Thanks to the Supreme Court, the policy of racial preferences (affirmative action) is back in the news. Preferences have been around for a half century, so the pro and con arguments are well established. On the pro side, preferences are justified by the alleged advantages of “diversity,” while opponents say they are illegal, unfair, and that the benefits of “diversity” are unproven.
There is, however, another opposing argument: Racial preferences are blackmail. They are unearned benefits to bribe blacks into good behavior. We pay the blackmail, but it fails to deliver tranquility. It’s a terrible deal.
At the time of the urban riots of the 1960s, affirmative action seemed to be a cost-effective solution to urban anarchy. Preferences could be implemented by executive order and the costs of government contractors hiring black workers or schools admitting a few blacks would be widely spread out. Beneficiaries would surely move into the mainstream. Nor would many whites object to extending a “helping hand” to people who had long suffered unfair discrimination. Now, preferences are embedded.
The anti-racial preference argument needs to change. Success will not come by filing lawsuits or showing how preferences undermine merit. If these arguments worked, affirmative action would have been ended by legislation. The very idea of racial preferences must be exposed for what it is: extortion. We pay lavishly for a policy that has failed.
Today’s America resembles those English and French coastal towns between the 9th and 11th century that paid the Danegeld to appease marauding Vikings, but they came anyway. Towns eventually stopped paying Danegeld and instead built defenses and trained local militias. When you pay the Danegeld, the Dane never goes away.
We must recognize that we cannot negotiate preferences for peace anyway. There is nobody across the table to deliver the goods. Baltimore or Detroit are not cities run by mafia dons who demand payments in exchange for ending drive-by shooting or stopping the flow of drugs. In fact, if that were true, progress could be made. It is easy to picture the mayor of Baltimore sitting down with the local capo dei capi and turning over cash-filled suitcases to buy peace on the streets. A cash-filled suitcase might be more effective than the billions Washington pours into urban disasters.
Tom Wolfe’s Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers comically illustrated this futility with a depiction of blacks insisting that as “community leaders” they could keep the brothers from running amok. Of course, this is nonsense. Even if the beneficiaries of affirmative action sincerely wanted racial peace, they can’t guarantee the deal. The US is not Africa where an Idi Amin-type can impose a contract, and even then, agreements are fragile.
Affirmative-action black leaders can’t keep the peace either. Cities have repeatedly appointed black police chiefs, but black criminals don’t stop committing crime. Ditto for hiring black school superintendents or principals to quell school mayhem. Meanwhile, the federal government has gone to enormous lengths during the 1960s and ’70s to ensure the election of black mayors and legislators, but this also failed.
Even if we assume that a deal could be negotiated, what may to whites seem like a valuable enticement may not be. A slot at Harvard means nothing to most blacks. The conquistadores knew it was no use to offer books in exchange for gold. Glittery trinkets did the trick, because all exchanges depend on perceived value. Many blacks don’t care about the benefits of affirmative action. The whites who run affirmative action never ask savvy black elected officials what payoffs could shape black behavior.
Preferences over-emphasize the benefits. A judge who rules that unqualified blacks may be admitted to Yale believes that admission is a great prize, but the black who is admitted may not. Why sit in class to enrich the lives of white classmates? If having the Yale degree means a better job, maybe money is the attraction, not the education. What if Yale offered the affirmative-action student $50,000 not to attend?
This keep-the-peace mentality ignores the psychology of gift-giving. It is easy to assume the recipient is grateful, but he may not be. Gift-giving often implies superiority/inferiority and, especially for blacks who prize power and respect, feeling inferior may outweigh the value of the gift. Moreover, why should beneficiaries care about what the gift-giver wants, since he is generous no matter what happens?
The logic of expanding preferences in the hope of buying peace may have it backwards. If a handful of blacks get into top universities by using race as a genuine tie-breaker between genuinely qualified candidates — the theory on which preferences were first sold — there would not be much white resentment. However, as more and more less-qualified blacks are admitted, the gulf between admitted blacks, and whites and Asians widens. It becomes obvious that the gift is undeserved, and the badge of inferiority is plain to see. Achieving a so-called “critical mass” of (unqualified) black students makes race relations worse, not better.
