The New Frontier: Envisioning an America beyond Racial Preferences and Color-Coded Public Policy

Joe R. Hicks

The politics of racial identity and categorization have perhaps never been as transparent as during the Democratic Party’s electoral race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama to name a presidential nominee. The two slugged it out toe to toe for the nomination, with Obama emerging as his party’s presumptive nominee, albeit somewhat battle-scarred. As such, he stands a good chance of becoming the nation’s first “black” president.

“Race” became a featured theme in the competition between these two candidates, with the Clinton camp seemingly intent on polarizing the race as being between the “black” candidate, Barack Obama, and the “white” and female opponent, Hillary Clinton. Here the odd parameters of identity politics come into play: In the rigid view of the color-coded categorization of people, Barack Obama is considered “black,” even though his mother is a white woman from Kansas and his father is a black African from the nation of Kenya. The need to categorize people by skin color is the reason that people like Lena Horne, Colin Powell, and Tiger Woods are viewed as “black,” despite having mixed “racial” heritages.

Why is this the case? The strange history of how this came to be is located in the politics of the Jim Crow South, where something known as the “One-Drop Rule” held that a person with any trace of black or African ancestry (no matter how small or invisible) could not be considered white. Between 1910 and 1925 almost every state had a one-drop law or its equivalent on the books. It was not until 1967, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, that the U.S. Supreme Court determined that prohibitions against interracial marriages were unconstitutional.1

The illogic of racial categorization, and the related outgrowth of racial preferences, is best illustrated by the example of Barack Obama, who is a candidate for what may be the world’s most important job, yet finds himself mired in the politics of race and identity. The one-drop rule, still alive despite radical changes to the nation’s landscape, determines that Obama is black—even though half of his so-called “racial” heritage is of Irish stock. Obama himself, shaped and guided through most of his life by his white mother and grandparents, has stuck his racial flagpole in the sand and laid claim to a black identity—even while speaking in race transcendent terms about his candidacy the fact that America is “one nation.”

Undeniably true, yet Barack’s embrace of a black racial identity, along with others, like Halle Berry, with complex racial backgrounds, continues to perpetuate a belief in rigid racial categories and informs how this society has viewed issues of racial preferences and public policy—all designed to assuage racial guilt, respond to aggressive racial activism, and purportedly to serve “disadvantaged” racial minorities.

This is so, despite the fact that this nation’s Constitution, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, mandates the equal treatment of individuals. But granting preferential treatment to individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender has become increasingly difficult to mask as something necessary and required by a society that continues, they say, to be dominated by racist views. As this argument goes, the lives of “people of color” are dominated by racial discrimination and biased treatment. But to hold this view, one is required to put blinders on that allow ignoring the true extent of racial progress in this nation.

As Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom point out:

  • In 1940, 60 percent of employed black women worked as domestic servants; today the number is down to 2.2 percent, while 60 percent hold white collar jobs.

  • In 1958, 44 percent of whites said they would move if a black family became their next-door neighbor; today the figure is 1 percent.

  • In 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, only 18 percent of whites claimed to have a friend who was black; today 86 percent say they do, while 87 percent of blacks say they have white friends.

  • Forty percent of blacks now consider themselves members of the middle class.

  • Forty-two percent of blacks own their own homes, and that figure rises to 75 percent if we just look at black couples.2

As the Thernstroms also point out, these facts are seldom reported by the media, and the black underclass continues to define black life in America—with the belief, supported by media portrayals, that the black underclass is authentic in its “blackness” and the black middle class is left to be viewed somehow as copycat white people.

Blacks themselves are guilty of promoting racial authenticity as being located in underclass black and often dysfunctional life. A 1991 Gallop poll found that about one-fifth of white, but almost all black respondents said that at least three out of four black Americans were impoverished urban residents.3 In reality, blacks who consider themselves to be middle class outnumber those with incomes below the poverty line by a wide margin.4

Nonetheless, after decades of pessimistic assessments by civil rights activists, and their allies in the private sector and within government, many blacks continue to view the world through clouded lenses. A poll taken in 1997 by Gallup found that optimism has declined since 1980 among the nation’s black population: only 33 percent of blacks (as opposed to 58 percent of whites), even though both thought the quality of life for blacks and race relations had gotten better.5

But perhaps it couldn’t be anything other than this, since America’s blacks have been fed a steady diet of victimization over recent decades. As critical race theorists like Derrick Bell and others assert, racism will always be a part of American society, and thus racial preferences and racial activism will always be required. Despite the antics of professional complainers like the Reverends Sharpton and Jackson, as well as others like the NAACP’s Julian Bond, many black public figures are breaking with this view, arguing that the old game of racial victimization is beginning to lose its hold on America’s black population.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, someone who has been a dependable voice for racial victimization, wrote a column last year in which he lambasted traditional civil rights voices for ignoring the real problems of urban America. He argued that the real issue is not racism, but instead black-on-black homicide, spiraling rates of HIV-AIDS (particularly acute among black women), and the high rates of incarceration among young black men, as well as the racial learning gap that renders all too many black high school graduates noncompetitive in the world of work or higher education.6

Again, listen to the Thernstroms on this issue:

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that [black] students, on average, are alarmingly far behind whites in math, science, reading, and writing.

  • At the end of their high school career [they] are almost four years behind white (and Asian) students.7

Regarding admittance to highly competitive colleges and universities, Ward Connerly has pointed out that the problem of low rates of black admission is not due to discrimination occurring in admissions offices, but to the small pool of black applicants with competitive high school exit exam scores.

