Affirmative Action and Equality, Cont’d

I would be remiss to leave the recent discussions on affirmative action and equality without citing Frederick Douglass’s moral argument against affirmative action made in 1865 to a group of abolitionists:

“[I]n regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us…. I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury.”

As it turned out, this nation’s racial minorities achieved their most dramatic years of social and economic progress in the years prior to affirmative action.

Here’s Thomas Sowell:

Americans need only look back to the beginning of the twentieth century to see what enormous social and economic progress has been made by some of the poorest and apparently least promising segments of the population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only about half of the black population of the United States could read and write. Jews lived packed into slums on the lower east side of New York, with more overcrowding than in any slums in America today. As late as the First World War, the results of mass mental testing of American soldiers led a leading authority on mental tests to conclude that it was a myth that Jews were highly intelligent. The situation of Chinese Americans looked so hopeless that a popular expression of the time described someone facing impossible odds as having “not a Chinaman’s chance.”

Not even most optimists would have predicted at that time how much all these groups would rise over the next half century—before there were preferences or quotas. Even for blacks, at the center of current controversies about affirmative action, the decline in their poverty and their rise in the professions were both more dramatic before the federal government created affirmative action in the 1970s. With all these American ethnic groups—and others—what happened was not a transfer of benefits from the rest of the population, but a rising contribution from these minorities to the growing prosperity of American society as a whole, from which both they and the larger society benefited, as the less educated became more educated, as farm laborers and domestic servants acquired the skills and experience to take on more challenging work. This was not a zero-sum process, while redistribution is at best a zero-sum process, if it somehow manages to avoid disincentive effects and intergroup turmoil.

Why is this social process, with a proven track record, so little appreciated, or even noticed—and sometimes dismissed as a policy of “doing nothing”? Perhaps that is because, whatever its economic and social benefits, it offers few rewards to politicians, activists, and intellectuals or to those who wish to seem morally superior by denouncing society. The heroes of these groups’ rise are anonymous individuals, not public figures. Here is some history worth repeating—but only if the goal is the advancement of the less fortunate, rather than the aggrandizement of those who would be their guardians or spokesmen or elected officials.

In 1998, the first year in which affirmative action was abolished in California following the passage of Prop 209, the UC system reported just a 2.2% drop in minority admissions.  Around the same time, the rate of minority enrollment in private four-year institutions increased.  However, white admissions in the UC system also decreased from 1997 to 1998 by a much greater factor of 9%. The data suggests the group affirmative action had really been short-changing all those years was Asian-Americans. 

Finally, for your consideration, compare Mr. Sowell’s last paragraph above, discussing the unintended consequences of overly race-conscious “politicians, activists, and intellectuals,” with Booker T. Washington’s observation in 1901:

I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end. Besides, the general political agitation drew the attention of our people away from the more fundamental matters of perfecting themselves in the industries at their doors and in securing property.

Wisely, then, did the U.S. Supreme Court reject the notion that “equal protection” should be interpreted, as activists and intellectuals favored, as the amelioration of “societal discrimination.”  That principle of equality, endorsing “an amorphous concept of injury that may be ageless in its reach into the past,” was rejected as constitutionally infirm and cannot justify the impairment of the constitutional rights of innocent individuals.  Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 307 (1978).  “Equal protection of the laws” cannot exist when the laws are contorted and disparately applied so as to counteract an endless menu of purported social and historical iniquities.

The debate whether the kind of “amorphous” equality pressed by politicians, activists, and intellectuals, then, has been decided against them.  That is why they now cast their cause as one for equality “in fact” over equality “in principle,” as if equality would take on some new meaning—or indeed could have any meaning at all—if it could be divorced from moral reasoning.  This is to beg the very question they’ve already lost.

[Cross-posted at the main page]

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at

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