The call to end affirmative action gained a new proponent this week -- and from an unlikely candidate. Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles Times columnist and fellow at the progressive-leaning New America Foundation, wrote this week, "We need to find new, less divisive ways to fight inequality."
I couldn't agree more with Rodriguez's conclusion but not entirely with the analysis that leads him there. Rodriguez's opposition stems from his fear that white racial anxiety is rising and that affirmative action could lead to a destructive white backlash. "The combination of changing demographics and symbolic political victories on the part of nonwhites will inspire in whites a greater racial consciousness, a growing sense of beleagurement and louder calls to end affirmative or to be included in it," he writes.
Rodriguez's fears about white racial anxiety seem a bit overblown. Americans have shown themselves increasingly oblivious to racial considerations. Not only did Americans elect the first black president just two years ago, but this year, the GOP has nominated Hispanics for two U.S. Senate seats and two gubernatorial races. In addition, the Republican nominee for governor of South Carolina is an Indian-American female, who, if elected, would join Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal as the party's second major elected official of Indian ancestry.
Nonetheless, Rodriguez's point about changing demographics is an important one. As he correctly notes, affirmative action was initially intended to benefit a small minority, mainly African-Americans who had suffered more than a century of state-sponsored racial discrimination.
But the program expanded in rationale -- from making up for past discrimination to promoting diversity -- and in scope, to include Hispanic and Asian immigrants as well as blacks. It's hard to argue that newcomers should be entitled to affirmative action benefits, especially when they have no historical claim to have suffered past discrimination in this society. Since white women also benefit from many affirmative action programs, these preferences now apply to a majority of the population. Clearly, set-asides that apply to that many people, many of whom are not economically or educationally disadvantaged, are a mockery of the original intent of affirmative action.
Ironically, Rodriguez barely addresses what I've always believed is one of the strongest arguments against affirmative action: its detrimental effects on the very people it's meant to help by turning them into perpetual victims. In passing, Rodriguez warns that whites, too, might fall prey to "the siren song of victimology that has captivated other groups." Victimology and affirmative action go hand in hand. Without claiming to be a victim, you can't make a case that you're entitled to special treatment.
But thinking you're a victim is a lousy way to get ahead in a society as competitive as this one, no matter what your skin color. It's a defeatist attitude that encourages failure, not success. And even when adopting victim status ensures preferential treatment, it leads to resentment and anger in the beneficiary and a sense of patronizing superiority in the benefactor. Such attitudes are hardly a recipe for greater racial harmony, much less success.
In the end, however, the best argument against affirmative action is a moral one. Making choices based on race or ethnicity is simply wrong. You know almost nothing about a person solely because of his or her skin color. It doesn't tell you whether the person is competent, reliable, or trustworthy. It doesn't give you useful information about the person's past performance or potential, any more than knowing the person's shoe size does. When you're making a decision about hiring someone or admitting a person to school, what's relevant is the individual's performance, not his group identity.
It's time to end affirmative action not because it makes whites anxious but because it perpetuates race obsession that harms all Americans, regardless of color. We've got to get beyond thinking of ourselves in terms of racial or ethnic origins if we are ever to live up to our ideals as Americans.