Friday, December 02, 2005

Campus Pluralism For Conservatives And Others: A Plea For Affirmative Action

Rick Garnett examines a topic near and dear to my heart: conservative presence in academia. He links to an essay by Yale Law Professor Peter Schuck:
What can be done," Schuck asks, "to make professors practice what they preach on diversity? Alas, no easy remedy exists. The tenure system and the lack of mandatory retirement will project existing faculty bias far into the future. Moreover, the elite schools recruit new law teachers mainly from the top ranks of their recent graduates, whose own predominantly left-liberal views are fortified by their professors. And adopting affirmative action for conservative viewpoints would be odious and, for public law schools, almost certainly a First Amendment violation.

In my campus political journals I have specifically advocated for political affirmative action, at least at Carleton. We are an overwhelmingly liberal college, and I think that's bad for open debate and pluralism. But I offered it explicitly as a trade--conservatives who are agitating against liberal bias at schools (but rarely able to point to explicit practices with intent to discriminate, the threshold for litigating discrimination in racial contexts) would have to admit an equal standard for minority applicants as well. Some conservatives (like, apparently, Schuck) wouldn't take the trade because they find AA morally wrong in any case. But I'd like to think that this may be an opening toward a broader acceptance of the principles of affirmative action--especially a culture pluralist defense.

From the start I drew a comparison to racial affirmative action--saying that both could be justified on the grounds of including hitherto excluded voices in the academic environment. As always with a critical position, the key is context. Nobody can seriously argue that conservative Christians are an "excluded voice," historical or otherwise, in American society writ large. But there is a compelling case that they are very much outsiders in the academy. A well-known study by Northwestern Law Professor James Lingdren (cited by Schuck) notes that the most excluded sub-group in academia, proportionally, is white Christian women. They are even less likely to be present on tenure ladder posts than groups who have faced overt societal discrimination, such as Blacks or Hispanics. This should alert us to the fact that, just as individualist indicators of racism can mask the way that structures can oppress, too rigid a focus on solely the super-structure can cause us to ignore how "mid-range" institutions (universities, or perhaps cities) can have power dynamics that both work within but are also independent of the broader social trend. This is how a conservative can feel isolated at, say, Oberlin, even though she lives in a country with a Republican President, Senate, and House, two Republican Senators, and a spot in the GOP column in the 2004 Presidential race.

I've discussed this position with my (mostly liberal) friends at school, and they've generally come down against. This isn't surprising--it's a novel argument and it's facially harmful to liberal interests. However, the objections they made were not too compelling. I'll address them (and other potential pitfalls) here.

First, they argue that while race is immutable, politics is a matter of free choice, thus, colleges should feel no qualms about prioritizing some over others. I'd respond that a choice may be technically "free" but still not something that should be institutionally sanctioned--consider my choice of religion. I'm not immutably Jewish, but I don't really consider it a "choice" either. People may feel similar about their political opinions--I don't view opposition to genocide like a melon that I prefer at the grocery store. I view it as a core facet of my ethical personhood; a position that, if I abandoned, would make "me" unrecognizable to myself. Furthermore, at some level the benefit of political views is in their pluralism and contestability. A college can qualitatively say that a "belief" that 2+2=4 is objectively better than the belief that said equation equals 5. There is no benefit to hosting that debate on campus. But a vibrant political atmosphere on campus requires not unity but division and pluralism--it requires a variety of political positions beyond those that might be gotten naturally. If Carleton "on its own" gets a mostly liberal student body and faculty, then it should reach out for more. Clearly there are outward limits--we don't need a debate that the Nazis were justified on campus either. But ultimately, in terms of benefit I see political position as the type of identity that is valuable in its diversity, not singularity, and it should be treated as such.

A pragmatic objection was also made: it's far easier to falsify political beliefs than, say race. In otherwords, if I said I was black and show up for my interview with glow-in-the-dark-pale skin, the admissions staff is likely to notice. But the odds they'd catch a political slight-of-hand is slim--and even if something did come up, I could always claim I've changed my mind (who knows, I may even really change my mind). I'll concede these raise some pragmatic difficulties (though this doesn't dilute the moral force of my argument). However, I think it can be overcome. For one, the people who we're really concerned with--politically active students, are unlikely to sacrifice their souls on an admissions applicant. Think about your average Kossack. Do you really think they'll be able to bring themselves to write "conservative" on an application, even at the prospect of a marginal benefit? I'm skeptical. Furthermore, we can buttress the applicant's credibility by looking out other activities. If someone writes "Young Republicans Club President" and worked in Tom DeLay's office, we can assume they're being truthful. Since these qualities are indicators of the type of political activism we're looking for anyway (a politically passive conservative, or liberal, does little to add to the intra-campus debate), we can minimize system gaming.

