Diversity: How the Other Half Lives

Ross Douthat — who isn’t a moderate common-sense conservative but plays one in the NYT opinion pages — yesterday penned his latest overwrought defense of his party’s fringe, this time hoping to mainstream the right’s worrying rediscovery of reverse racism.

For those just joining us, one of the right’s dominant narratives in the time since Obama’s accession is that a black man’s success necessarily implies the end of white dominance, with all the horrors that attend such an inversion. The idea that black and white America exist in some sort of zero-sum relationship sometimes finds more toned-down iterations, or spawns spin-off theories — like the idea that a minority Supreme Court justice can’t understand white America — but in all, the theme, that minority victory means white defeat, is the same.

This species of thought isn’t as noxious as classical racism, but we should realize, the difference is one of degree, and learned subtlety. It’s still racism, and it’s still wrong. Per Ta-Nehisi Coates, “the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping–positioning the bigot as the actual victim.” Any narrative that puts race at odds with race is inimical to a happy, just society, no matter how much you dress it up.

Douthat’s column takes this new, old racism — the medium favored by your Becks and Buchanans — and tries to equate it with an affirmative action system gone awry, favoring poor blacks and minorities over poor whites. But they’re not the same. Beck and Buchanan find their force in anger and emotion; Douthat’s assertions about the problems of modern affirmative action, if true, are based on facts. The latter is legitimate. The former is race-baiting, and can’t be so bootstrapped into respectability.

Further, Douthat’s claims about affirmative action are interesting for what they imply: not that affirmative action is wrong (as we used to hear), but that it’s not working equitably. To identify affirmative action’s problem, Douthat has to accept its central conceit: that experiential diversity, using race as a proxy, might be beneficial to academia. The remedy for Douthat’s wrong is not an end to affirmative action, but true evenhandedness in its implementation. That, and that alone, is something we should probably get behind.

So, what we’re left with is a column that makes some interesting points, but strains to leverage them into an ex ante rationalization of pure polemic from the movement’s lesser (but more popular) lights. In other words, classic Douthat. And a metonym for post-2008 conservatism as a whole: a clever, well-intentioned minority chained to a dying movement, struggling to lend its credibility to the frothing majority. And failing.



  1. So many zany one-liners to choose from….so little time.

    Since you believe affirmative action is a good thing, it’s interesting to note what this also implies: That minorities, specifically blacks, cannot get ahead in this country without governmental assistance. I keep hearing quotes from W in my head. “The soft bigotry of low expectations…”

  2. Like most quotable W quotes, this one is misleading. Affirmative action is at its core remedial. The theory behind it is that groups who’ve been disadvantaged need a leg up not to compensate for their own failings, but for the hard place in which history has placed them. This, too, is a theory Douthat accepts when talking about poor whites.

    1. So again, it’s your contention that blacks ‘need a leg up’ because they can’t succeed without it?

      If you had read his book you would know that Douthat believes in using the tax code to help people who are already helping themselves, so to speak.

  3. Two things: first, no. But not because of personal failings, because the playing field isn’t yet level. The best of the best will always overcome any adversity, but affirmative action hopes to put everyone on an equal plane, on the hope that it can compensate for centuries of oppression. O’Connor’s opinion in Grutter explains a lot of this.

    Also, the premise isn’t just the need for a level playing field, but that people with different live experiences contribute things to their schools.

  4. I’d be curious if you would care to put a number on it. What % of black people can’t succeed without government intervention? ON the flip side, what % of them can? Are we still only looking at a talented tenth or have they expanded that?

    Diversity of student populations is social engineering nonsense. I really hope you don’t support that.

  5. I don’t think that’s a useful exercise. Unless you have grave doubts about whether we’ve since cured all the harms of slavery & Jim Crow.

    1. Not a useful exercise? You have programs based on a theory of blacks not being able to overcome the cultural forces of racism yet you don’t think it’s useful to determine how many people are actually in need of this help? Isn’t that just a guarantee of these programs lasting forever?

  6. Again, the experiential diversity theory independently supports it. But, if you’re really asking me to substantiate a fairly basic point of sociology, really, I’d rather not. For this post and this issue the size of the achievement gap isn’t relevant; its existence is. If you want to start reading about that you can start with, ugh, Freakonomics.


