One of the great ironies of life at a modern university is the de facto racial segregation one often observes. After so many years of work aimed at dispelling the ³separate but equal² idea and eliminating racial prejudice, we have officially-sanctioned clubs, student centers, and even dorms in such places as Stanford, all intended for various particular races. The resulting fragmentation is actually applauded by many academics who would much rather see America split into warring racial enclaves than bound together as of old.
Nonetheless, the political climate is changing, even for academics. In late July, the PC Establishment received a rude shock when the University of California system (of all places) voted to scrap any and all race-based scholarships, admission standards, quotas, ³goals² (i.e., quotas), policies, privileges, etc. In other words, the UC system is now colorblind.
That decision and the predictable attacks that followed were not the first shots fired in the affirmative-action battle. The California Civil Rights Initiative drive ‹ for the same colorblind goals ‹ was already in progress, and Pete ³Weather-vane² Wilson had already declared opposition to affirmative action. The President, no mean weather-vane himself, declared support for affirmative action around the same time.
As usual, Clinton was wrong. Strictly speaking, affirmative action means active and aggressive recruiting of minorities (except Asians) for college and jobs. Supporters claim we must do this to have a level playing field, or to remedy past injustice, or to break up what they see as a racist, white-supremacist chokehold on America. (Where they get that idea for universities is beyond me, but then the latter sort also tend to favor enforced quotas, racial gerrymandering, D.C. statehood, Willie Brown, etc.)
The problem is that affirmative action has not led to a colorblind society and that it will never do so. For some of its defenders, this is not a problem at all because colorblindness is not their ideal. They see civil-rights law as a means of vengeance upon whites, or of advancing non-whites at whites¹ expense, or of keeping different races separated and suspicious. They tend to believe that only whites can be racist (since only we have ³institutional power²), that only Hispanics can represent Hispanics, and even that minorities who disagree with them are somehow ³white inside² a la Clarence Thomas. I see these beliefs as self-evidently vile.
But what if the goal is merely fairness, a fair chance for all, making sure everyone gets to the starting gate before the race? What if the goal is to build a better future for all Americans via education and work experience, or to bring different races together in peace and understanding? Can¹t affirmative action help bring these about?
In short, no. First, affirmative action as defined above inevitably leads to open discrimination against whites, and in some cases, Asians. Based on the principle that special assistance to minorities is necessary and good, it opens the doors to more ³assistance²: race-variable standards, set-asides, hiring quotas, and enforced ³equal results,² rather than equal opportunity. Quota supporters will shove those doors wide open and stampede through, just as they did with the expressly colorblind Civil Rights Act of 1964. (For an excellent survey on that topic, see National Review , 20 March 1995.)
But even if affirmative action did not lead to quotas, it is based on the same false principle as they: that we can fight racial discrimination by discriminating based on race. It does not level the playing field; it further distorts it. It implies that minorities cannot make it without special, active assistance. (I would find this rather insulting.) It fosters mistrust and suspicion, as blacks and whites alike wonder who truly deserved a position and who was mere quota filler.
Discrimination, then, is the root of the trouble. As a child in Hawaii, I was once told by some native Hawaiian kids to get off the playground because whites weren¹t allowed there. The injustice struck me fully even at 7. It imbued me with the deep conviction that racial discrimination is wrong, period, no matter which race perpetrates it, no matter for what reason.
If we truly want racial harmony, then we must return to the ideal of colorblindness. Each American should be held responsible for his own welfare and judged by fair, universal, objective standards of performance. (Can you perform an appendectomy? Design a bridge that does not collapse? Write the next version of Windows-X? Keep your word? Sing an aria with the proper pitch, vibrato, and timbre? Rewire a house? Spell ³infinitesimal²? Etc.)
If all official racial discrimination is ended and everyone runs the same obstacle course, then merit, not race, will decide the results. The fuel for much of today¹s bitter racial division will be cut off, as there will be no race-based privileges to resent. Firms who turn away competent applicants due to race will soon be ex-firms. (Where would the Chicago Bulls be if they had rejected Michael Jordan because he was black? How many white folks refuse to watch the Bulls¹ black players?)
In the end, racial discrimination will not solve the problem. It is the problem. Only by its eradication can we strive for racial harmony, trust, and peace, in a world where people are judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. To that end, affirmative action must die.
John Keisling, a Ph. D. candidate in mathematics, is both literally and figuratively colorblind. His column appears every Wednesday.
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