Racial Preferences: Doubt in the Priesthood

George W. Dent Jr.

Although race preferences and the post-modern version of multiculturalism have triggered opposition since they were first instituted, almost none of the criticism in academia has come from “progressives” on the political left. Thus apologists for these policies have been able to dismiss critics as “conservatives” who favor the privileged and are at best insensitive to racial inequality, even though many of them are traditional liberals.

Now, however, some on the left are charging that race preferences and multiculturalism do not alleviate but exacerbate injustice. We who have always opposed racial discrimination and identity politics will welcome some conclusions of the new critics while we reject much of the reasoning used to reach them. Growing unease in the academic priesthood over preferences and multiculturalism may herald their demise, but it poses a challenge to members of the National Association of Scholars and our allies to articulate carefully what is wrong with these programs and what should be done if they are jettisoned. This article will discuss some of the new critiques and our response to them.

* * *

Although Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of an America in which people would be judged by “the content of their character” and not by the color of their skin, and Hubert Humphrey proclaimed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could never be construed to endorse racial discrimination, for many years now opposition to racial preferences has been labeled “conservative.” So has criticism of the post-modern variants of multiculturalism and diversity, the doctrinal siblings of racial preferences. Of course, true (or traditional or classical) liberals have always valued diversity of thought and the study of non-Western civilizations. What they question are the abandonment of academic and social norms in favor of an ethnic spoils system that has usurped the titles of diversity and multiculturalism.

It is astonishing, then, to find a book entitled The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality by a certified leftist, Walter Benn Michaels.1 He asserts that by glorifying differences among identity groups, even the difference between rich and poor, the diversity movement bolsters economic inequality and thereby serves conservative interests. Because Michaels employs a Marxist class analysis, traditional liberals (including most NAS members) may dismiss him as an oddity, useful only to torment the (pseudo)progressives who peddle (pseudo)diversity. However, for true liberals (as well as compassionate conservatives), his analysis invites an appealing, moderate alternative that goes beyond mere resistance to phony diversity.

Michaels’s account of the follies of diversity is not novel, but is still entertaining and effective. He exposes the hypersensitivity to any imagined slight to a victim group, like the shrill protest against an appeal to adopt abandoned dogs so that they would not wind up in a Chinese restaurant (90). He mocks the absurdity of honoring differences we should bewail, like deafness (166–68). He derides the tacky commerce (like sensitivity training and diversity newsletters and clothing) diversity has spawned. He also ridicules the apology fad: “[A]pologizing for something you didn’t do to people to whom you didn’t do it (in fact, people to whom it wasn’t done) is something of a growth industry” (122).

His main concern, though, is economic inequality. By stressing identity (of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation), he believes, diversity theory deflects concern about poverty. Worse, diversity fabricates a sin of classism: the problem of the poor, it holds, is not poverty but that the well-off do not value their low-income culture. In this thinking, the remedy is not to cure poverty but to respect the poor. Michaels calls diversity conservative because this remedy costs the rich so little. They need only feign esteem for the poor, offer them college scholarships (for which few qualify), and admit to elite schools a few “underrepresented minorities” (themselves mostly well off) with lesser credentials than required for “general admits.” Otherwise, the rich keep their (unearned, in Michaels’s view) privileges.

Michaels disdains the idea of identity on which diversity theory rests. He cites abundant evidence that race has no scientific basis. Cultural categories are equally flawed. First, they do not coincide with ethnicity: some whites adopt a hip-hop lifestyle, some blacks embrace European culture, but for purposes of diversity the former are still considered white and the latter black. Further, the (pseudo)progressive view of culture is contradictory. It holds that the culture of one’s identity group is essential to one’s humanity and that preservation of each culture is necessary. He quotes what he calls “the most influential academic text of the social construction of race:” “without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity.”2

It also maintains that no culture is better or worse than any other. But if all cultures are equal, Michaels asks, why should we care about anyone’s cultural background or whether one group is culturally assimilated into another? “[W]ith respect to our beliefs, it doesn’t matter who we are” (19). “[A]ssimilation is a false issue….There is no behavior that goes with being black or being white” (209). Michaels considers our obsession with racial discrimination excessive: hard core racism “has been pushed to the margins” (70). More important, by treating racism as the problem, the Left makes “a tacit commitment to the efficiency of the marketplace” (76).

“But,” he says, “[T]he greatest value of diversity…is in the contribution it makes to the collective fantasy that institutions like Harvard…are…meritocracies” (85). He slights concerns about their cost and financial aid: what keeps “the great majority of the poor…out of elite universities is not their inability to pay the bill but their inability to qualify for admission in the first place” (87). He attributes this inability to economics, citing the strong correlation of SAT scores with income and the greater amounts spent on K–12 education for the wealthy than for the poor. He claims that the racial gap in education disappears if you factor out family wealth (98–99).3

Diversity’s focus on the victimization of identity groups naturally dictates the remedy of restitution (or reparations) by the dominant group. But restitution is a conservative concept of property rights. Further, the fixation on history “functions at best as a distraction from present injustices and at worst as a way of perpetuating them” (18). It ignores the plight of those who are disadvantaged but who belong to no victim group. As he points out, most of the poor in America are white.

