Affirmative Discrimination; The Inequality Controversy


Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy, by Nathan Glazer, New York: Basic Books, 1975, 248 pp., $10.95.

The Inequality Controversy: Schooling and Distributive Justice, edited by Donald M. Levine and Mary Jo Bane, New York: Basic Books, 1975, 338 pp., $6.95 (pb).

One of the most insidious developments in recent political thought has been the twisting of the once-honorable term "equality" into the most potent ideological tool available to liberals and radicals. The cry for equality has become one at which almost every knee bends. Both Affirmative Discrimination and The Inequality Controversy illustrate in different ways the extent to which the search for equality has become a grotesque parody of a once-important quest.

Since education was the primary strategy by which modern liberals hoped to achieve equality, it is fitting that both works are by professors of education. (Glazer is a sociologist of some reputation whose academic appointment is in the Harvard School of Education.) Both books are concerned with reaction to what is commonly believed to be the failure of that strategy.

Most leftist opinion has come to be that mere removing of artificial barriers and providing of education does not sufficiently reduce differences of education and income between various ethnic groups. Government has therefore been goaded into responding with various requirements of "affirmative action" to reduce such differences. Glazer's book is an attempt to show that even on his liberal view these programs have themselves become unjust. The Inequality Controversy is a collection of articles intended to illuminate the debate surrounding the book Inequality, by Christopher Jencks and others, in which Jencks claimed to show that neither education nor family background sufficiently influences income to account for inequalities thereof.

Jencks's avowed purpose was to show that only socialism—forced redistribution—could bring about equality. Thus, while it is not always clear in the debate, the Inequality controversy is partly about whether unadorned force must be recognized as the only way to bring about equality. To radicals, this is an exhilarating thesis because it shows the old institutions are so corrupt that force (not necessarily revolution) could extract justice from them. (Besides, force is the core of their political addiction, so this thesis is a straight shot of what attracts them to politics to begin with.) To libertarians, this thesis will seem more an admission than an assertion, more a demonstration that the kind of equality sought is a false ideal than a call to further excesses under its banner.

Since the left has so increasingly and effectively raised equality as an ideal in recent years, it may enhance discussion of these books to begin by stating a few basic truths about equality as a political ideal. In both books there is reference to the passage from the Declaration of Independence that states, as a self-evident truth, "that all men are created equal." Understanding the Lockean antecedents of this claim can illuminate the departure from the principles of Locke and the Declaration in modern cries for equality.

When Locke asserts that the state of nature is a state of equality he intends to assert neither that human beings are equal in abilities nor that they would be equal in possessions in a state of nature. What he does intend is to deny that long philosophical tradition stemming from Plato and Aristotle that contends that some persons are by nature fit, and therefore authorized, to rule others.

In Locke's time the politically important aspect of this was the denial of the claims of divine-right monarchists and supporters of the rights of aristocracy. The important point to which Locke wishes to call attention is that no human being by nature is authorized to direct the life of any other human being. To say then that human beings are equal, in this context, is simply to say that none has by nature legitimate authority over others. Each is in the position of having the right to direct his or her own life. Taken in this sense equality is an important part of the total defense of liberty and is a respectable and helpful political concept.

Following the Lockean strain one step further enables us to introduce the term so crucial to the Glazer book—"discrimination." In Locke's view, equal persons band together to form a civil government in order to protect their equal rights. Each enters the government then as an equal, that is, each enters as a person having the same status as any other before the laws of that government, because each has entered with the same rights to protect. Thus, all stand equal before the law.

The reason for government is the protection of rights. Thus any government that denies equal protection of rights on the basis of some quality irrelevant to rights, such as race or sex, would commit a manifest injustice. Its action would discriminate between persons where there is no difference of rights or desert. This would be unjust discrimination. But all of this applies to governmental action. None of this implies that in private matters anyone can legitimately force others to ignore any factor whatever in making decisions.