Some people conceded that such a program might be useful for faculty recruitment, but not for student admissions. The justification for this was that while it's somewhat easy to divine a professor's political leanings based on her scholarship, there are relatively few opportunities for a college to find out what party their applicants adhere to prior to them entering the college. Because of this, bias is most likely not present for student admissions and thus requires no remedy. This I think looks at the problem to narrowly. Even without knowing the political affiliation of a prospective student, there are still subtle ways a college can send out signals to the effect of "Republicans Not Wanted." Any decent research on Carleton will inform a would-be student of our extreme liberalism. A visiting student may hear derogatory remarks that all Republicans are racist or evil or warmongers. There may be small or non-existent conservative programs and organizations on campus. These together can lead to a hostile environment that will drive off conservative prospies before they even apply. And given the existence of (and liberal response to) parallel problems with regards to race and gender that also exist in the pre-application stage, I believe that these harms rise to the level of discriminatory conduct that should be combated.

I'll admit that the constitutional objection (in public schools) that Schuck made is not one I had thought of, and could be problematic. I'd have to see the precedents on the matter, but acting on a blank slate I think that a political AA plan is constitutionally defensible, again, on much the same grounds racial AA is--if racial AA can be constitutionally justified on pluralism grounds as opposed to merely reparative ones. Ultimately, I think a political AA program can live or die on the same issues that racial ones face. The goal isn't to discriminate in favor of particular viewpoints, but to improve institutional vitality, a clearly legitimate interest that isn't being met by "neutral" criteria. It also is vulnerable to the same particular challenges AA has faced. For example, a program by an already conservative campus to recruit more conservatives would be suspect for the same reasons the Court outline in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469 (1989) (holding unconstitutional a racial affirmative action program enacted by a black-majority city council in a black majority-city). The one area where a political AA program would be vulnerable where racial AA is strong is the existence of significant past discrimination, which is not present. But I don't think that's the only way to justify AA, so I don't think that should be dispositive.

I can't speak for conservatives as to whether or not they can, on a philosophical level, accept an affirmative action program for themselves (though I am curious what they would like university deans to do about the bias problem if that solution is off the table). But as liberals, I think we should support efforts to create a more diverse and pluralistic campus environment on all fronts--racial, sexual, religious, and political.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Brief Word About The Word

First of all, I want to thank Creek Running North for hosting this "blog against racism" day. I am a firm believer in discussing racial issues, and judging by the responses, CRN has managed to bring a wide swath of the blogosphere together on this topic. So kudos.

It may seem rather churlish, then, for me to take issue with the post that started it all. But in order to "blog against racism," we have to define what "racism" means. And that's a difficult proposition.

Racism is a nebulous concept. In the modern era, everyone agrees that to be "racist" is a very bad thing. But that's about as far as we get. "Racism" has been defined as deviating from the color-blind principle, intentionally discriminating against a minority group, prejudice against someone on account of race, stigmatization on account of race, and acting to preserve racial hierarchy, to name just a few. Significant cleavages have formed those who measure racism by intent and those who measure it by effects, those who see it as individualist and those who see it as structural, those who see it as theoretically neutral and those who see it solely as part of an exercise of power. One could quite easily be racist under one definition but not racist under another, indeed, at times the definitions are mutually exclusive (consider Affirmative Action, necessary to dismantle racial hierarchy, but a clear violation of color-blindness).

There are costs to this confusion. First, obviously, it makes it difficult for anti-racism activists to train their fire when we're not sure what the target is. Second, though, I believe this ambiguity plays a deep role in the reticence of many people to enter racial conversations in the first place. As long as the term "racism/t" possesses the two qualities of being a) absolutely evil and b) definitionally contested, a discussion on race becomes akin to walking into a minefield. Given the scant hope that any individual conversation will be the racial breakthrough we've all been looking, a rational actor easily could conclude that the risk is too high. And indeed, that is a relatively accurate description, in my opinion, of how many Whites view the topic of Race today.

In this context, then, it is very tempting to try and distill "racism" down to some core essence--a particular definition that can become the center of the debate and clear the air. And that's what Chris Clark attempts to do with his "effects" definition. He makes his argument thus:
But it increasingly clear to me --and probably has been for some time to people smarter than me--that many folks think of the word "racist" as meaning something akin to the word "evil." Thus the defenses of the cartoon that focused on the artist's intent. If his intentions were benign, then he is not evil and thus not racist.