But there have been other significant voices—other than conservatives, like Shelby Steele and Tom Sowell, who have done so consistently—who have begun to challenge the orthodox view of America as a place of limited opportunities for racial minorities. Juan Williams, NPR and FOX News commentator, wrote a book devoted to challenging the liberal racial orthodoxy. The title of Williams’s book is Enough, and he argues forcefully for a fresh new approach to the plight of poor, black urbanized populations.8 Williams endorses the views of comedian/activist Bill Cosby, who has challenged the urban poor to become better parents, resist the lure of a “bling” infected urban culture, and accept personal responsibility for their actions.

Much of the established black leadership, which has served as the long-term bulwark for racial preferences and color-coded public policy, has been attempting to retain credibility and viability in the face of eroding support. The traditional civil rights organizations are struggling to find ways to remain viable. Last year, the NAACP lost its executive director, Bruce Gordon—who dared to assert that the organization needed to redesign its agenda of racial victimization—laid off much of its national staff, and closed down regional offices. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Dr. King in 1957, has also fallen on hard times, with embarrassing revelations of squabbles among national board members that nearly came to blows, and has come under investigation from the IRS for failing to submit annual tax reports, as all 501(c)(3) organizations are required by law to do.

Most hopeful are signs that blacks are beginning to reject the view that they are a victimized population. This does not bode well for those organizations and leaders who are committed to defending racial preferences. A recent Pew Research Center poll (November 2007) found that 37 percent of black Americans agree that it is no longer appropriate to think of black people as a single race. The people most likely to say that blacks are no longer a single race is young black people, ages 18 to 29. Forty-four percent of this group say there is no one black race anymore.9

The Pew poll also found that 53 percent of black Americans now agree that “blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Whites (71 percent) and Latinos (59 percent) agree that racism is not the principal force keeping poor black people in poverty. What were cited as the things keeping poor black in poverty? They were the lack of strong families and the prevalence of values that do not emphasize education, hard work, and perseverance.10

The persistent view among even well-meaning supporters of the liberal racial orthodoxy is that categorizing people based on skin color, providing them with preferential treatment, is that these policies work. This premise is highly arguable, as has been pointed out in numerous studies on the impact and effect of racial preferences. But what if it has not only failed to work, but has actually acted to harm those viewed as the appropriate recipients of racially orchestrated public policy? This is, of course, the thrust of UCLA law professor Richard Sander’s research, who contends in a Stanford Review article that:

[R]acial one realm after another, produces more harms than benefits for its putative beneficiaries….[M]ost black law applicants end up at schools where they will struggle academically and fail at higher rates than they would in the absence of preferences. The net trade-off of higher prestige but weaker academic performance substantially harms black performance on bar exams and harms most new black lawyers on the job market….In systemic, objective terms, [racial preferences] hurts the group it is most designed to help.11

Professor Sander explains this harm in another way. He found that the impact of racial preferences has been devastating in the work place, the law firms where struggling law students may wind up being employed: “[The study]…found that to ensure diversity among new associates, elite law firms hire minority lawyers with, on average, much lower grades than white ones.” That may, the study says, set them up to fail: “The pool of black lawyers with excellent law-school grades is so small that firms must relax their standards if they are to have new associates who resemble the pool of new lawyers.”12

This view, that preferences harm the supposed beneficiaries, is one that may aid in moving this society away from these policies that fly in the face of constitutional guarantees of equal treatment under the law. Following victories at the ballot box in Washington state (I-200), California (Proposition 209), and most recently Michigan (Proposition 2), the defenders of government-sponsored racial preferences are clearly on the defensive. Following the upcoming ballot challenges, there may be additional victories that will move the nation well into that brave new frontier that lies beyond the continued color-coding of the nation’s public policy.

Envisioning this may be difficult for those who continue to see the nation as hostile and intolerant toward non-white Americans. However, while these individuals have entrenched agendas based on beliefs in “racial groups” and “racial interests,” they are being shunted aside by an American population ready and willing to transcend the artificial barriers of racial categorization.

But there is more data that the organized Left in America hates to hear. A new Pew research poll has found that:

  • Solid majorities of blacks, whites, and Hispanics say their group is getting along pretty well or very well with members of the other groups.

  • Seventy-seven percent of whites say blacks and whites get along very or pretty well; 69 percent of blacks say the same thing.

  • Seventy percent of whites say that whites and Hispanics get along very or pretty well, and 71 percent of Hispanics agree.

  • Eighty-six percent of all American adults say they have friends of different races.13

The cantankerous writer and commentator, Christopher Hitchens, has correctly stated that “People who think with their epidermis or their genitals or their clan are the problem to begin with.”14 He also skewers the notions of “race” and “racial classifications,” saying:

The enormous advances in genome studies have effectively discredited the whole idea of “race” as a means of categorizing humans. And however ethnicity may be defined or subdivided, it is utterly unscientific and retrograde to confuse it with color. The number of subjective definitions of “racist” is almost infinite but the only objective definition of the word is “one who believes that there are human races.”15

What comes after this nation’s addition to “race” and “racial categorization?” At first blush, it is the elimination of all preferences based on gender or skin color. What follows next would be the slow but certain death of the need to inquire about the race of individuals on endless government forms attached to public employment, contracting, and education. Finally, as Hitchens and others have concluded, will be the withering away of “race” as a viable way to classify or categorize people. Other more useful and less polarizing ways, only hinted at now, will be devised.

More than a hundred years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois published his book The Souls of Black Folk, which argued that the twentieth century would be the century of the “color line.” In many ways this was true; as the world confronted colonialism and apartheid, this nation waged a winning battle against racial segregation. Du Bois’s prediction and his book are now clearly outdated. The challenge of the twenty-first century is to transcend the divisions caused by racial identity politics, heal the rifts caused by racial preferences, and remove from our lives the need to answer the question staring back from a government form, “What is your race?”

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