It is also important to notice here that neither in the elimination of discrimination nor in the recognition of equality as a political ideal is there any expectation that persons will have equal or even nearly equal holdings in property or in any other measure of success in life. Nor is there any expectation that any particular group will distribute itself through occupational, educational, or residential positions in any particular pattern. In fact, this ideal is based on the notion of equality among individuals in their equal right to direct their own lives. There is no question of this ideal applying to groups. It is pointless to apply it to groups for it applies to each individual irrespective of group. Thus, a legitimate government under this view of equality would not take the group status of individuals into account. The status of individuals would be secure in the guarantee of rights, and no discrimination according to group would need to be made.

With these remarks in mind, let us examine the book Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy by Nathan Glazer. It is primarily an examination and criticism of recent government policies in regard to discrimination in employment and residential location and to school desegregation. Glazer's thesis is that by the mid-sixties the nation had reached a sort of consensus as to how to respond to the varied ethnic backgrounds of its citizens but that it almost immediately began to move in a direction breaking that consensus and leading to a period of extreme controversy and ill-will.

In an introductory chapter on the emergence of an American ethnic pattern Glazer describes at some length the consensus he believes had been reached. Much of that chapter is murky and unhelpful, but the heart of his view of this supposed consensus seems to be that the government was not to take into account the race, creed, color, or national origin of persons in determining their status in the various relationships they have with the government. His complaint is that the policies of the early seventies move in exactly the opposite direction. The government has undertaken to categorize and catalog citizens into racial and ethnic groups and to keep statistics on the distribution of those groups in all facets of life in order to enforce policies designed to lead to the attainment of stated distributions of persons of various ethnic backgrounds in various activities.

The book is concerned to illustrate this general complaint in the case of three controversial areas: affirmative action in employment and residential locations and busing to achieve school segregation. Glazer does a good job of illustrating and demonstrating the idiocy of these various government programs. Readers of REASON will surely not need to have repeated to them the various absurdities of the programs, since they will on the whole have already been obvious. One should not completely overlook, however, the fact that Glazer has shown considerable clearness of head in regard to these particular issues and considerable courage, given his own political convictions, in speaking the truth as he sees it on these issues, which for a liberal are very touchy and difficult ones. Nonetheless, in spite of these virtues, the overall judgment of Glazer's book is more complex.

Simply stated, the problem is this: Glazer does not have at his command an adequate political philosophy to allow him to make a thorough argument against policies that he himself sees are tending in the wrong direction. One very revealing quotation illuminates the basic difficulty with Glazer's position.

If the conditions of the black population can be improved by these [affirmative action] programs then undoubtedly that would be the best reason for them. For me no consideration of principle—such as that merit should be rewarded or that government groups should not discriminate on grounds of race or ethnic group—would stand in the way of a program of preferential hiring if it made some substantial progress in reducing the severe problems of the low income black population and of the inner cities. (p. 73.)

He goes on to say that it is his doubts concerning the efficacy of such programs that lead him to take his objections as seriously as he does.

Note the totally self-defeating nature of Glazer's actual position. No issue of principle as to how political organizations are to be governed will stand in the way of what he has made for himself an overriding goal—the help of blacks and inner-city residents. This has become a political first principle. Notice that he is then left without any solid objection to the programs he wishes to criticize and can, in fact, only argue statistics. He must debate who is doing how well and who is likely to do how well when this or that is done.

If no question of principle, even one as strong as not discriminating on grounds of race or ethnic groups, could stop Glazer from approving of programs if they really help the blacks, how about going a little further? Suppose it would help the blacks if each black had one white slave. Why not allow that in order to alleviate their condition? On Glazer's avowed stance there is no way to deny it, if it really would help.

But to suppose that such questions as "Would discriminating in favor of blacks improve their economic condition by such and such amount?" actually can be answered in a precise and careful way by the research of social scientists is very optimistic indeed. (One need only refer to much of the data in The Inequality Controversy to see this.) This is not to deny that Glazer makes some interesting points. He does a very good job of outlining some of the mistaken reasoning that has gone into judicial orders for busing of school children. His discussion of debates between zoning commissions and advocates of enforced racial integration of housing are deliciously ironic, for the statists are caught in their own web of zoning. In a number of instances local zoning ordinances have been a primary bulwark against liberal housing integrationists.