Anyone who's studied the history of racism can trot out numerous examples of racist behavior committed with allegedly good intentions, from Moynihan's "benign neglect" to the myriad acts of condescension by white liberals toward their black acquaintances. I assume, people being more or less the same now as they were two hundred years ago, that there were a number of slaveowners who told themselves they took wonderful care of their chattel property.

Ask a Klan member whether he or she has good intentions. I guarantee you the answer will be in the affirmative, even as the cross is lit.

Intentions are all well and good, but more important are the assumptions from which those intentions spring. Garbage in, garbage out: bad information times good intentions equals bad results. And those results are the most important thing of all. A cartoon depicts stereotypical dark-skinned tribes as cannibals? That's racism. The poor people who could not flee a flooding city because they had no access to transportation or a lifetime of mistrust of authority were almost all Black? That's racism. People advocate locking up enemy nationals, defined by ancestry? That's racism.

I agree that this represents a serious problem. Many scholars have documented the shortcomings of "intent" as a measure of racial discrimination. The past few decades have showcased amply that neutral actors making good faith decisions can still preserve a racially stratified society. Some measure of effects is clearly necessary if we are to change the status quo.

At the same time, problems with a pure effects test are readily apparent as well. For one, it labels nearly every human being (of any race) as a racist. Studies have shown that both Blacks and Whites subscribe, at the subconscious level, to negative stereotypes about African-Americans. The famous "doll experiment" cited in Brown v. Board is perhaps the most prominent of these studies, but other more recent and more chilling findings have been made--for example, both Blacks and Whites are more likely to interpret an ambiguous action by a Black male as aggressive or hostile; a finding that raises serious questions about racial profiling and police violence. Clearly, Blacks don't "intend" to subscribe to stereotyping that keeps their race under the heel of brutal criminal sanction (and, I'd argue, neither do most Whites). But the effect is still present. These mindsets cannot be excised easily or quickly, which means that for the short to mid-term we have to basically conclude that the entire United States--Black, White, Asian, Jewish, whomever--is racist.

This is problematic on two levels. Pragmatically, saying "everybody's a racist" will prove a major barrier to engaging the country (especially Whites) in a serious racial dialogue. Either they'll ignore the message as hyperbolic, or worse, they'll take the message and use it to dilute the moral valence of racism. Either way, the net effect is negative. We have to remember that the goal of these projects is not to develop some fuzzy theory that makes us feel morally righteous. It's to bring about real change in the real world, and that's going to require compromises. Second, on a moral level the effects test places a ethical burden on individuals that is impossible to fulfill. In his essay "Saints and Heroes," James Urmson notes:
If we are to exact basic duties like debts, and censure failures, such duties must be, in ordinary circumstances, within the capacity of the ordinary man....So, if we were to represent the heroic act of sacrificing one's life for one's comrades as a basic duty, the effect would be to lower the degree of urgency and stringency that the notion of duty does in fact posses. The basic moral code must not be in part too far beyond the capacity of the ordinary men or ordinary occasions, or a general breakdown of compliance with the moral code would be an inevitable consequence; duty would seem to be something high and unattainable, and not for 'the likes of us.'

We want to think that an "effects" test of racism will alert the general populace that they are complicit in a racist society and encourage them to change their behavior. More likely, though, they'll just conclude that not being racist is an impossible goal and abandon the quest all together. That would be a death knell for the movement.

So if I don't like "effects" as a definition of racism, and I don't like "intent" as a definition of racism, then what's my response? I'd argue that the problem isn't with any particular definition. Rather, the problem is that "racism" is a term being asked to do far too much work. There is no way that a single word can encompass all the meanings that "racism" needs to juggle. To borrow from Lawrence Blum (whose spectacular book, "I'm Not a Racist, But...", heavily influenced this post), we need a more complex vocabulary to talk about race. We need words to condemn the shocking acts of intentional discrimination, stereotyping, prejudice, and violence that still occurs today. At the same time, we need vocabulary that can both alert unenlightened Whites about the current racial status without immediately placing them on the defensive. As I wrote in a paper I am in the midst of preparing:
Whites tend to define racism as consisting of "only the most extreme example[s]...rabid[] hate [or]...violence." This obscures the myriad of ways in which racial prejudice and inequality acts as a barrier to minority success even amongst people who abhor violence and profess equality of opportunity. At the same time, others define racism as any type of racially-charged action or mentality which causes ill effects. Such an expansive definition "will not help bring whites to the reconciliation table and may only foster resentment." Operating between these two poles is a position which uses a variety of terminology beyond the simplistic "racist/not-racist" dualism to deal with racial questions. Lawrence Blum argues that "'[r]acism' and 'racist' should be reserved for certain especially serious moral failings and violations in the area of race. They should not be permitted to include everything [racially related] that someone might justifiably disapprove of.

