Affirmative Reaction

Interethnic wars and the absurdity of racial classification


Recent comments by Tirso del Junco, vice chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, illuminate a looming new battle over the benefits of affirmative action. Civil rights devotees may lament this turn, yet it is an almost inevitable result of trumping individual merit with group rights.

Del Junco slashed at already fraying ties among the civil rights community by announcing there are too many African Americans working for the post office in certain cities—at the expense of Latinos. By the logic of the anti-discrimination maven, he is right. Blacks are highly overrepresented among postal workers in Los Angeles compared to their share of the population. While they are only 9.6 percent of the labor force, they make up 63 percent of postal workers. A General Accounting Office survey showed a similar situation in Chicago: Blacks, while only 18.2 percent of the available labor pool, make up 79.7 percent of postal workers. In Los Angeles, a Latino labor market presence of 34 percent translates into only 15 percent of post office jobs.

Under civil rights law, this is a prima facie case of discrimination. The 1991 Civil Rights Act cemented into law the principle, already used in practice by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that if your employee pool has a different proportion of races and ethnicities than the available labor pool, you can be liable for a discrimination suit.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that there are many reasons besides blatant discrimination to explain disproportionate ethnic or racial representation in the workplace. Affirmative action advocates tended to scoff. Now, in the face of Del Junco's fulminations, they are tendering defenses that—while valid—they have dismissed in other circumstances.

Charly Amos, the Postal Service's manager of affirmative action, points out that applicants for postal jobs go through objective written examinations. Except for military veterans, who get a slight boost, all comers are treated equally in the test grading. Amos thinks the preponderance of black postal workers in certain cities can be explained by networks of friends and community leaders who keep them informed about tests and hiring.

The actual hiring process, Amos says, leaves no play for personal bias. If postal hiring is done strictly by testable merit—and Del Junco presented no contrary evidence—then Amos's position as affirmative action manager is unnecessary. And Del Junco's plaint seems to offer no hope of resolution short of wholesale firings of blacks and replacement by Latinos.

More of this kind of intramural turf warfare is undoubtedly ahead. The logic of legal distinctions made on race demands it. Such distinctions create a zero-sum game in which different ill-defined groups fight over a finite pile of government benefits and considerations.

Those distinctions also fly in the face of individual rights and merits and equality under the law, and are particularly absurd in America. Our history of racial mixing is continuing—and accelerating. As of 1970, there were 310,000 interracial couples in the United States; in 1992, there were 1.16 million. That makes attempts to divide government spoils through racial categories essentially meaninglessand troubling.

We have not yet heard calls for an American equivalent to South Africa's Population Registration Act of 1950, the cornerstone of its hated apartheid system, which gave everyone an official racial classification at birth. But we do have the Office of Management and Budget's "Statistical Directive 15" governing the federal government's data about citizens' race and ethnicity.

Making racial judgments "official" only stands to reason; controversies have already arisen about "phony" racial classification, the most famous being the 1988 case of the Malone twins, firefighters of Irish descent who were fired after it was discovered they had passed an entrance exam only under the laxer requirements for blacks.(They claimed an old sepia-toned photograph of their great-grandmother made her look black to them.)

Though the Malones lost, their logic was impeccable according to the traditional American definition of blackness. The "one drop of black blood" tradition—a leftover from Jim Crow—is still alive today, both in society and government. As Yehudi Webster, a sociologist quoted in a recent New Yorker article on race, put it: "It is not 'race' but a practice of racial classification that bedevils the society."

The divisive practice of thinking of individuals as representatives of "races" won't disappear, even after generations of intermarriage and assimilation, so long as government policies distribute benefits based on self-definition as an aggrieved minority. Race in America is largely a contentless phantasm, based on regressive attitudes both old (the "one drop" rule) and new (the concept of the unified Hispanic ethnicity). But that phantasm, and the resentments and turf wars it creates, will continue to haunt us at least as long as government civil rights policy continues to treat it as significant and real.