Class War?

Michael Kinsley opposes “class war,” which he thinks would result from substituting affirmative action based on class for affirmative action based on race. Although he recognizes that “racial affirmative action is … a raw sore on our body politic,” he does not explain why he believes class-based affirmative action would lead to “blood in the streets resentments” but race-based affirmative action leads only to “a raw sore,” presumably treatable with sufficient applications of liberal rhetorical balm.

Kinsley regards class-based affirmative action as a “terrible idea,” and he makes some good points.

…. People with better qualifications would still lose jobs and university slots to people with worse qualifications, and their resentment probably wouldn’t be mollified by the fact that the beneficiaries of this policy might be white. Moreover, it would put America in the business of labeling people and rewarding them according to a criterion–social class–which would be a nightmare possibly even worse than race.

Although most African Americans are actually of mixed blood, defining who is black for purposes of affirmative action has not been very difficult. (Grotesque sometimes, but not difficult.) Defining concepts like “working class” or “rural poor” and then assigning individuals to their appropriate class would be far more challenging. And deciding exactly what degree of reverse discrimination each allegedly deprived social class is entitled to would be even worse. Today’s affirmative-action battles, and the deep resentments they stir up (reasonably or otherwise), are nothing compared with the blood in the streets and the bitterness in the hearts of Americans denied a promotion after some tribunal ruled that they were upper middle class when the guy next door (who has a pool in his backyard, for crying out loud) got a precious “lower middle” classification and a handsome raise to go with it.

Kinsley errs, however, as do so many defenders of our current racial spoils system, by identifying one criticism of race preferences — that they violate the merit principle — as the only one.

Opponents and supporters of affirmative action all carry a picture in their heads of how things should work. In this picture, everyone in the world is lined up, from No. 1 to No. 7 billion, in order of their qualifications for a job, admission to a university or whatever. The job goes to the first person in line who wants it. Opponents of affirmative action say it’s unfair to let anyone jump ahead because of his or her race. Supporters say, Unfair? Are you kidding? Affirmative action just gives people the same places in line they would have had if there had been equal opportunity.

This picture is wrong in many ways. What makes someone good in a job depends on a variety of factors that are hard to define or measure. They can’t be used to line people up on the basis of a variable called “qualifications.” Furthermore, race, or at least a diversity of racial backgrounds, often is a qualification. Finally, the benefits of affirmative action sometimes go to people who have already had equal opportunity and more.

But what Kinsley calls “the principal complaint people have about affirmative action: that it violates the principle of merit” is not, in my view, often expressed here, the principal complaint at all, nor is it the most fundamental one.

The most fundamental reason it is “unfair” to reward someone (and thus punish someone else) because of race is not that doing so violates the “principle of merit.” It is that it violates a principle much more deep-seated in American history and in the American system of values, that each individual has a fundamental right to be treated “without regard to race, creed, or color.”

Merit is nice. Sometimes it’s very important. But sacrificing it for something else (often a different kind of merit, as when academic standards are lowered for athletes) does not violate what Gunnar Myrdal called “The American Creed.” As the eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson once wrote (quoted here):

we did not fight the Civil War to make sure the University of Mississippi would admit good quarterbacks, we fought it to make certain it would admit blacks. To say that racial and athletic classifications are similar or that one can reason from the latter to the former is foolish. No court has ever held, or is likely to hold, that being able to throw a football 60 yards (or to have a father who gave the school a million dollars) places you in a class whose rights are protected by the barrier of strict scrutiny. Of course, one could argue for making both race and athleticism the same, by getting the Court to say that race is no longer a suspect classification. But that would mean reversing 40 years of desegregation. [“Symposium: Is Affirmative Action on the Way Out? Should It Be?” COMMENTARY, March 1998]

Kinsley to the contrary, race should not be “a qualification” for anything, except (the only example that I think is “tailored” narrowly enough) for selecting police officers to go undercover in a racial or ethnic gang.

Say What? (1)

  1. Roy Lofquist August 22, 2008 at 9:36 pm | | Reply

    Mr. Kinsley occasionally reverts to his former brilliance.

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