It is time to pull the plug on today’s doomed-to-fail racial preferences by shutting down all government policies that monitor and enforce racial bean counting (preferences for women, Hispanics and so on is another issue). No more Department of Justice consent degrees to “make the numbers” in police and fire departments; no more pressures for those getting government money to hire a workforce that “looks like America,” and no more scrutinizing employment standards to root out alleged bias. Government at all levels should operate as if race does not exist and should no longer assume that bias causes all achievement gaps.
The benefits would be huge. As Charles Murray’s Facing Reality makes clear, if there were no longer a requirement to “make the numbers,” the boost in average IQ across many professions would be enormous, and we would see a jump in productivity. No more incompetent nurses or doctors. Professors could teach demanding courses. Military enlistments would increase.
We could also fire all the useless deans of diversity and inclusion, chief diversity officers, and the lawyers who write litigation-proof personnel policies. The diversity industry would collapse. The saving would be huge. Millions of words of now-obsolete language would be stricken from laws and regulations. Also gone would be one of the most divisive issues in American politics.
Would crime and violence soar? Might blacks start a re-energized Black Panthers Party? Not likely, and the gains far outweigh the costs.
It is hard to imagine legal outcomes triggering George Floyd-levels of mayhem or more black-on-black crime. That comes from lower-class blacks, not middle-class blacks who are the beneficiaries of preferences. Blacks in the hood will not loot Target to rescue diversity-hiring for black hedge-fund managers.
The worst aspects of black behavior — everything from the riots to illegitimacy and welfare dependency — appeared after the civil rights movement, not before. It was a revolution of rising expectations instigated by the major civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965, not a French Revolution style mob. Urban blacks bit the helping hand.
Even if the Court totally bans racial preferences, changes will be almost entirely about government policy, and this will help soften the blow. Nothing the courts can do will stop private firms and schools from favoring blacks and Hispanics over whites and Asians, though this would have to be covert. Millions of good-think employers will keep hiring blacks because they are black. Schools and corporations would sharpen the tools of deception while the National Football League continued to struggle to hire more black coaches.
What about blacks who have affirmation-action jobs now? Nobody would be fired; everything is about future hiring. Also, the blacks who don’t get into fancy white schools might go to black colleges, and the ones who aren’t hired by top white companies might work for black companies. Millions of decent jobs might await blacks if the US returned to an era when millions of black-run businesses catered to blacks. During the pre-civil rights era, black labor force participation often exceeded 90 percent.
It is easy to forget the countless black-owned enterprises that were bankrupted by integration. According to Black Excellence, thousands of black-owned and black-run firms thrived, especially where there was Jim Crow. Many of the estimated 10,000 black-owned firms in 1920 joined some 600 chapters of National Negro Business League. The term “double-duty dollar” was popular — spending at black-owned business was good for both sides of the transaction.
There is a growing nostalgia among blacks for the pre-integration era now lost. As a recent article in Washington Monthly put it:
In 1985, sixty black-owned banks were providing financial services to their communities; today, just twenty-three remain. In eleven states that headquartered black-owned banks in 1994, not a single one is still in business. Of the fifty black-owned insurance companies that operated during the 1980s, today just two remain.
This parallels the demise of black-owned taxi services, supermarkets, publishing, cosmetic firms and mom-and-pop businesses.
Among the greatest beneficiaries of ending racial preferences would be the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s). If there were no preferences to get blacks into top schools, liberal foundations along with state and the national governments could increase support. Recently, Jeff Bezos’s ex gave $560 million to black schools and that may be only the beginning. Top universities, free of diversity and inclusion pressures, might lend a hand with joint programs and visiting faculty, all perfectly legal regardless of what the Supreme Court decides. A Harvard professor deeply committed to racial justice could spend a semester teaching at Spellman College. The school gets a free teacher and can boast that its students learn from Ivy League professors.
It should be clear that ending affirmative action may have consequences far beyond eliminating the most prominent feature of today’s racial spoils system. It could start a mutually beneficial and jointly desired racial disengagement. Black businesses and universities would be reinvigorated while white institutions would no longer be pressured to hire people they don’t want. The affirmative-action stigma on blacks and Hispanics would vanish. Ending the extortion offers far more than just refusing to pay the Danegeld. Free at last.