Racism and Race-Conscious Remedies

Racism and Race-Conscious Remedies Kenneth S. Tollett I am sad to observe that the views expressed by Professor William Julius Wilson ("Race-Neutral Programs and the Democratic Coalition,TAP, Spring 1990) are barely, if at all, distinguishable from those of so-called liberal or progressive whites. Of course, I am not objecting to his right to express his particular views. But I would like to see better represented the views of blacks who are more supportive of a race-conscious approach to public policy. Although Wilson is surely not a Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, or Shelby Steele, his views, like theirs, carry considerable force and persuasiveness and give aid and comfort to whites who resist race-conscious policies for reasons, I believe, inimical to the interest of blacks.

Theda Skocpol ("Sustainable Social Policy: Fighting Poverty Without Poverty Programs, TAP, Summer 1990) uses Wilson's approach as a justification for universal policies in preference to targeted programs. I believe she and Wilson both suffer from a modified Gerald Ford syndrome: they cannot pursue universal and targeted policies at the same time.

There are several flaws in Wilson's "race-neutral" article. Although many white Americans may have turned against a strategy that emphasizes programs perceived to benefit only racial minorities, many whites have also turned against blacks themselves, if they have not always been against them. Opinion research for the last twenty years has understated the pervasiveness and depth of white supremacy and racism. The civil rights acts and movement have had more impact on the conduct of whites than on their basic attitudes. Therefore, whenever political or social circumstances permit the expression of the true feelings of whites, they oppose or are not very sympathetic to black needs, interests, and rights. The Supreme Court's Bakke decision and Reaganism of the 1980s relegitimated open opposition to the needs, rights, and interests of black people. Much opposition to court-ordered busing, affirmative action programs, and anti-discrimination laws was pure and simple racial hostility or white supremacy.

Whether Wilson does not implicitly agree with me on this point I am not sure. Indeed, I get the uneasy feeling that his fundamental opposition to race-specific programs is that, deep down, he knows racism and white supremacy continue to be strong. The issue is whether it is better to avoid confronting this problem by trying to finesse it with race-neutral policies or whether it should be confronted with targeted programs. I believe that universal and targeted policies can be pursued simultaneously.


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If white supremacy continues to be as strong as I am indicating, universal policies that also benefit blacks substantially will be resisted or undermined by whites if they perceive that the benefits going to blacks may dilute the benefits to them. The obvious answer to this possibility is that policies strongly reinforcing economic progress and development will cause whites to be less stingy in their reaction to benefits received by blacks. Wilson recognizes this in his book, The Truly Disadvantaged, yet he seems to express little sympathy, if not hostility, toward affirmative action. He does, however, acknowledge the fact that if things are going well generally, whites will be more tolerant of or passive about affirmative action.

More important, the way to overcome racism and white supremacy is not to acquiesce or capitulate to them by avoiding race-specific policies, but to appeal forcefully to the American Dream and indicate how targeting the problems of the black underclass will ultimately serve the interest of the entire society as well. We can, for example, defend affirmative action on the basis of pursuing the goals of diversity and national competitiveness. And one can always argue that targeting the underclass, specifically blacks, is more economical in the long run than having to provide for large numbers of them through welfare or incarceration or trying to prevent the losses that come from criminal and other antisocial behavior.

Wilson's analysis is rhetorically misleading, if not tricky. He starts off discussing the disproportionate lack of resources of disadvantaged minorities to compete effectively in a free and open market, giving disproportionality a negative connotation -- what C.L. Stevenson in his Ethics and Language labeled a "persuasive definition." He then moves on to argue that for a minority group disproportionately to benefit or profit from a policy of preferential treatment is somehow as socially deleterious as the "disproportionate lack of resources to compete effectively," rhetorically inducing a kind of Skinnerian or Pavlovian negative response.

This is like complaining that the recent Americans with Disabilities Act harms society because it disproportionately benefits the handicapped or disabled. Of course, the act by definition disproportionately benefits the disabled. If society, as a matter of ideals and racial justice, is positively disposed toward blacks and other minority groups, disproportionate benefit in this sense and context is good not only for the targeted group, but also for society at large.

Most important, I take umbrage at Wilson's repeated criticism of affirmative action for benefiting primarily the middle class or those who need help least and not helping the underclass. I find this an expression of romantic leftism or totalistic, utopian reformism. It is as if one were to criticize penicillin for not curing or anticipating and preventing AIDS or cancer. A positive policy initiative does not have to do everything to do anything worthwhile at all.

Although Wilson does positively refer to Bill Taylor's statement that affirmative action has helped blue-collar and working-class blacks as well as middle-class blacks, he does a tremendous disservice to public policy analysis by spinning his argument against affirmative action, almost gratuitously. In spite of his proper disclaimers of not being an accomplice of the neoconservative critics of affirmative action, his failure to affirm more positively the constructive consequences of affirmative action virtually undermines it by default, understatement, or caviling about its differential consequences. It is possible to concentrate more efforts on the underclass via general or targeted programs without trashing or undermining the benefits and beneficiaries of affirmative action.


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Very little in The American Prospect has indicated that it is strongly committed to the needs, interests, and rights of blacks. Take, for example, Cass R. Sunstein's excellent article, "Constitutional Politics and the Conservative Court" (Spring 1990). I agree with the thrust of his argument, particularly his emphasis on relying more in the future on the executive and legislative branches of government than on the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary. My quarrel with Sunstein, however, is that apparently he is much more concerned about sexism, privacy (the right to abortion), and sexual-orientation discrimination than he is about racial discrimination. His deemphasis of race condones or rationalizes the crypto-racism of this kind of so-called liberalism and progressivism which cares more about protecting the right to kill fetuses, to bird-watch spotted owls, and to practice sodomy than saving black children, employing black males, and reviving the nuclear family, thus stemming the tide of female-headed households, a veritable plague in the black community, especially when it means children having children.

Sunstein's discussion of "civil rights" begins with Bowers v. Hardwick (1988) and the Webster case. He has elsewhere indicated that the "one pervading" or original purpose of the Reconstruction Amendments, which was to secure the liberty and freedom of blacks or freedmen, "is probably no longer worth taking seriously." Why not? The only reason is the lack of concern for the interests, needs, and rights of blacks.


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Actually, it should be easy to turn the rhetoric of the originalist and interpretivist in favor of blacks and racially sensitive programs. Indeed, I am an originalist or textualist. I defy anyone -- historian, constitutional lawyer, political scientist, or philosopher -- to prove that the Reconstruction Amendments and civil rights acts were not primarily concerned with the interests, needs, and rights of blacks. If that is so, then why not forcefully advocate that the country fulfill the promises and commitments of those amendments and legislative initiatives?

Finally, the reader may ask why, if I believe racism and white supremacy to be this bad, I believe it is possible to target minority groups in the face of them? I believe this is a proper approach because I also believe the citizens of the United States have a reservoir of decency and commitment to principle. If an argument is forcefully made to honor the American Dream and Reconstruction commitments, the country will acquiesce or adhere to it, especially if it is made clear that so honoring those commitments and making the dream a living reality will make the country more internationally competitive and nationally peaceful and prosperous. The argument could be made successfully if knowledgeable blacks such as Wilson, and so-called liberal publications such as The American Prospect, recognized and exposed the ongoing virulence, violence, and vitality of racism and white supremacy.

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