Thursday, November 30, 2006

All For One...

BlackProf's Spencer Overton excerpts and asks for comments on the followig passage from Barack Obama's new book, "The Audacity of Hope":
Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair-minded of whites . . . tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization--or race-specific claims based on the history of race discrimination in this country. . . . Most white Americans figure that they haven't engaged in discrimination themselves and have plenty of their own problems to worry about. . . . .

As a result, proposals that solely benefit minorities and dissect Americans into "us" and "them" may generate a few short-term concessions when the costs to whites aren't too high, but they can't serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America. On the other hand, universal appeals around strategies that help all Americans (schools that teach, jobs that pay, health care for everyone who needs it, a government that helps out after a flood), along with measures that ensure our laws apply equally to everyone and hence uphold broadly held American ideals (like better enforcement of exiting civil rights laws), can serve as the basis for such coalitions--even if such strategies disproportionately help minorities.

Good strategy, or no?

I think there is a lot to say for this sort of approach. But I consider it to be more of a rhetorical approach and less of a substantive one. Professor Overton phrases the issue as whether Black leaders should abandon the press for race-specific policies (e.g., Affirmative Action). I think that much of that positive agenda can be preserved within Obama's framework, so long as we talk about it in a different way.

"[P]roposals that solely benefit minorities and dissect Americans into "us" and "them" may generate a few short-term concessions when the costs to whites aren't too high, but they can't serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America." That sentence, which has interesting echoes of Derrick Bell, is the crucial one for me. Policies like Affirmative Action have been relentless cast in this "us" versus "them" framework, with Black Americans seen as getting a special advantage over Whites. Some people might argue they deserve such an advantage due to the effects of discrimination, but few have challenged the popular norm that affirmative action is a racially zero-sum game.

Yet there is no objective reason Affirmative Action needs to be framed this way. Increased Black representation in the halls of business and academia do not just benefit Black people. There is ample proof that it helps society as a whole as well as White people specifically. I, a White student, proactively benefit because Carleton hosts a diverse array of students who do not all hail from one city, or study one major, or share one belief. Diversity is a fearure, not a bug. Calls for affirmative action should be phrased less as "you owe us" and more as "let us make this company/college/country a better place." In other words, the press for racial justice should be tied specifically into how it benefits the group as a whole. Which, coincidentally enough, it does.

This sort of rhetorical shift, advocated by Obama as well as academics such as Kenji Yoshino, offers a way out of combative racial discourse in which Whites feel they are under attack and hunker down. Forget about policies in which "the costs to whites aren't too high"--there are many policies which are and should be presented as paying veritable dividends to the White population, to the Black population, and to the American population.


Mark said...

Isn't that just the same as saying policies should be color blind?

David Schraub said...

No. It says that we should reformulate policies in a manner that isn't "us" versus "them", where Whites see themselves (rightly or wrongly) as having to take a bullet for Black advancement. But as I showed with Affirmative Action, a policy can still be race conscious and not zero-sum in this manner.

Randomscrub said...

One of the typical arguments which this method fails to address is the argument that the hiring of professors (in this case) at least in part because of their race does in fact hurt the others competing for the same job who are not of the favored race(s). Whether or not this leads to a better product is irrelevant to such an argument, because individuals who do not receive the jobs because do not receive them specifically because of their respective races. Isn't such discrimination based on race what we've been trying to avoid since 1964?

It sounds to me like you're using the libertarian argument for free hiring practices (hire whoever you think will give you the best product and let the market sort it out) without realizing that it cuts the other way as well. You say a diverse faculty provides a better product. What happens when someone else says that an all-white or an all-Asian or an all-black faculty provides the best product?

David Schraub said...

I see where you might get that, but it confuses an impact for a warrant. I think that a diverse society (faculty/school/corporate office...) is an intrinsic good (related to racial justice issues). This is true regardless of whether it has an effect on the overall quality of society.

But adopting that framework doesn't mean impacts don't matter. Even an intrinsic good, of course, can be outweighed by certain massive negative impacts. For example, if a racial justice policy would plunge the world into a cataclysmic nuclear war, then that negative impact would mean we shouldn't do it. If it could be shown that AA led to large enough bad effects, then we shouldn't do regardless. What I'm trying to tell with my impact story is that the outcomes of AA likely will be good, not bad. That doesn't provide the justification, it just is a check against the justification being outweighed.

Also, the "professors" (and I don't think academic hiring is the main fulcrum point of the AA debate--it comes to a head more often in college applications, where the "harm" is attending Penn instead of Yale) are being rejected solely because of race. They're being rejected because they will not be able to do things that the school wants done. That's perfectly meritocratic, even if race comes into play. The "discrimination" that we tried to get read of in 1964 wasn't noticing race. Segregation wasn't bad because it "noticed" race, it was bad because it facilitated a massive social exploitation of one race by another. It is this systematic oppression that we're trying to remedy, and doing that requires that we notice that there is a race being oppressed.