated against immigrants in favor of native citizens. To my knowledge, the United States, thanks to the system created in the 1970s and defended today by the Democratic Party, is the first government in history to engage in racial discrimination against some native citizens on behalf of some (but not all) immigrants. It is no coincidence that the greatest rebellions against affirmative action have taken place in three states-California, Florida and Texas-where the unspoken issue is not preferences for blacks but ever-expanding quotas in schools, jobs, government contracts, and Congressional seats for recent immigrants from Latin America and their children. In areas of high Latino immigration, affirmative action is polarizing "Latinos" and "Anglos" who might otherwise be political allies. Is this what Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Revolution had in mind?

The idea of racial quotas is an old one that originated with 19th-century black nationalists. In 1871, Frederick Douglass described the radical black nationalist Martin Delany's demand for quotas in government jobs as "absurd." In an open letter to Delany, Douglass wrote:

"According to the census, the colored people of the country constitute one-eighth of the whole American people. Upon your statistical principle, the colored people of the United States ought, therefore, not only to hold one-eighth of all offices in the country, but they should own one-eighth of all the property, and pay one-eighth of all the taxes of the country.... They should constitute one-eighth of the poets, statesmen, scholars, authors, and philosophers of the country.... The Negro should edit just one-eighth of all the books written and printed in the United States; and, in a word, be one-eighth in everything. Now, my old friend, there is no man in the United States who knows better than you do that equality of numbers has nothing to do with equality of attainments"

A century after Douglass dismissed the idea, racial quotas became the primary-for all practical purposes, the sole-policy supported by liberals in the name of "civil rights." The black civil rights leaders of the 1950s and '60s were divided between radicals like James Farmer, who supported quotas, and liberals like Bayard Rustin, who rejected them in favor of a coalition between blacks and the white working class. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. called for a race-neutral Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged: "While Negroes form the vast majority of America's disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill.... It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the white poor."

It was only in the late 1960s and early '70s that racial preference policies were extended to "Hispanics" now called "Latinos." (That Orwellian Newspeak term was invented by white Federal bureaucrats, although it has been adopted by the emergent Latino racial-preference lobby; most Latinos think of themselves primarily in terms of different nationalities-Mexican-American, Cuban-American, and so on.) The number of citizens of Latin American descent in the United States then was small. But the replacement of America's white-supremacist immigration system, based on family reunification, soon resulted in an escalation of immigration from Latin America, led by Mexicans.

As newcomers began to compose an ever-growing percentage of the Latino population, it became clear that the "historical injustice" rationale for racial preferences in their favor was absurd (to say nothing of insulting to black Americans). Liberals therefore redefined the purpose of racial preference policies as "promoting diversity." Translated out of Newspeak into English, this meant government approved racial discrimination against "non-Hispanic white" Americans in college admissions, hiring and Congressional redistricting on behalf of nonwhite groups, as well as one white group-"Hispanic whites" (for as government racial classification forms remind us, Hispanics may be of any race).

The widespread adoption of the diversity rationale represented the triumph of race-conscious, class-neutral civil rights policy over the alternative of race-neutral, class-conscious civil rights policy.

In liberal discourse, "class" has quietly been excised from the "race, class, gender" combination, so that only rave and gender remain. A group of college educated professionals from different racial backgrounds is "diverse"; a group of white Americans from different social classes, however, is not "diverse."

A civil rights policy that recognizes race but not class obviously serves the interests of the small number of affluent black and Latino families whom the bi-partisan white elite of university admissions officers, foundation officers, politicians, and the media appointed as spokespersons for their respective "communities" (a euphemism for statistical categories of people sharing only a single characteristic). One-third of black Americans remain mired in poverty; a shocking seven out of 10 black Americans this year will be born to unmarried mothers. You will never find these numbers in the mainstream media, which, following the lead of elite organizations like the NAACP, declare that the greatest issues facing black Americans are racial profiling by police, the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state capital, and affirmative action in elite universities, and (now) Supreme Court clerkships.

Inner city poverty is not a problem for the black professional and intellectual elites; but their members are in genuine danger of being stopped and searched by police officers using racial profiling. The illegitimacy crisis does not touch the lives of elite black politicians and pundits, but they are justly offended by veneration of the Confederate flag. As for racial preferences in elite universities and the Supreme Court, well, it is not the children of Bedford Stuyvesant or rural Sonora who are applying.

