Are we a nation of ethnic and racial groupings, or are we a nation of individuals, each unique and deserving of equal opportunity unhampered by racial or gender prejudice?
For the first two centuries of our nation’s history—indeed, for most of the world’s recorded history—the great Cult of Exclusivity held sway. More commonly known as racial supremacy, it is the misguided but potent myth that one race of people is better—more honest, more intelligent, more disciplined, more honorable—than the others. Few, if any, ethnic groups have resisted the siren call of this mythology. But for the last half century of our nation’s history a new myth has arisen which for convenience we might call the Cult of Diversity. This new cult is the flip side of the older Cult of Exclusivity: they share in common a devaluing of the individual and an irrational allegiance to tribalism and the collective. While the Cult of Diversity is less malignant and more morally palatable, it is nonetheless equally toxic to a society that is founded upon the principle that the common good is best ensured by safeguarding individual rights and aspirations. The end game for each cult is the same: to permanently Balkanize American society along tribal lines, primarily racial ones, but also lines based on other categories such as gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.
Fifty-five years ago this month, on an otherwise indistinguishable Wednesday in Washington, August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King threw down to America, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a moral gauntlet that we as a nation have yet to pick up: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Character not color, and by extension character not gender, character not ethnicity nor religion nor social nor educational status. We were far from fulfilling that dream when he spoke those words on that hot August afternoon. We are even further from it now. Fifty-five years later, few if any of our leaders on the left or right truly embrace that ideal. Fifty-five years later and we are further from that lofty goal than at any time since Jim Crow swaggered through our streets and alleyways. Race now is arguably more indelibly seared into our social consciousness than at any time since the heyday of white racism. Disturbingly, white racism still exists and has probably worsened over the last few decades, while this new liberal racialism has grown, both fighting against the old racism and unintentionally nourishing it: this slavish sentimentality toward diversity has exacerbated tensions and emboldened racists who use it as “proof” that other races and ethnicities are inferior and cannot compete on a level playing field.
When discussing the pernicious nature of Jim Crow laws, we generally focus on the intrinsic unfairness to those individuals who were deprived of the opportunity to achieve their full potential simply because of the color of their skin. But there has always been another aspect that has been far less often discussed: how discriminating against African-Americans and other minorities damaged society by preventing some of our best minds and most talented people from reaching their full potential and thereby advancing our society. This anti-progressive aspect of Jim Crow warranted greater emphasis, as does the anti-progressive aspect of diversity-at-any-cost today, which also prevents some of our best minds from improving society by reaching their potential.
Many a well-meaning, but weak thinking, liberal has argued that it is a myth that our Constitution is or even should be “color blind.” This principle was famously articulated by Justice John Harlan in his dissent in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, when he wrote that “our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Ignoring Harlan, the majority in Plessy enunciated the infamous principle of “separate but equal” accommodations for different races, spuriously arguing that as long as the accommodations were truly equal, there could be no harm. This absurd view, long since overruled, finds its modern-day advocates on the Left who insist that there exists such a thing as “benign racial preferences.” These liberals, like their racist forerunners in the Plessy ruling, refuse to see that no racial classification is ever benign. As there was nothing equal about separate but equal, there is nothing benign about benign racial preferences. Real people, real individuals, are unfairly—and unconstitutionally—denied a job or a place in a university when race is used as a criterion. Other supporters of diversity will admit that the preferences are never truly benign but insist that the present mistreatment of individuals is justifiable for the advancement of racial justice. While morally repugnant, this admission is at least consistent with the liberal inclination toward protecting groups rather than individuals.
Liberal Cognitive Dissonance
Admirably, liberals want races and genders to be treated equally but, simultaneously (and not so admirably), they seek to provide special treatment for some, thereby sharpening and institutionalizing divisions. They are like the old Stalinists who insisted that the state would eventually wither away, but in the meantime the state needed to be made stronger than ever before. This new racialism is less reprehensible than the old racism because it is not expressly founded on the unjust principle of one race being superior to another, but that doesn’t mean it is innocuous. Just as a 19th century racial theory would argue the inherent worth of one race over another, the new theory insists that there exists some unproven inherent worth in enforcing racial proportionality. This belief is uttered so frequently and with such utter surety that few anymore even stop to consider whether there is any basis for it. For example, in the Washington Post, over the course of only a few weeks this past winter, a number of editorials (dressed up as news articles), expressed concern about the lack of diversity in the Winter Olympics (but not professional basketball!), among public school teachers, and at the Federal Reserve. These articles take it as a given that diversity is always and everywhere a good that must be attained and that any lack of diversity is somehow a betrayal of our Founding principles.
Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, where I live, the school superintendent insists that “we need teachers who reflect our students.” By this he does not mean that they should inspire our students as dedicated, hard-working, and intelligent role models. Rather, he merely means that they need to have the same complexion as those they teach; that only people of the same color or background can serve as proper role models for students. During my own high school days my most inspiring teachers were a black history teacher and a nun who taught English. I don’t think I suffered any psychic harm from not having white, male role models as teachers and neither do students today unless the school system indoctrinates them with a phony need for such role models. In New York City, where this irrational yearning for diversity has reached greater depths of silliness, the mayor, Bill de Blasio, is distressed that Asian-Americans disproportionately excel at academics, so he now seeks to scrap an entrance test that governs admissions to eight specialized high schools. The school entrance test, he explains with all the Orwellian logic we have come to expect from some liberal politicians, is “a roadblock to justice, progress, and academic excellence.”
Three Counter Concerns
In fairness to those who support affirmative action and other programs to ensure racial opportunity, there is more than a little truth to the assertion that racism (and sexism) still persists and that, historically, certain races and ethnicities have been unfairly treated: most profoundly Africans and Native Americans, but also to lesser degrees the Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, etc. Arguments in favor of race-based affirmative action generally fall into three categories: (1) the demand to redress centuries of exploitation, (2) the belief that the diversity of groups is intrinsically valuable (as opposed to the value of the individuals within that group), and (3) the belief that those who come from disadvantaged socio-economic environments should be assessed differently from those who are wealthier and have lived a far more privileged life. While the first two arguments are specious, the third argument is valid and warrants greater analysis.
The argument that the use and abuse of certain groups, especially African-Americans, warrant special treatment as a form of “reparations- lite” for past iniquities is emotionally compelling, but morally unsound. In certain clear and compelling cases, where there is a narrow class of individuals and a relatively short period of time—such as reparations for Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II—some specific and limited compensation is valid. This is not so in the case of an open-ended and indefinite period of special treatment for other groups, such as African-Americans and Native Americans. There are many problems with this argument, including the fact that most Americans—even those now considered white—immigrated to the U.S. long after slavery was outlawed and those who directly benefitted from slavery and other abominations are now long dead. There must be some moral statute of limitation for guilt—especially collective guilt—or a society will be forever divided.
Moreover, the group itself is too large and too vague: how do we exclude the tens of thousands of new African-Americans who have immigrated to the U.S. over the last century? How do we research and exclude those few thousands of African-Americans who are the descendants of black slave owners? How to account for those who gained their freedom long before the Civil War? And what about those of mixed race: do we allow anyone with even “one drop” of African blood to take advantage of affirmative action programs? And what about the latest liberal fad about the paramount importance of gender identification versus actual gender in gaining access to bathrooms? What if someone self-identifies as African even if he or she is clearly Caucasian? Shall they too gain access to affirmative action benefits?
Finally, what does it do to the collective psyche of a group when they are perceived and perceive themselves as victims in need of special accommodation based on long ago historical injustices? As we know in our own individual lives, those who wallow in their victimhood and lament everything that has gone wrong are the ones who never seem able to mature and progress in life.
A second more insidious argument for compelling gender and racial diversity is the belief that within each group there abides a unique value not of the individuals that comprise the group, but rather of the group itself. I believed this fairy tale once upon a time, embracing the notion that certain groups, because of their nature or nurture, could uniquely contribute to a more dynamic and progressive community. While liberals rightly abhor the false belief that any race or either gender is intrinsically superior to another, they fall into the equally false, albeit more benign, belief that there is something intrinsically superior in group diversity. The liberal mind is capable of a certain cognitive dissonance that allows it to simultaneously believe that we are all the same and that we are all equal, that we all have the same skills and abilities, but also that various groups have something special that sets them apart and that we lose something if they are not included. But my experiences of the last 40 years convince me that no group or class brings anything unique to the table; only the individual does.
A good case study would be the Department of State. A long line of both liberal and conservative Secretaries of State, from Powell to Clinton to Tillerson have all mindlessly mouthed the muddled mantra that we must build a Foreign Service that “looks like America.” The subtext to this seemingly innocuous statement is that we need to keep changing and massaging and tampering with the process for recruiting new officers in order to equalize the number from each gender and to ensure a certain quota of individuals from various ethnic and racial groups. (Ironically, despite decades of effort, we remain far from having a diplomatic corps that has the same proportional complexions as America.)
When I first entered the diplomatic corps in 1980 I believed there were valid justifications for taking steps to redress past wrongs. Women, especially, had been overtly treated unfairly, including being compelled to resign once they were married. Similarly, blacks and other minorities were woefully underrepresented due at least in part to a white elitism that pervaded the State Department since its inception. There was an argument at that time that the Foreign Service was out of touch with the real world. As a glaring example it was often cited that the State Department had no sympathy for the plight of Jews under the Nazi regime because the Foreign Service was almost completely comprised of white, well-to-do graduates of Ivy League schools. The argument goes that if we had had a diplomatic corps at that time that “looked more like America” perhaps we would have been more assertive in defending those seeking refuge from the Nazis. So, it was a great disappointment to me to later find that having a diplomatic corps that was more diverse really made no difference.
