Civil Rights

Racial Blind Spots

The affirmative action path not taken.


The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action, by Terry H. Anderson, New York: Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $35

Affirmative Action Around the World, by Thomas Sowell, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 239 pages, $28

I'm not against affirmative action.

There, I said it. I've closely followed the debate about race and sex preferences in college admissions, public employment, and government contracting. I've written about it, published work from many of the leading opponents of preferences, and hosted events and forums with them. I think the U.S. Supreme Court's recent muddled decisions about preferences at the University of Michigan's undergraduate program and its law school were incoherent and harmful.

Yet I just don't agree with many politicians, writers, lawyers, and think tankers on the right who equate their opposition to government affirmative action with adherence to the rigid principle that racial and ethnic groups exhibit no important differences and merit no differential consideration or treatment at any time by anyone. In my view, while perpetuating stereotypes is unfair and our modern racial fixations are unwise, it is foolish to pretend that racial and ethnic groups don't exist or don't exhibit distinct and informative patterns of consumption, aspiration, and aesthetic preference.

In everyday life, most of us don't make that mistake. Private companies spend a lot of time and money gathering data on who is buying what and in what neighborhood, and they make key decisions with this information. I once read that Koreans were many times more likely than any other ethnic group to purchase Spam, a fact obviously of interest to the manufacturer and to grocers, and possibly to trivia buffs and would-be Monty Python lyricists. It's not obvious that we should worry about this, or about the fact that certain ethnic groups are "overrepresented" in industries such as restaurants or, ahem, solid waste disposal, or even that private individuals and institutions seek to use race-conscious remedies to address such social problems as teenage pregnancy, high school dropouts, financial literacy, or various vestiges of racism or other bigotry.

On that last point, in other words, I think there may be good reasons for me to engage in race-conscious affirmative action. The key distinction involves agency. Government institutions are purportedly "owned" by all of us and at least can be said formally to represent all citizens. Thus they have no business adopting policies that discriminate--regardless of whether they are designed to advance or to redress bigotry--unless those policies are narrowly tailored to the needs of specific jobs, slots, or contracts. (As Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute once put it, it's OK for fire departments to turn down wheelchair-bound applicants for the job of fighting fires but not for the job of dispatching the firefighters.) Private actors, on the other hand, should enjoy the latitude to associate or disassociate with others in a free society, even if they do so for reasons most of us would find repugnant.

In The Pursuit of Fairness, Texas A&M historian Terry Anderson has produced what he calls "a balanced history of affirmative action" in the United States; it bills itself as an authoritative account of the rise of anti-discrimination and racial-preference policies. But in his view, folks like Barry Goldwater, whose views were similar to mine, played no role in that history. To Anderson, the debate he needed to portray fairly has two sides: 1) those who believe that affirmative action, in the form of race or sex preferences, is still necessary to ensure "fairness"; and 2) those who believe this form of affirmative action, though once indispensable, has outlived its usefulness. Both sides cite federal laws and the rhetoric of civil rights activists to defend their position, be it the modern conservative commitment to legally enforced colorblindness or the modern liberal belief that, in the words of former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, "to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently."

Anderson describes well the confusions and inanities that stem from federal litigation, and he grapples with the problem of defining race in our modern, polychromatic society. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be familiar with some important literature on the subject. For instance, he claims the 1950s economy "was booming" but "not for minorities," and that only after federal legislation was passed did blacks and other protected groups begin to make significant economic progress. In fact, black Americans were making strong gains long before Washington got into the anti-discrimination business in the mid-1960s. To cite one indicator, racial gaps in the average number of years of formal schooling shrank significantly during the 1940s, '50s, and early '60s (though the quality of such schooling remained unequal). More to the point, the share of black families living below the poverty line shrank from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960. Of course, it would decline further in subsequent decades, but the point is that the trend was already there--a trend that in large measure reflected the hard work and commitment of generations of black Americans determined to improve their lot against tremendous odds.

Furthermore, despite its sheen of evenhandedness, The Pursuit of Fairness exhibits a statist tilt in its choice of sources. The book contains quotes from both proponents and opponents of 1960s federal civil rights legislation and 1970s affirmative action policies. But is it really "balance" to contrast the noble aspirations of civil rights leaders with the racist mutterings of demagogues such as Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo and Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor? That scarcely exhausts the breadth of the civil rights debate, which has included many other voices that do not easily harmonize with either the Great Society Chorus or the Dixiecrat-Land Band.

Which brings us back to Barry Goldwater, and to the path not taken. Goldwater--who helped desegregate the Arizona Air National Guard two years before Truman desegregated the Army, helped desegregate the Phoenix public schools a year before Brown v. Board of Education, and voted for federal civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960--staked out a brave but subsequently misconstrued libertarian objection to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Having federal laws interfere with private decisions in the workplace, he argued, violated the Constitution, no matter how offensive those decisions might be. Anderson apparently misunderstands Goldwater's argument, since he offers as a rebuttal the assertion that the law did not require quotas. Goldwater was not merely saying that the federal government shouldn't replace anti-black discrimination with anti-white discrimination. He was saying that the federal government shouldn't police private discrimination in the first place.

Rather than assuming that decades of bigotry and malign discrimination--much of it at the behest of governments, a point Anderson barely mentions--should be redressed by decades of pretense and benign discrimination, again at the behest of governments, Washington should have focused its attention on rooting out racist policies in federal employment, education, and contracting, while ensuring under the 14th Amendment that state and local governments did the same. Instead, it turned private bigotry into a federal crime.