In the early 1990s, for the first time since the 1960s, it was briefly permissible to debate the merits of race-conscious vs. race-neutral policies in liberal and Leftist journals like The New Republic, American Prospect, Dissent, and Mother Jones. Beginning around 1996, the thaw ended. One by one, proponents of race-neutral social and political reforms like Jim Sleeper have ceased to be welcomed by liberal magazines.

Simultaneously, a number of prominent liberal intellectuals who were once critical of the race-conscious orthodoxy have recanted their heretical views. Nathan Glazer and William Julius Wilson, anathematized by the Left when they criticized the quota system, have now declared that racial tokenism must be a permanent feature of American life. Nicholas Lemann, savaged a decade ago for suggesting that urban black pathologies can be traced to the rural South, has recently argued that academic tests on which blacks and Latinos do relatively poorly should be abandoned or reduced in importance.

The freeze begun in the late '90s on the intellectual Left, after the thaw of the early '90s, is not a product of new evidence supporting the defenders of racial preferences. It has to do with national politics. Bill Clinton won the Presidency in 1992 by reaching out to alienated working-class white "Reagan Democrats" and distancing himself from black radicals like Sister Souljah. Clinton stressed colorblind economic populist themes and downplayed identity politics. For two years it appeared that the Democratic Party might replace its post-1968 Rainbow Coalition strategy of demonizing non-Hispanic white males with a modernized New Deal strategy based on appealing to voters of all races as wage earners and American citizens.

The 1994 midterm election, besides reducing the Democrats to the minority party in Congress, had the ironic effect of rescuing and empowering the party's Leftwing. Many of the moderate Southern and Western Democrats of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) were replaced by Sunbelt Republican conservatives; the Left-most Democrats in Congress had the safest seats. So since 1994 the Democrats in Congress have been more dependent on white liberal, black and Latino voters than they were in the '70s and '80s.

The Clinton Administration's determination to "mend it, not end it" (racial preference policy, that is), has been one result. Another consequence of the emergence of a solid Republican white South has been to encourage Democratic strategists to write offwhite Southerners who, along with Northern white "ethnic" Catholics, were targets of an earlier liberal-populist campaign to recapture the Reagan Democrats. One leading Democratic strategist told me, "We can have a Democratic majority without the South, if we have blacks, whites in the North and the West Coast. But to get California, we have to get all the Latinos." What better way to "get all the Latinos" than to promise them perpetual preference at all income levels, as Al Gore did in San Diego a short while back?

Without attributing too much consistency to politicians, it is reasonable to infer that the actions of the Clinton Administration, and the rhetoric of Gore, are a key part of this new strategy for building a Democratic majority. Political expedience, not principle, provides the most plausible explanation as well for the recent Office of Management and Budget (0MB) decisions about how American citizens are to be racially classified by the government on the basis of census returns.

At first, the census was going to allow Americans to choose a "multi-racial" category. Then "civil rights activists" (read professional racial-preference lobbyists funded by liberal foundations) pressured the Clinton Administration into adopting the following bizarre rule: Citizens who are partly of white and partly of nonwhite ancestry will be officially assigned to the "race" of their nonwhite ancestors-no matter how few they may be. Thus someone who is fifteen-sixteenths German-American and one-sixteenth Argentine (of Italian descent) will be counted by the Federal government as a "Latino" This universalization of the old white supremacist one-drop rule (one drop of African "blood" made an otherwise European person "black") makes no sense in terms of anthropology. Nevertheless, the effect of the 0MB's ruling is to inflate the number of "official" blacks and Latinos who can be bribed into voting for Democratic Party politicians by the distribution of racial entitlements.

In promoting quotas for Latinos and African Americans, Democratic politicians have been willing not only to sanction discrimination against Asian-Americans but to sacrifice the interests of gay and lesbian Americans. Gore, who favors gay rights in general, opposes amending the Civil Rights Act to protect gay and lesbian rights. The reason was pressure from the black and Latino civil rights lobbies, which fear that the price of protecting the individual rights of homosexual citizens would be to abolish preferences for blacks and Latinos.

By contrast, Ward Conerly, the black Republican business executive and University of California regent who has campaigned against racial quotas, supports gay and lesbian rights without qualification. Connerly's conviction that individuals, not groups, should have rights, has won him denunciation from the antigay Right, while Jesse Jackson has sneered at Connerly as "strange fruit"-an old term for the victim of a lynching.