For better or for worse, "racism" is a term that is value-laden, it simply can't be used to describe more mundane acts of racial import. This isn't to trivialize them--only focusing on the most extreme cases won't bring about substantial cases when the majority of racial disparities come about via actions not deemed "extreme" but normal. However, as a tactical matter, anti-racism advocates need to diversify their arsenal. We should preserve "racist" for the worst of the lot, and condemn the rest, not necessarily as "racist" acts but as acts that preserve racial hierarchy. That should be seen as a moral wrong that exists independent of racism, but does not come with the personalized condemnation that is concurrent with the term "racist." To talk of racial reconciliation requires that we expand our horizons beyond just one word. Rather than blogging against "racism", we might blog against racial hierarchy--a status propped up by many pillars. Racism is indeed one of the more invidious among them, but it is not the whole edifice.

Being a devoted fan of Critical Race Theory, I've blogged on the topic of race and racism quite often. Here are a few posts from my archives:


Race, Education, and Society

The Internal Critic and Intersectionality: Who's Looking Out For The Minority Right?

Standpoint Theory, The "Voice of Color", and "Uncle Toms": Positioning Conservative Minorities

Dissections of Power: Can Blacks Be Racist to Whites?

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Side By Side

Back in June, I wrote a post entitled "The General and the Tactician" which noted the differences in how each approaches a state of war. The tactician (by which I mean a political tactician) sees war as a political object, and thus will view it through political lenses. He isn't wholly unconcerned with actually winning the war, but he will freely utilize spin, PR offenses, insinuations, and other such devices in order to maintain a lead in the polls--even if it comes at a disadvantage to the troops on the ground. The general, by contrast, is much more reticent to do so, because at the end of the day it is his men who are out there bleeding and dying. This isn't to say generals always give the straight and narrow, but they are less likely to hew to a partisan line when it is to obvious military detriment.

It is in that context that I found this article in the Washington Post very interesting. It reported on a joint meeting with the press by Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Peter Pace (the General) and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (the Tactician). When put up side by side, it was incredible to see just how unwilling Gen. Pace was to toe the line Rumsfeld laid out. At first it was on issues of little consequence: Rumsfeld wanted to change the moniker "insurgent" to "enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government"; Pace just couldn't bring himself to say it. But soon it moved to a major dispute over an issue of critical importance:
When UPI's Pam Hess asked about torture by Iraqi authorities, Rumsfeld replied that "obviously, the United States does not have a responsibility" other than to voice disapproval.

But Pace had a different view. "It is the absolute responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it," the general said.

Rumsfeld interjected: "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it."

But Pace meant what he said. "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it," he said, firmly.

Pace, of course, is absolutely right. And the reason he's adamant is because the more torture becomes mainstream, the more risk our soldiers face when they fall into the hands of the enemy. Certainly, al-Qaeda will continue to be brutal regardless of what the US does. But the precedent will be laid down for future wars and conflicts, ones in which the enemy, perhaps, is more morally ambiguous. It's good to see Pace recognizes that. It's better to see he's willing to take Rumsfeld to task when he doesn't.

Others commenting:
A big "Semper Fi!" to General Pace for standing up to the SecDef in public, and laying down a clear, ambiguous bright-line rule on how US forces are supposed to respond, even if they see Iraqi government forces treating prisoners inhumanely.

Andrew Sullivan:
Thank God for decent soldiers like General Pace and Ian Fishback. I have to say I do not recognize the Don Rumsfeld I once knew in the callous, reckless, immoral stances he has taken these past three years. It is a matter of urgency that he be replaced, if this war is to regain its moral standing and military effectiveness.

I give Gen. Pace credit for sticking to his guns, but the fact that this mini-debate took place — at the podium during a Pentagon press briefing — is not reassuring. These two are supposed to be conveying Defense Department information to the nation and they can't even agree on how the U.S. military responds to torture by Iraqi officials? What kind of message does that convey?

Kevin Drum, CIP.

Is He Kidding?

I'm really confused about Ethan Leib's description of the relationship between Jews and the Christian Right. On second thought, I think he's confused. Basically, he claims that:
We all know that the Evangelicals and the Jews are in bed together, facilitating the U.S.'s Israel-friendly policy...the Zionist agenda is possible, in large measure, owing to Christian Zionism on the Religious Right. That may be a controversial idea, but a kernel of it must be true.

Leib uses this to frame the recent attacks by prominent Jewish leaders against the Religious Right's anti-Jewish calls to demolish the separation of Church and State (I blogged about those events myself here). He may be being sarcastic, but if so I'm missing it.