    1. But if you’re going to support a program – don’t you think the responsibility is to create some goals? At what point is it okay to no longer offer affirmative acction? What metrics would be used to make that determination?

      This again goes to the point I make time and again which is that liberals never want to look past the next 5 minutes of policy.

      In my business we always define the goals when we start a project. Otherwise you end up wasting a lot of resources. I’ve asked my team many times, “If you don’t know what your destination looks like, how will you know when you get here?”

  7. Haha. I’m ignoring the pointlessly polemical middle paragraph.

    It’s fair to ask when the sunset is. The Sandra Day O’Connor opinion I linked you to, Grutter, asked the same question and hypothesized, “twenty-five years.” That was in 2003. It’s probably also fair to say that we’re still not to that point.

    1. Ignoring it actually makes my point that much more clearly.

      Any sociologist (and I’m married to one) will tell you that making that kind of assessment based on an arbitrary number of years is ludicrous. You have to have definable metrics. So why not present some now? Surely you’ve thought about the issue enough to post on it and support it, so what criteria would you use for determining an end to AA? Poverty levels? Jobless rates? Graduation rates? What are the metrics?

  8. I agree it’s ludicrous. SDOC can’t have any kind of definite idea of how long it will take. Some metric might be interesting, but I don’t think it’s my side’s responsibility to provide the metric. It’s fairly clear that significant inequities remain. It’s also clear, from the research in Douthat’s article, that the gap is being closed, at least for minorities. As long as that’s apparent the burden falls on the person who wants to interdict the process to show when or under what conditions it MUST cease. I don’t know what those are.

    1. “Some metric might be interesting, but I don’t think it’s my side’s responsibility to provide the metric.”

      Of course you don’t. That’s a cop-out but I’ll play along. I suspect that either you don’t really know enough about the subject to offer some basic metrics which would define progress (and ultimately success) or you simply don’t want to provide any end-point for a social program that is so popular with your most dependable voting bloc.

      Douthat’s article provides data that you say shows progress. It’s not that hard to kick the can a little farther down the road and say, “When the data shows this, liberal policy has worked and we can end affirmative action.” That should be EASY. The fact that you are unwilling to engage in a simple thought exercise to suggest a stopping point is symptomatic of either a distrust in the liklihood of success or an unwillingness to ever stop a liberal program.

  9. That’s probably fair too. I just don’t think describing the metric is necessarily my job, or one I need to complete to carry the larger point of this post. It suffices for me that any metric that could be conceived would show affirmative action necessary into the foreseeable future.

    1. I don’t think any one ever said it was ‘your job’ but you do have a blog where you share your opinions with the world. Not everyone agrees with those opinions. I assumed you welcomed debate. If it’s only your intent to prosthelytize then I would remind you that someday, when you run for office, reports will ask follow-up questions. “It’s not my job…,” probably won’t be the ideal answer.

      1. Perhaps you would care to provide your metrics? After all, you’re the one asking for it.

        Your focus on metrics suggests being unable to measure the size of the forest because the trees are in the way. Anybody seriously arguing that we don’t have a need for affirmative action is simply not paying attention.

        1. I already mentioned several which Ames still didn’t want to claim. Poverty levels, educational attainment, minority representation in various professions, education fields, etc. Then separate out the number of folks that got there through AA and compare the remainder to population percentages. It’s not rocket science.

          Of course the flaw there is that certain minorities might gravitate towards certain geographic locales, certain professions, certain fields of study. That’s exactly why AA is impossibly cumbersome to study the effects of and ultimately why liberals are resistant to actually doing those kinds of analysis. It’s also a good indicator of why it’s bad policy. So to answer your last point, a lot of us ARE paying attention and find it a bad idea.

  10. I’ll admit I have no idea how these programmes work in practice, but wouldn’t such metrics have to be collected and acted upon at the state or even the local level, anyway? Even if black people in, say, Virginia happen to be doing well enough to no longer need affirmative action, the same might not be true of California.

    1. I think you hit on a good point there Lanfranc. The problem is that affirmative action is supported at the federal level which means it could exist in certain places for a long time when there is no measurable need.

