Whither the Race Debate

Originally published 5/5/2003.

It’s no secret, nor should it be any surprise, that I am completely and totally against Affirmative Action. I have been for years, and the arguments against Affirmative Action are often sound and sometimes even incontrovertible, with some powerhouse authors stacked up against the case, including Thomas Sowell, George Will, William F. Buckley, and David Horowitz.

But this essay is not about Affirmative Action, a perennial debate that resurfaces every once in a while when the Supreme Court is faced with making a guaranteed tough, controversial decision.

Instead, this essay is about the debate surrounding Affirmative Action. I would hazard a guess that most, if not all, the strongest arguments for and against AA have already been made. The question falls as to why either side of the debate cannot seem to grasp a definitive foothold one way or the other.

Recently I was working at a place that was dominated by academics. Academics are predominantly liberal (the reasons why will be explored in another essay) and this is no exception. As a determined libertarian, and someone who has a big problem keeping his mouth shut, I found myself deeply immersed in a ‘friendly’ conversation about Affirmative Action with some people who have extremely passionate views about the subject.

The conversation bounced back and forth between myself and three other people, two black women and a white male from The Netherlands. The personalities at the table could not have been more polarized if they had been written that way. One of the women, Laurie, exuded a passion about the subject that bordered on obsession. Ereka, on the other hand, was far more cerebral and guarded about her arguments, for reasons that would become apparent later on.

It became very clear early on that Laurie was having a difficult time hearing what was being said, tending to absorb what she thought she heard and discounting my input even when she was corrected. For instance, regarding a recent study that indicated that black students would do better if they were matched more appropriately with universities of their skill levels, I made the comment that ‘not all people belong in college.’ What Laurie heard, though, was ‘not all black people belong in college.’ She began ranting about how there were white people who didn’t belong in college as well, and Asians, etc.

It took several attempts to get her to slow down long enough to point out that I had said, ‘some people’ and not ‘some black people’ but the damage had been done. From that point on Laurie’s arguments and rebuttals were based on what she had thought I said, not what I did, in fact, say.

Ereka’s stance was one that was far more reasoned, and far more eloquently stated in response to the arguments put forward. This is not to say they weren’t refutable – from a purely debate standpoint, of course – but that she had an easier time separating herself from the argument to the point where I believed she actually could comprehend my standpoint as well as believe that I could understand hers.

She remained guarded and hesitant to discuss the subject afterwards, though I found it considerably easier to joke with her about the subject (far easier than with Laurie). She had reason to be suspicious, however. From her perspective, she told me on the bus ride back to the airport, most white people who engage in the conversation do so as a mere academic exercise, something to while away the hours but who don’t seem to comprehend that – for her and Laurie – this is not an issue that can be entered into and exited from. It is a discourse that is more existential. This is the very reason why Laurie’s passion runs so high, in fact. One of the themes consistent in her arguments was that the experience of black people is so easily discounted by non-blacks.

My own involvement is personal as well, though ironically Laurie might probably be one of the first people to discount that. By all means, there is no attempt here at a comparison, though I found Laurie’s assumption that bad things don’t happen to white people with regards to race somewhat incongruous.

Afterwards, when I started to re-examine the discourse between me and these two women, I began to wonder if any arguments at all might tend to persuade them to reconsider their positions. Then, in perhaps a surprising moment of insight, I turned the question around: would there be some sort of argument that might persuade me to reconsider my stance on Affirmative Action?

It’s a good question, and an absolutely fair one to put to the test if I can expect to confront anyone else with it. Personal experience – that weak line of reasoning that we all fall back upon when faced with hard truths – is a very difficult one to ignore. My own experience is somewhat more involved in the hiring process in the university system than either Ereka or Laurie, as the former only recently received her Ph.D and Laurie has not yet begun her dissertation. Neither of them has been on a search committee, so they have not yet seen the administrative back-flips that are made in deference to minority hires – especially black women.

So, like them, how could an argument for Affirmative Action persuade me when everything I’ve seen contradicts it? The same way, I suppose that everything they?ve seen tells them the exact same thing.

Is this what happens, then, when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? I hope not. I take the first step in trying to examine what would possibly make me believe that Affirmative Action is a good thing.

First, I believe that there would need to be some sort of definition of terms that I could not only live with, but wholeheartedly agree with. Terms like ‘equality,’ ‘Diversity’, and ‘quota’, just to name a few. Even those terms that we don’t want as a desired outcome (quota, for instance), needs to be defined so that we can identify an undesirable outcome when it occurs.

Second, we need to agree on correctly identifying what the problem really is. This is, of course, followed by what our priorities are and should be. For instance, are we going to be basing our goals upon individuals or group status? Right now, it seems to me, the pro-Affirmative Action camp is decidedly in the group status mode, while the anti-Affirmative Action looks more to the individual’s ability. No resolution or even approach to the problem can be started until we know how to approach the issue.

Third, in order for me to be persuaded I would need to understand why the goal of Affirmative Action is a desirable one. The interest of ‘diversity,’ while seemingly a noble goal, does not appear to have universal support. At some level, for instance, individuals tend to self-identify and self-affiliate through a course of natural self-selection, a phenomenon that is contrarian to the goals and methods of those who support and promote diversity.

Fourth, I would need to be shown how the practice of Affirmative Action – not just the theory – actually provides for overall betterment for everyone involved, both at the individual level as well as from the group perspective. Part of the problem with Affirmative Action now is that while the proponents proclaim great utility for a small segment of the population, they seem to ignore or even dismiss the negative consequences . Even worse, it becomes apparent that if others need to suffer through Affirmative Action, they don’t care. In order for me to be persuaded, I need to understand how Affirmative Action does not break the first rule of ethical behavior: do no harm.

Finally, in order to be persuaded to accept the viability and worth of Affirmative Action, I need to know and be sure that the motivation and incentive on the part of those who support it is not due to vengeance, anger, or retaliation. After all, who wants to engage in a conversation when the desired outcome from the other side is to injure you?

I suppose that the major question surrounding the issue now is whether or not those proponents of Affirmative Action could 1) make the determination that they could be persuaded otherwise, and 2) determine what would have to happen in order to do that. In all honesty, I am not sure that any resolution can be achieved unless both sides of the debate are willing to acknowledge the possibility of fallibility of their positions and are genuine in that acknowledgement.

While I don’t expect Laurie and others who share her deep emotional commitment to the cause to ever achieve that place, I do have great hopes for Ereka and those like her who seem to take a more approachable stance. In the long run, I believe that it will be people like Ereka who will ultimately be able to make the most progress in bridging the gaps by respecting the value of others’ opinions.