I won't deny that Christian Right support for Israel is not an important factor for maintaining support for Israel (not the least because America certainly doesn't care about Jews qua Jews). But I think it is, far from something "we all know," wildly inaccurate to say that Jews and Evangelicals are "in bed together." Certainly, Evangelicals have used their strong support for Israel to attempt to crack the normally solidly Democratic Jewish constituency. And I am aware of otherwise liberal Jews for whom those efforts have currency, especially contrasted with some Democrats' luke-warm (at best) support for the Jewish state. But by and large, these efforts at penetration have failed dramatically. 78% of Jews voted for Clinton in 1996, 79% for Gore in 2000, and 76% for Kerry in 2004. In fact, the last time a Republican candidate got even a plurality of the Jewish vote was Warren Harding with 43%--and that's only because Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs took 38% of the Jewish vote (the Democratic candidate took another 19%). And though the Jewish GOP vote is slowly starting to rise, it still remains in abysmal territory--George W. Bush did 11 percentage points worse in 2004 than his father did in his 1988 trouncing of Dukakis.

On issues aside from supporting Israel (which I still refuse to characterize as a "conservative" viewpoint), Jews overwhelmingly identify with liberal positions. As of September, 2004, two-thirds of Jews opposed the Iraq war. Michael Lerner has pointed out that Jews were the only white ethnic group to oppose California Proposition 209 (barring Affirmative Action), and that Jews and Blacks together constitute the most solidly liberal voting blocs in America today. Jews tend to be pro-choice, support gay marriage (at 64%, they are more likely than any other group [PDF] to be pro-equality here) and stem cell research, and favor liberal fiscal policies. And their views on the Christian Right? Well, in Newsweek's run-up to the 2004 election, they wrote that:
[M]any Jews are uncomfortable with Bush's embrace of the Christian right, whose solidarity on the issue of Israel strikes some as a cynical, self-interested ploy.

I'm not going to say that it is or is not a "self-interested ploy" for conservative Christians to support Israel. I will say that if it is, it's failing miserably. I obviously welcome support for Israel from any quarter--it is nice to see the Christian Right be on our side for once. But Jews continue to be their own separate force in politics, and claims that they are "in bed" with the religious right (just like claims that they are trending conservative) lie somewhere between alarmist and mythical.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Deep Sacrifice

This interests me. The AP reports that, amidst a sea of Republicans being caught in the Abramoff scandal, there are also connections to North Dakota Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan. Now, we should of course be wary of who's making these accusations, but let's say that Dorgan is indeed illicitly involved in this sordid affair. Partisan Democrats would thus be faced with a choice. Try to shield Dorgan, and blunt the effectiveness of the "Culture of Corruption" attack they've been making against Republicans; or, let Dorgan swing and lose a wildly popular Democratic Senator in blood-red North Dakota. While obviously it isn't a straight shot "principled or partisan" issue (Democrats could politically conclude that the benefits of keeping the focus on corruption outweighs losing a red-state Senate seat), it is a good indicator of how serious the partisans are about corruption in government. Right now, voters see little difference between congressional Democrats and Republicans, suggesting that they haven't internalized the message that Democrats are any more anti-corruption than the GOP is. An unequivocal stance of zero-tolerance could change that.

As such, it's heartening to see DKos not hesitate for a moment: "I'm not interested in nuance on this issue. If Dorgan becomes collateral damage, then so be it."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Thunderous Silence

Apologies for light blogging. I returned to work today (only Monday, Thursday, and Friday, but 9-5:30 those days), and I'm a bit tired. Anyway, you can't help but love reading this Obsidian Wings masterpiece on Joe Biden's Iraq editorial and the Bush reaction--plus a few Republican commentators who got caught flat-footed.

Basically, it called for a timetable for achieving certain specific goals (including withdrawals), more support for infrastructural development, and stronger training for the Iraqi army. Nothing too fancy--pretty much what Democrats have been saying all along. And since it was Joe Biden, the GOP attack dogs quite predictably pounced, with attacks such as "clueless," "fundamentally wrong," and the moniker "slow Joe." How abashed they must have been, when Bush administration officials declared Biden's plan to be "remarkably similar" to the President's own! Oh the humanity! That makes Bush too "clueless," "fundamentally wrong," and "unfit to direct this country's foreign policy."

Democrats are having a field day. Republicans are, surprise, mostly silent (though QandO is properly ashamed of his colleagues).

So, the real question is: do the commentators stranded by their own present just ignore the inconsistency, or try to spin some convoluted explanation for why it's all okay? I can't wait to find out!