  11. How’s it supported at the federal level?

  12. Now I don’t recall explicitly rejecting these tests. I just don’t want to commit to one if I’m not forced to, and don’t have to. Given full time to research some mix of those factors would probably work nicely. But I’ve not attempted that research and probably wouldn’t be as good as it as others.

    As to your laws, they all refer to “federal contractors.” Meh. That’s not a huge lot of people. States can and will act, and have acted, without impacting those.

    1. I suspect you don’t want to commit to a test because it could actually prove that affirmative action is ineffective. The rate of upward mobility in minority populations could also be attributed to cultural progress, better education policy, chages in attitudes in those minority populations, etc. Attributing most or even some of that progress to AA is a big stretch.

      It doesn’t matter if it only affects three people. The government has a specific policy of supporting affirmative action. Minimizing it won’t negate my point.

    2. Haha, you can “suspect” whatever you want. You’re not at all concerned about the achievement gap? Or you just expect the free market to solve it, however that works?

      1. Of course I’m concerned about the achievment gap and if you took the time to read my blog occassionally you would know that. The difference between you and I though is that I believe you close that gap by promoting better education policy and also creating job programs that equip people with skills that will allow them to succeed on their own. Smart education policy works well in minority communities and if you would spend less time bashing the Right and more time celebrating the Left you might have noticed all the good things that the administration is doing through the Sec. of Education. They are promoting programs that are going to do far more to close the achievement gap than affirmative action ever will.

        What I DON’T believe in is artificially ‘leveling the playing field’ as a backhanded statement of low expectations for minority communities. I would much rather give a kid a good education or give a young man marketable job skills than to tell them they only have that college spot or those job skills because the government intervened on their behalf. Which scenario is more likely to inspire confidence and self-esteem? Liberals criticize conservatives for our ‘bootstraps’ mentality but those bootstraps can be provided by good policy. Unfortunately affirmative action doesn’t qualify.

      2. Those remedies aren’t exclusive (and I am aware of the administration’s education programs — they’re spotlighted in today’s NYT, for one). In fact, they serve different goals. You’re quite right that going forwards better education in the first instance is society’s best hope for improving minority advancement. But for those already badly served by a system infected with racism, or still burdened by that legacy, the choice between doing nothing and attempting to compensate for it isn’t really a choice at all. Though I realize your side benefits by framing affirmative action as a debate about whether we can have “low expectations,” that’s disingenuous, and elides the *fact* that, where minorities start from a place of disadvantage, our history permits us to draw an inference that this disparity was wrongfully procured. The goal of affirmative action isn’t to give an advantage that the person hasn’t earned, but to acknowledge systemic disadvantages that can be surmounted, at times, only by extraordinary measures.

        1. “The goal of affirmative action isn’t to give an advantage that the person hasn’t earned…”

          That might not be the goal, but it’s certainly the process.

          I think the biggest problem with AA is that it seems to imply that a poor black person has less opportunities than a poor white person and I find that incredibly pessimistic. Your claim is that racism is so entrenched in corporate America or in school admission offices that only thorugh the power of the federal government can it be overcome. I’d be curious to hear some specific examples of white students being chosen over equally qualified black students in 2010. I just don’t see it as anything more than an occassional anomally.

          If you want to promote equality, take race out of the picture and focus on economics. That’s where the true problem lies. The only trouble with that approach though is that it might hurt liberals at election time.

        2. To reply to this belatedly, there’s a difference between running from questions about your record and not volunteering to do research that exceeds the scope of the post. The rest of this is either an argument from incredulity (“You say life is sad and that makes ME sad!”), and polemic. If there’s a better way to correct for extant inequalities, let’s hear it.

  13. oneiroi · ·

    What I’ve been wondering lately, and maybe you could shed some light on it Mike…

    How do conservatives perceive the continued problems of the African American communities?

    Like, why are they disproportionately lower class, less educated, more likely to go to prison, etc…than the rest of the population? Happenstance? Culture? A non-issue? Should they just be combined as a group with all other poverty issues?