Glazer also does a very good job of showing the change that has occurred as "discrimination" has been changed from a legal to a sociological concept. In a legal framework discrimination could be shown only by proving that particular acts had occurred. Now even the courts sanction a statistical use of the term. An unacceptable (to the government) percentage of persons of some group in some position is, in and of itself, evidence of discrimination. Glazer on several occasions points out clearly how this thinking ignores the function of individual choices that influence occupations and residential locations.

Nonetheless, Glazer's book is of only limited usefulness to anyone seriously interested in current debates over the government's affirmative action programs. The book cannot be helpful to those who do not share Glazer's particular infatuation with aiding blacks and inner-city dwellers (a charitable assumption is that inclusion only of the latter in the cited quotation is simply a stylistic matter, for Glazer gives every indication in other passages of being concerned also about American Indians, women, Chicanos, left-handed Lithuanians, etc.).

To be sure, Glazer's book is worth reading if one wants some statistical data organized in an easily readable manner and if one wants some legislative history on the issues involved. At the level of principle, however, which most always comes first in debates over such issues, Glazer has thrown in the towel before beginning. Although much of his book is written in the tone of a steadfast moral debate, he can only discuss whether particular lines of action, which many would find to be decidedly immoral, are in fact conducive to the attainment of certain ends. In the view of Glazer, and of those he is criticizing, these ends are to override matters of moral principle.

In order to appreciate Glazer as one of his kind, however, one need only turn to The Inequality Controversy: Schooling and Distributive Justice, edited by two professors of education, Donald Levine and Mary Jo Bane. The book is introduced by the two editors and is divided into four sections of essays. One group is concerned with the relation between education and equality, one with that between education and income, and one with what the authors call "some of the philosophical questions that lie at the heart of the controversy about [Jencks's] Inequality. The fourth section consists of articles by each of the editors on the questions at issue. The contributors are with two exceptions social scientists, with economists most heavily represented. The exceptions are philosophers Robert Nozick and John Rawls, from whose recent books selections are presented in the section on philosophical issues.

It would be impossible, even if I were so inclined, to comment here on each essay in the book. To do so is not necessary in any case, since those who are interested in the machinations of contemporary social science will want the detail to be gained from reading the essays themselves. For the rest of us the lessons to be learned from the book are lessons about the ideological bias of most contemporary social science and its resulting inability to come to grips with the moral component of social issues.

Once a supposed commitment to empiricism allows one to reduce the discussion of social policies to surveys, graphs, and charts, one is left little choice but to assume some set of goals to be sought and then to argue whether particular policies lead to the correct outcomes. This leaves one unable to engage in genuine moral debate, freezing one into a utilitarian model of policies to reach goals. It locks into the goal-policy-outcome framework issues about the basic morality of institutions, which I would argue must be answered with principles of process.

The real social questions are whether the positions of individuals are determined in ways compatible with their rights. These are questions of legitimate procedures and whether those procedures were followed in actual historical situations. No particular outcomes are sought or are to be expected. Thus nothing follows from a particular configuration of incomes, for example. But if one starts with the goal-policy-outcome model and assumes that the goals are arbitrary anyway, then anyone with the process view cannot even join the issue.

This fact is perfectly illustrated by the way the editors don't quite know how to introduce the Nozick selection and then ignore it in the concluding essay, which takes Rawls very seriously. They just really don't know what to make of Nozick. But he is from Harvard and did win a National Book Award, so they include a selection from his theory of justice. Interestingly enough, they do not include his very good discussion of equality as a political ideal.

A review of these two books together can appropriately conclude on this point. The Inequality Controversy illustrates the kind of goal-policy-outcome thinking that has led to the result-oriented racial-quota programs Glazer deplores. But Glazer himself is caught in this same nexus of ideas and so cannot fully argue against them. To do so requires a philosophical step beyond the moral skepticism and policy analysis of statist social science.

Charles King is professor of philosophy at Pomona College.