Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Class Doesn't Stay That Way

In an editorial for the Washington Post, Peter Beinart thinks that Barack Obama could put the issue of race away for good if he came out for replacing race-based affirmative action with class-based programs.

I have no problem with class-based affirmative action, though I think it should supplement, not replace, its racial peer, as both are independent sources of disadvantage and both are independent sources of diversity. But even the premise is wrong here. The reason affirmative action inspires disdain isn't because it leaves "deserving" Whites out. The reason is simply that it is a program whose primary beneficiaries are seen to be Black people.

It is well established that even class-based programs which are tagged as predominantly helping Blacks have significant struggles maintaining their popularity. Welfare is a great example of this -- it is, of course, the paradigmatic class-based assistance program, and yet it is just as controversial and (more importantly) just as racialized as affirmative action is (Welfare Queens, anyone?). Affirmative action is particularly vulnerable to this, because many of the arguments deployed against it now work just as well against the class-based variety (that we should "just judge everyone based on merit" applies as much to the poor as it does to Blacks).

Advocates for class-based AA say that it would still help many Blacks, because Blacks are disproportionately concentrated amongst the extreme poor. But if that's the case, then I doubt you'll see any serious dissipation in the antipathy many Whites feel for affirmative action. The causal force is White jealousy of Black attainment. At the end of the day, the procedures don't matter all that much.

See also, Ta-Nehisi Coates: "There's always a good reason to be a racist."

"Sometimes I have feared that, in some wild paroxysm of rage, the white race, forgetful of the claims of humanity and the precepts of the Christian religion, will proceed to slaughter the Negro in wholesale, as some of that race have attempted to slaughter Chinamen, and as it has been done in detail in some districts of the Southern States. The grounds of this fear, however, have in some measure decreased since the Negro has largely disappeared from the arena of Southern politics, and has betaken himself to industrial pursuits and the acquisition of wealth and education, though even here, if over-prosperous, he is likely to excite a dangerous antagonism; for the white people do not easily tolerate the presence among them of a race more prosperous than themselves. The Negro as a poor ignorant creature does not contradict the race pride of the white race. He is more a source of amusement to that race than an object of resentment. Malignant resistance is augmented as he approaches the plane occupied by the white race, and yet I think that the resistance will gradually yield to the pressure of wealth, education, and high character.

My strongest conviction as to the future of the Negro therefore is, that he will not be expatriated nor annihilated, nor will he forever remain a separate and distinct race from the people around him, but that he will be absorbed assimilated, and will only appear finally, as the Phoenicians now appear on the shores of the Shannon, in the features of a blended race.

Frederick Douglass, "The Future of the Colored Race", in Negro Social and Political Thought: 1850-1920, Howard Brotz, ed. (New York: Basic Books 1966), pp. 308-310 (originally published May 1886), 309.


Cycle Cyril said...

No, the reason affirmative action (AA) "inspires disdain" is not because the beneficiaries are Black or women or other minorities or even because it leaves Whites out.

AA should be eliminated because it destroys the incentives to achieve and demeans the achievements made by those who are the focus of AA. In the end it benefits only the advocates of AA because it makes them feel smart and influential and beneficent.

PG said...

AA should be eliminated because it destroys the incentives to achieve and demeans the achievements made by those who are the focus of AA.

Hear that, every successful racial minority and woman in America? Because of the existence of AA, you have no incentive to achieve. And here I thought we AA beneficiaries at least had the incentive to beat one another out. (Or maybe we all got together and agreed not to work very hard, but there still was incentive to screw up the curve.)

PG said...

Also, David, I think we would need to disaggregate the "you're a single mother? you had sex outside marriage, you SLUT!" element from the post-1960 disdain for welfare before I would be certain that it was just a race thing.

David Schraub said...

White single mothers live in trailer parks in rural (hard-working American) areas. Black ones "drive Cadillacs" (probably big tricked out ones) in their urban streets. You tell me which mythology gets the more focus.

Disagg complete.

PG said...

White single mothers living in trailer parks aren't despised? May I introduce you to a phrase: "white/ trailer trash." I think you underestimate how widespread the antagonism toward all single mothers -- regardless of race -- is in our socio-political culture.

David Schraub said...

Trailer trash doesn't come close to limiting itself to single mothers -- it's a general expression of elitism against rural Whites including those in intact families.