I'm not denying that some racist voters heard Goldwater's message as congenial (or even that some of Goldwater's political strategists welcomed that interpretation). But Goldwater and other principled opponents of both racism and government intervention were part of the original debate. We'll never know if a President Goldwater would both have resisted federal intrusion into private decisions and fought against racism and other bigotries. But such an approach was, and remains, consistent, in part because private discrimination can itself be both legal and actively resisted by principled and self-interested individuals.

Racial discrimination isn't just costly to the victim. It imposes costs on the perpetrator. When an employer won't hire qualified workers because of his bigotry against racial minorities, women, or some other group, he reduces his chances of recruiting the most skilled and productive work force. That translates into lower profits. Similarly, private companies that won't sell to blacks, or won't take the same risk for blacks seeking loans or insurance that they will for white applicants, tend to lose business. In yet another telling omission, Anderson fails to acknowledge the work of Nobel laureate Gary Becker and other economists on the role of profit in disciplining racist decisions within competitive markets for labor or capital. Their argument is not that such decisions are never made but that they are punished financially through fewer sales and lower productivity.

Becker first made this point in his 1957 book The Economics of Discrimination, when he cited data showing that work force integration appeared to be lower in closely regulated industries than in less-regulated ones. (Since regulated industries do not face the same competitive pressures as unregulated industries, they have more freedom to indulge the owners' prejudices.) Later research showed that deregulation of trucking and banking in the 1970s and '80s was accompanied by a noticeable reduction in the wage gap between blacks and whites in those industries.

Nor does Anderson correctly interpret the economic data he does include in The Pursuit of Fairness, such as a decline during the 1950s in black self-employment and black-owned businesses. He treats this as evidence of the worsening condition of blacks before the advent of the civil rights movement. Actually, it shows the effects of an increasing willingness of white businesses to sell to and employ blacks, who were becoming less likely to be confined to segregated businesses for their economic opportunities.

Anderson's book is useful if you need a blow-by-blow account of congressional legislation, presidential directives, or Supreme Court decisions about affirmative action during the last 60 years. But it does little to elucidate the real public policy implications of government intervention in this area, and it advances the paternalistic notion that until the enlightened feds came along blacks remained little more than passive victims of social forces entirely beyond their control or ability to resist.

The economist Thomas Sowell's name appears in Anderson's book only twice, and in each case the reference is a fleeting one containing nary a word about Sowell's prodigious studies of the real consequences of affirmative action policies in the U.S. and around the world. As it happens, Sowell has a new book out too, with the not-so-creative title Affirmative Action Around the World. It is a brilliant analysis, chock-full of pathbreaking research and penetrating insights. I'm sure it will be read widely by folks interested in this critical and controversial issue. Someday it may even be read by practicing historians.

"The empirical evidence is clear that most blacks got themselves out of poverty in the decades preceding the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and the beginning of affirmative action in the 1970s," Sowell writes. "Yet the political misrepresentation of what happened--by leaders and friends of blacks--has been so pervasive that this achievement has been completely submerged in the public consciousness. Instead of gaining the respect that other groups have gained by lifting themselves out of poverty, blacks are widely seen…as owing their advancement to government beneficence."

Sowell's new book offers much more to chew on than Anderson's, primarily by refusing to confine his account of affirmative action policy to the United States. Race is said to be "the American dilemma," most often by Americans. In fact, it vexes policy makers around the globe. In many places, preferential policies have produced not equality and comity but frustration and violence, as was the case in Sri Lanka, a formerly peaceful country where wrongheaded policies instituted in the mid-20th century stoked animosities that erupted into decades of deadly civil war. Meanwhile, minority groups with little political clout or formal civil rights, such as the Chinese in Malaysia or Lebanese in Africa, often outperform native populations on economic and social measures.

Indeed, as Sowell observes (and Anderson again ignores), the impressive accomplishments of Chinese, Japanese, West Indian, and other minorities in the United States during the 20th century make no sense if you assume that progress requires political power or that nonwhites can't do well on "white" tests or in "white" culture. Sowell's account may be inconsistent with how politicians and civil rights veterans tell the story--we came, we saw, we legislated--but it has the virtue of fitting the available facts.

So does Sowell's perception of what to do now, given that the U.S. Supreme Court has in recent college admissions cases signaled a willingness to let public universities take race into account for reasons of "diversity" but also an unwillingness to countenance an explicit or permanent commitment to preferences. Elsewhere, though not in Affirmative Action Around the World, Sowell argues both for a negative agenda (dismantling preferences over time, perhaps starting with college admissions, contracting, and other policies that clearly benefit the relatively well-off among favored groups) and a positive agenda of expanding opportunity through school choice, deregulation, and tax reduction.

In a free society, we get to form our own beliefs about race, ethnicity, sex, ability, and opportunities. Equally important, we get to learn from the mistakes of others. Imagine how much better it would have been if, years ago, some colleges had freely chosen to use race-conscious policies to redress past discrimination, or pursue "diversity" for its own sake, while other colleges had chosen a colorblind commitment to academic rigor. Viewing the results of such experimentation today, we'd all be able to draw our own conclusions and act accordingly. Instead, policy makers have yanked America from one pole to the other and back again. It has been exhausting, but not particularly edifying.