Lest you think I am too cynical in attributing the civil rights policy of the Democratic Party to electoral calculations, I should note that over the past decade I have discussed the merits of race-neutral and race-conscious reform with a number of leading white Democratic politicians and intellectuals, including President Clinton. I regret to report that not one, in private conversation, has ever defended race-conscious policies as moral or necessary for social mobility. In every case, the defense has been either an allusion to appearances-"It would look bad, if Harvard hardly had any minority students [other than Asian-Americans]" or an appeal to political expedience.

Publicly, many Democratic politicians denounce all critics of affirmative action as racists and claim to be preventing a return to the days of Bull Connor; off the record, they admit they are fishing for non-white votes. One aide to a leading House Democrat told me in a conspiratorial tone of voice, "We agree with you, but we need the black vote in the primaries." Alas, what blacks and Latinos fear is true: Often white liberals do speak differently when they are in white-only settings.

"The argument about affirmative action is over," a disconsolate liberal pundit recently told me. Indeed, for the time being, proponents of a race-neutral civil rights policy to the left of center have lost the argument-not because their reasoning isn't compelling, but because their inclusive approach to social reform does not serve the short-term interests of Democratic politicians hoping to win enough black and Latino votes to regain control of Congress. Only the loss of the Presidency between 1980 and 1992 shocked the Democratic Party into tentatively rethinking identity politics during the intellectual thaw of the early "90s. Perhaps it will take another string of sobering political defeats, or the complete dismantling of affirmative action by Republican conservatives, to force a second thaw. If and when that should occur, the elements of a-race-neutral, class-conscious liberal strategy that could replace the orthodox race-conscious, class-neutral strategy have already been identified.

A society completely unconscious of race is probably impossible to achieve. This should not prevent us from making our government completely neutral with respect to race. Racial labeling by the U.S. government should be abolished, and discrimination against individuals because of their race, even allegedly "benign" discrimination, should be outlawed. Anti-discrimination laws will continue to be necessary to help actual victims of racial discrimination-nonwhite and white alike. Shelby Steele has suggested that there should be criminal penalties for proven cases of racial discrimination. If we send people to prison for trading stocks using inside information, it is hard to see why we should not do the same with employers who are guilty of overt racism. The law would of course have to be carefully designed to prevent innocent people from being framed.

Integration, the original objective of the Civil Rights Revolution, ought to be pursued through race-neutral reforms. The legitimate goal of increasing the representation of blacks and Latinos in elite universities-pursued by means of crude tokenism until now-is best pursued by reforming K-12 education. Equalizing funding for primary schools-across states, and possibly across the nation-should be combined with strict standards for teachers and students, and some degree of parental choice. Lowering or abandoning measures of academic merit would be a catastrophe; the idea is to improve the abilities of underperforming groups, not to disguise their problem.

The legitimate desire to increase the number of black and Latino elected officials from racially polarized districts can be promoted by adopting the single-transferable vote or other methods of proportional representation (PR) in two- or three-member House districts (keeping the number of seats in a multimember district small prevents the formation of tiny splinter parties of the sort that have bedeviled countries like Israel).

Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and other black members of Congress have introduced legislation that would pave the way for the adoption of PR in elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. The move would eliminate the need for crude and coercive racial gerrymandering under the Voting Rights Act, while empowering substantial numerical minorities of all kinds-including whites where Latinos are the majority, and Latinos where whites dominate.

Residential segregation-an important subject that is all too often neglected by conventional liberals-needs to be dealt with by race-neutral, class-conscious policies too. Instead of inviting investment into inner cities, in the hope of remodeling racial reservations, the residents of ghettoes and barrios should be helped to move to the suburbs, where most Americans of all classes now live. The state governments or the Federal government ought to require every suburban development to include mixed-income housing.

All of the above reforms would help low-income blacks and Latinos disproportionately, without helping them exclusively. Measures to combat racial separation by class inevitably would also help lower-class whites, who are a majority of the nation's poor (though one would never guess that is the case from today's media). One race-neutral option that should be rejected, though, is class-based tokenism--such as the currently fashionable policy of admitting, say, the top 10 percent of graduates from inner-city and small-town high schools to selective public and private colleges. This is simply a disingenuous method of preserving tokenism for blacks and Latinos by extending preferences to a few low-income whites; it does not actually improve the academic abilities of low-income students of all races.

Neither today's unprincipled Democrats, who are committed to trading racial entitlements for Latino and black votes, nor today's complacent Republicans, who are as indifferent to class inequality as they are supportive of color-blind civil rights law, will endorse a program like the one I have outlined. Nonetheless, race-neutral, class-conscious social reform-the high road not taken between 1965 and 2000-remains the only road that leads to a genuinely integrated United States of America.

Copyright: 2000 The New Leader

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