What If?

Not long ago I noted that

the underlying principle urged upon us by the Louisville and Seattle school boards and their defenders is that “racial balance” is fundamental. Non-discrimination might be nice, but it’s not essential. What is essential, I believe they claim, is that the need for “racial balance” trumps everything.

And I invited you to join me in considering a hypothetical proposition followed by an actual question:

In order to elucidate the preferentialist principle a bit further, let us step outside bounds of actual, practical controversy and consider this hypothetical scenario:

First, if “racial balance” truly is a compelling national interest, then students in schools — indeed, almost all students in some entire states — are being woefully deprived of the education they need to succeed in our new global marketplace, etc.

With that in mind, what if the governments of, say, Michigan and North Dakota (black population: 0.7%) agreed (“voluntarily,” of course) to pay all the expenses associated with relocating several hundred black families from Michigan (many, but not all, from inner city Detroit) to North Dakota, to provide at least a modicum of “racial balance” there. If there were not enough Michigan volunteers, the National Guard would round up the balance, choosing those whose material conditions would be most improved by the transfer.

Some of those involuntary transferees, to be sure, would complain that they preferred for their children to attend schools in their current neighborhood (“Or at least in the same state!” a few of them might shout). Officials from the Michigan and North Dakota state governments, mayors, and involved school board officials from both states would no doubt think it unfortunate that some people were forced to relocate because of their race, but they took solace from the assurance of the City of Louisville in its recent brief to the Supreme Court that

[t]he small harm done to a few students who do not get their first choice of schools [or states] … is outweighed by the value of [providing] an integrated school system … [to an entire state].

Is the difference between what Seattle and Louisville are doing and my hypothetical scenario a difference in kind, or only in degree?

I still think that’s a good question. Now, in the same spirit, let me ask you to join me in considering another hypothetical.

First, recall that one of the customary defenses of racial preference programs is that they are not discriminatory since they do not stigmatize those who are not preferred. No stigma, so the argument goes, no discrimination. As Justice Stevens noted in his 1978 opinion in Bakke (discussed below), however, “[n]o such qualification or limitation” of the meaning of discrimination “is justified by the [Civil Rights Act of 1964] or its history.”

But never mind. The Civil Right Act is just, well, law, and we all know any text can be construed to justify, or allow, any result decent and well-meaning people desire. So, let’s set the law aside for a moment and take another, somewhat unconventional look at the “stigma” argument. If we approach it afresh, it may have some surprising relevance to the racial school assignment cases.

First, recall some of the zany things the Seattle school district has said about “cultural racism.” In an amicus brief for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which I discussed here, Hans Bader has pointed out a number of disturbing things that appeared on the web site of the Seattle schools.

On its Equity and Race Relations web site, the Seattle School District, until June 2006, declared that “cultural racism” includes the following:

“emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology”;

“having a future time orientation” (planning ahead); and “defining one form of English as standard.”

In addition, the web site declared that only whites can be racists, and that minorities cannot be racist towards each other. And it derided the concept of “equality” as an outmoded aspect of assimilation. (Assimilation in turn was disparaged as the “giving up” of one’s culture).

After these definitions became the subject of extensive media attention, the School District withdrew the page that contained them from its web site on June 1, alleging a need to “provide more context to readers” about “institutional racism.” In its place, the School District inserted a web page that criticizes the very idea of a “melting pot” and being “colorblind,” emphasizing that the district’s “intention is not . . . to continue unsuccessful concepts such as a melting pot or colorblind mentality.”

Now imagine a hypothetical Seattle student — let’s call him Joe White — who is white and (but nevertheless?) a true believer in “multiculturalism,” “diversity,” racial preferences, etc. But our Joe is also a budding scientist whose desire to enroll in a high school known to have particularly strong offerings in chemistry and physics was turned down because there were too many students “like him,” or “his kind,” i.e., whites, already there. In the school district’s view, Joe would add nothing to the “diversity” of his first choice school, while his absence from the school to which he was assigned would detract from its “diversity” because there were too few students “like him,” “of his kind,” there.

Given the Seattle school district’s stated views of what it seems to regard as white culture, why couldn’t Joe claim with great force that it stigmatizes him to assume he is culturally indistinguishable from other whites who, he may even agree, suffer from the pathologies of “cultural racism” the Seattle schools are dedicated to uprooting?

Say What?