Last year a class of new diplomats asked me what was my greatest disappointment as a foreign service officer. Unhesitatingly, I explained that upon entering the service I had expected that all the DWEMs (dead white European males) who had managed the Department for its first two hundred years were becoming extinct and that women and minorities would provide greater insights and deeper awareness of the world we live in. Instead, what I discovered was that DWEMs come in all colors and all genders. A bureaucratic compulsion toward an unseemly conformity pervades the Department. Given a few years in the bureaucracy women and minorities are molded into the same likeness and become indistinguishable from their white male counterparts. They had proven themselves no better or worse, no kinder or crueler, no less selfish and no more selfless.
I had a female colleague in the State Department, noted for both her brilliance and caustic wit, who once observed that when she first entered the Foreign Service a woman needed to be twice as good as a man to succeed, but now only needed to be half as good. I do not share her view since I know there are women and minorities who still are unfairly held back, while others seem to glide through, always getting a pass when they threaten to use the gender or race card. It is a much more complicated situation than she would allow, but there is one fact implied by her assertion that is undeniable: suspicion about the qualifications of women and minorities has grown over the last few decades because of policies designed to advance a more diverse workforce.
Leveling the Playing Field
Yet there is a third argument in favor of affirmative action that is plausible: that socio-economic factors unfairly tilt the playing field in favor of those who are wealthier and have more stable family and social environments. This is a legitimate and compelling argument, but it has nothing fundamentally to do with race or gender. It does little good to create a new hierarchy of rich, powerful elites who are proportionally balanced by race and gender when the underclass continues to be ignored and dismissed. Universities and business enterprises ought to take into consideration the social and economic challenges that potential applicants have experienced. For example, a black student from an inner city school (or a white student from a small town in Appalachia) who comes from a single-parent home, who must work to help support his or her family, who does community service, and yet still maintains a decent grade point average may very well be a smarter and more dedicated applicant than some white (or black) student from suburbia who goes to the best schools, never has to worry about money, and whose parents can afford to send him to special courses to prepare him for standardized tests. But this is not what is happening. Instead, in their headlong desire to have students that reflect racial diversity, universities too often select minority students who have had all the same privileges as their white colleagues rather than students, regardless of color, who have had to cope with serious socio-economic challenges. Of course, taking into consideration economic and social factors may well disproportionately help minority applicants, but not because of their race or ethnicity, so it remains a race-neutral standard.
If you want a student body or a business or a diplomatic corps that really “looks like America” then do it on the only basis that counts: economic and social status. And if our premier universities really want to have a truly diverse student body they should start by getting rid of legacy acceptances. Legacies are an appalling affront to any sense of fair play. They are in reality affirmative action for the wealthy and arguably would not withstand a legal suit that argued de facto racial discrimination. For example, nearly a third of Harvard’s incoming class last year were legacy admissions. That the wealthy and powerful can ensure their children’s acceptances into the best universities is a scandal. There are many risible examples of legacy admissions, but the most infamous remains George W. Bush being accepted to Yale. How such an intellectual mediocrity was ever accepted is only explainable by who his father was. Get rid of legacies entirely and have more students at Ivy League schools come from the lower and lower-middle class, regardless of race, and there will be a real revolution in education and genuine progress toward a meritocracy.
Equality uber alles?
As the historian Will Durant once observed, there is always tension between those demanding equality and those seeking liberty. When I think of the modern liberal, diversity-at-all-cost politicians, I am reminded of Vonnegut’s Handicapper General, with her double-barreled, ten-gauge shotgun, determined to preserve equality no matter what the cost to society or the individual. Democrats, apparently, cannot shake their attachment to racial politics. The Democrat proponents of “diversity” are the rightful heirs of the Democrat creators of the “black codes” and “Jim Crow” laws. While there are certainly differences, they have one common theme: an abhorrence for the individual and an unfounded faith in the value of racial distinctions.
If Harvard’s next entry class without legacies or affirmative action would be 70% women and 45% Asian, then so be it. If other groups, including male Caucasians, feel cheated, then so be it. If professional basketball still disproportionately favors African-Americans then so be that too. Are we a nation of ethnic and racial groupings or are we a nation of individuals, each unique and deserving of equal opportunity unhampered by racial or gender prejudice? We are not white Americans and black Americans or male and female Americans. We are simply Americans. Long live the individual and damn the classifications.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.