Michaels is not “color blind.” He recognizes that the relative disadvantage of African Americans stems from the history of slavery and racism. His problem with reparations is not that they go too far, but that they don’t go far enough, since the logic of restitution requires only that African Americans be brought to the same level of inequality as white Americans. Michaels wants to go further and drastically reduce economic inequality for all groups.

What Michaels proposes is that we give poor children “an opportunity as equal as we can make it to the opportunities of all other children” (133). This would “make all the histories of victimization…irrelevant” (133). He rejects, however, equality of outcome because of our “commitment…to the importance of hard work and ability” (135).

It is easy to criticize Michaels’s diagnosis and prescription. He is a professor of English literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago, not a social scientist, as his analysis reveals. SAT scores and admissions to Harvard do correlate with wealth, but correlation is not causation. Intelligence is in significant part inherited. It is not surprising, then, that the bright both make more money and have bright children who do well on the SAT.

Academic performance also depends heavily on parental care. It isn’t surprising that those with the skills and habits that succeed in a market economy also guide their children to do well in school. The unimportance of parental wealth to students is confirmed by the academic triumphs of the children of poor immigrants whose parents value education. Likewise, the insignificance of race is evident from the academic success of many children of African immigrants, success that provokes some resentment in the descendants of American slaves.

People across the political spectrum will also question Michaels’s denial of the importance of culture. First, he arrives at this denial only after positing the multicultural tenet that all cultures are equally (un)worthy and, indeed, all aspects of all cultures are equal. Thus works of art, literature, and music traditionally considered great cannot be deemed objectively superior to paint-by-numbers, comic books, or advertising jingles. Indeed, multiculturalism opposes the very idea of a social good; to accept it would tacitly admit that a society could have more or less of it and thus be better or worse than another society or than itself at another time. Most people reject this view. Multicultura1ists themselves maintain that diversity is good, so they must believe that a society that honors diversity is, other things being equal, superior to one that does not. In practice, they also routinely denounce Western civilization, suggesting that it is uniquely evil.

In any case, Michaels himself seems to deny the equality of all cultures since he believes that education, wealth, and economic equality are better than ignorance, poverty, and inequality. He should, then, favor cultural features that foster the former. In America, that includes the Judeo-Christian ethic, the English tradition of the rule of law, and the values of the Protestant Enlightenment embraced by the Founders and manifested in the Declaration of Independence and in the abolition and civil rights movements.

Even if all cultures were equal, it would not follow that the demise of a culture is a matter of indifference. Traditional liberals study other cultures and history (the cultures of the past) because we believe that the rich variety of human existence and an understanding of it are intrinsically good. (Many believe that in studying other cultures and the past we learn useful lessons, but others would demur.) Thus, although true liberals believe that some cultures (or, at least, some aspects of some cultures) are superior to others, they also believe that most (all?) cultures have some positive features that should be preserved if reasonably feasible.

Michaels is right that multiculturalists exaggerate the importance of identity groups. They are also wrong to pressure individuals to adhere to their inherited group identity, as when college students are herded into ethnic dormitories and ethnic studies. It does not follow, though, that identity groups are just social constructs and that cultural identity is irrational false consciousness. It is neither unnatural nor regrettable that most people favor the culture in which they were reared. Indeed, it would be nice if American students were routinely exposed to the many virtues of Western and American culture, and not just to their real and imagined vices.

* * *

Although most of the academic establishment and the political Left remain committed to racial preferences and multiculturalism, Walter Benn Michaels is not the only critic within their ranks. Peter Schmidt is a deputy editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the mouthpiece of the academic hierarchy. He has published Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action.4 Schmidt argues that colleges use race preferences to mask how much they cater to wealthy whites.5 He cites a study concluding that whites were twice as likely as blacks and Hispanics to be enrolled at one of the top 146 colleges because of non-academic preferences. Some of these students are athletes, but most were admitted because of ties to alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians.

This argument, like Michaels’s, poses awkward questions. One possible response is that racial preferences are different in principle. Race is the only issue over which America fought a civil war. Racial discrimination is the principle target of the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution and of innumerable federal and local anti-discrimination laws. By contrast, for example, it is generally considered natural and appropriate to prefer one’s own children over others. And the Greeks who created the intellectual traditions we revere venerated athletic as well academic prowess.

Still, top colleges portray themselves as meritocratic academic institutions. If we depart from academic criteria to admit students sponsored by politicians, how can we criticize administrators who bow to political pressure to admit racial minority applicants?