    1. I can’t speak for all conservatives but the ones I know chalk inequality for black up to a few things:

      1) The absence of fathers in black communities

      2) Lack of education

      3) Cultural forces

      To elaborate… #1 certainly isn’t a new thing. It was observed way back in 1945 when Black Metropolis came out (and if you’ve never read it, do so. It’s the best book ever written on black life in cities.) For reasons that are unexplainable blacks began having high numbers of children outside of wedlock at a much early point than whites. Additionally there has always been a problem with absent fathers in black communities which does not seem to affect whites nearly as much. I think this lack of positive male role models can never be over-sold as a primary cause of problems. You can probably chalk conservative interest in this point to our ‘traditional families’ emphasis.

      #2 is interesting because it’s a two-part problem. On one hand blacks kids tend to attend under-performing schools in greater numbers but this is not really attributable directly to race. It’s more a symptom of poverty as it also affects poor whites. The second part of the problem is that there are some cultural factors involved. To give you some anecdotal data, I did a study last year where we looked at about 15 different performance metrics for all Louisville schools and generated some composite rankings based on those results. The findings were extremely interesting. What we saw was schools with large minority populations performing on par with majority white schools at the elementary (1-5) and middle school (6-8) levels. Once they hit high school though all of the high minority schools dropped to the bottom. Graduation rates plummet. Attendance problems, disciplinary problems, etc all skyrocket. I am sorry to say I cannot attribute this to anything other than cultural forces.

      #3 Is really an amalgamation of #1 & #2 and other factors. Pop culture’s influence on black communities is damaging. Pervasive attitudes towards life in general, drug problems, gangs, etc. This becomes a chicken or egg question. Does the corrupt culture come from poverty, or does the poverty come from the corrupt culture? I think conservatives are likely to say the latter while liberals believe that poverty generates all the bad stuff.

  14. Excellent article on this topic today from a Democratic senator:


    “Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.

    “In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt created a national commission to study what he termed “the long and ironic history of the despoiling of this truly American section.” At that time, most industries in the South were owned by companies outside the region. Of the South’s 1.8 million sharecroppers, 1.2 million were white (a mirror of the population, which was 71% white). The illiteracy rate was five times that of the North-Central states and more than twice that of New England and the Middle Atlantic (despite the waves of European immigrants then flowing to those regions). The total endowments of all the colleges and universities in the South were less than the endowments of Harvard and Yale alone. The average schoolchild in the South had $25 a year spent on his or her education, compared to $141 for children in New York.

    Generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture. In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks’ average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.

    Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith. Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.”

  15. That’s fine. As the original post says, then retool affirmative action. Doesn’t this comment on persisting inequalities also undercut the theory that affirmative action is now worthless?

    1. So you would be open to economics-based AA? Poor whites and poor blacks get equal consideration?

      1. Yes. Socioeconomic status is a much better proxy for “lack of opportunities” than race. Racism certainly has something to say for why there are more impoverished inner-city blacks, but their white counterparts need just as much of a leg up, while upper-middle class black suburbanites don’t really.

      2. Indeed I thought my post conspicuously agreed. Affirmative action still has an experiential component though; for that, at least, race remains relevant, but so does life background, like growing up in a rural area, etc.

        1. So if we agree that policy should be ‘color blind’ maybe it’s important to determine just how effective AA is…

          A 2003 study announced the following:

          “Only a small fraction of the public (16%) reports having been directly affected by affirmative action programs. Overall, 11% say they’ve been hurt, 4% have been helped. Among blacks, 14% say they have been helped by such programs, while 5% say they’ve been hurt.”

          So the composite is 9% of blacks believed they have been helped by AA. To take it even further, “…37% of blacks ­ say that most people attribute minorities’ successes in business and education to racial preferences, rather than their own skills and abilities.”

          With those kinds of numbers, I think we have pretty clear evidence of a flawed program. On the flip side, I rarely hear of anyone who graduated from a good school or developed new skills in a jobs program who later regrets it. We can probably assign a 90%+ success rate for those kinds of programs. So then the question becomes, why go the AA quota route when there are so much better tools?


  16. Megan McArdle makes roughly the same point I did:

    “But the fact remains that very few kids are going to go to Harvard, no matter how you play around with their admissions formula. Good primary education, on the other hand, could help millions. “

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