It’s a little stronger argument that race preferences are different in practice. First, at least the most selective schools give a much larger handicap to minorities than to “legacy” applicants. Second, legacy students are not as readily recognizable as minorities are. Because of these first two factors there has emerged a third: the presence of easily identified minorities who are far less academically qualified than regular students necessitates the construction of the diversity-multicultural complex. This complex works to mask the very existence of preferences, for example, by hiding the facts and pretending that minority students are not admitted with inferior credentials but under different but equally valid criteria. It also maintains segregated facilities (like dormitories, student organizations, and minority studies programs) to separate minority and regular students academically, socially, and psychologically. An ironic result of the racial disparities and separation is that racial tensions are higher at schools that show the greatest racial preferences than they are at other schools.6

Diversity seems also prejudicial to the solidarity, the “fraternité,” the sense of community that the Left claims to value. On this point another recent publication is relevant. A recent study by famed Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and others concludes: “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”7

Although Putnam may not be considered a “progressive,” his 2000 book Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster), which documented a decline in fraternal and civic engagement in America, was applauded by the Left as revealing the damage done by an ascendant conservatism that glorified market values, that preached that “greed is good.” (Many conservatives also hailed the book, but gave it a different reading.) Certainly Putnam cannot be dismissed as a conservative or closet racist.

These practical problems with race preferences and multiculturalism exacerbate doubts whether they actually benefit minorities. UCLA scholar Richard Sander has produced studies concluding that, at least in law schools, they do not. He claims that law students admitted by race preferences are more likely than others to drop out or to be near the bottom of their class if they do graduate, and less likely to pass the bar exam and to find good employment as lawyers.8 Sander’s conclusions have been challenged, but it seems safe to say that even if there are net benefits to minorities, they must be small and accrue primarily to wealthier minority individuals.

By contrast, any problems generated by nonracial preferences are trivial; but that is not to say they are nonexistent. When athletes, for example, are admitted with academic credentials greatly inferior to those of regular students, they are often separately housed, fed a separate academic diet with special tutoring and gut courses, and still graduate at lower rates than other students. We certainly invite suspicion of hypocrisy if we condemn race preferences while condoning nonracial preferences.

* * *

Like Walter Benn Michaels and Peter Schmidt, Peter Sacks criticizes colleges for using race preferences to divert attention from the gross class inequality that they buttress. In Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education he argues that by using race preferences to admit a few (mostly middle-class) minority students for the sake of “diversity,” elite universities have been able to maintain admissions and financial aid systems that mostly reward affluent whites.9 He focuses largely on the supposedly pernicious effects of the obsession of top schools with SAT scores and U.S. News & World Report rankings. That is a fascinating issue, but not one I want to tackle here.

* * *

Until recently academics who harbored doubts about the wisdom or propriety of race preferences and multiculturalism were well-advised to keep their thoughts to themselves; to question them publicly would at least provoke criticism from one’s colleagues, and could incur loss of professional privileges and even severe punishment. The critiques of Michaels, Schmidt and Sacks, who cannot be dismissed as benighted “conservatives,” may have provided sufficient cover so that at least more intrepid academics can air their actual beliefs. Although it seems fanciful now, perhaps in a few years serious discussion of these issues will be generally accepted.

As debate spreads, however, we will confront the issue of what to do instead of race preferences and multiculturalism. Clearly the goal of these “progressives” is not just to abandon these programs and return to the status quo ante. Michaels does not detail a program for equal opportunity (but not equality of outcome), but one suspects that, in his view, it would involve much more economic redistribution, taxation, and restriction of individual freedom than most Americans could accept. (For example, he favors banning private schools as incubators of inequality [135–36].) Moreover, given the importance of non-economic factors in children’s development, any allowance for economic opportunity and incentive will leave large academic gaps between the children of richer and poorer parents, leading to constant demands for more redistribution.

One can, however, reject that program but still admit that America does not now do enough to help poor children. Although there are disputes about the causes of economic inequality, there is general agreement that it has grown in recent decades and that the working poor have not progressed and may have even fallen back. If, following Michaels, we reject the racial spoils system and veneration of a culture of poverty and agree that the poor need help, a large swath of the political spectrum from the moderate Left to the moderate Right should be able to agree on many measures to give poor children more opportunity—perhaps what moderates might call a fair opportunity.

This is not the place to elaborate such a program, but it could include limiting the flood of immigrants who now depress the pay of unskilled workers; tax reductions and increases in the earned income tax credit to give the working poor more income; enhanced safety in poor neighborhoods and schools, many of which are now too violent to foster human flourishing; and availability of orderly, effective schools for all children who want to learn. Such a program could be funded without huge tax increases.

To undertake such a program, though, we must first agree that poverty is a problem to be solved and not a culture to revere, and we must end the ethnic divisions that diversity has exacerbated. Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble with Diversity makes a powerful case in support of taking these steps.

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