Letter to an affirmative action hire
In Bob Herbert’s
February 24th op-ed column in the New York Times
, “Looking Back at an Ugly Time,” he claims that the challenges to racial preferences in college admissions are tainted by a deeper motive, as indicated by the fact that “[t]he driving force behind the Michigan University cases … is the Center for Individual Rights, a right-wing outfit that in its early years … received financial support from the Pioneer Fund, an organization that spent decades pushing the notion that whites are genetically superior to blacks.”
Of course, many of us on the “unrespectable” right do believe that there are significant racial differences in intellectual abilities, and, furthermore, that this is one of the reasons to oppose racial preferences for blacks. But Herbert’s attempt to tar the centrist and center-right opponents of affirmative action as racialists, when in fact they are the true liberals and the foremost proponents of race-blind rules for society, was too much. So I cast my usual politeness to the winds and sent Herbert this letter:
No wonder you defend racial preferences for blacks and attack the motives of those who oppose them. Without racial preferences for unqualified, undeserving blacks, do you think your worthless, ignorant, resentment-driven columns would have been on the NY Times op-ed page these last ten years?
Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 24, 2003 12:29 PM | Send
You have your spot at the Times solely because you’re black. So naturally you’ve got to defend the system of racial preferences for all it’s worth.
For the sake of journalistic integrity, you should have a box at the beginning of your column announcing your vested interest in a system that provides cushy careers to no-talent individuals solely because of their blackness.
Good for you! And, in Herbert’s case, certainly true. HRS
The existence of significant racial differences does not necessarily imply that society’s rules should not be race-blind. Is Lawrence Auster hinting that different laws ought to apply to different races? In view of the likely injustice of this under anything resembling current political constitutions, it seems to me that we have to insist on legal equality among adults, even if some laws may be better suited to some racial or other groups than to others.
I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what “legal equality among adults”, another way of saying “equal rights”, is supposed to mean. Nobody seems to be able to say without equivocating. Maybe that is because a “right” is something that intrinsically discriminates and “equal” is a universal requirement not to discriminate.
To Mr. Hare:
Nothing in my article implied that a belief in racial differences in ability would lead to a denial of equal rights under the law; I specifically said that the existence of racial differences provides a reason for opposing racial preferences. This is a distinct argument from the equal-rights argument against racial preferences, though both arguments are valid. Traditionalist conservatives use both arguments; liberal or mainstream conservatives only use the equal-rights argument.
While I can’t come up with a philosophical definition of equal rights at the moment, some concrete examples ought to establish that the concept of equal rights is not a fiction. Under the Black Codes instituted in the South in 1865, the black freedmen had no right to vote, were forbidden to sit on juries, could not testify against white men, could not carry weapons in public places, and could not work in certain occupations. In some cases they were prohibited from raising their own crops and from renting or leasing any land outside of cities or towns. They could not travel about freely. They could not enter towns or reside within towns without permission.
Today, blacks have the same right as whites to serve on juries, to testify, to vote, to move about freely, to carry weapons, and so on. Without getting into the reasons the South had for instituting the black codes, or discussing some of the destructive effects of black legal equality today, we can say without equivocation that blacks were deprived of equal rights then and enjoy them now.
Clearly, then, the term equal rights has a real-world, objective meaning.
“Clearly, then, the term equal rights has a real-world, objective meaning.”
Not really. The categories of what people have what particular rights do change, but there are always people who don’t have any given particular right and those rights are always unequal on a case by case basis. In no coherent sense is the right of a traditionalist to vote in Massachusetts meaningfully equal to the right of a Democrat to vote in Massachusetts, for example, and 17 year olds and convicted felons aren’t enfranchised even in an unequal sense.
It isn’t the concept of a right, taken in itself, that is intrinsically incoherent. Furthermore, the fact that someone who doesn’t have a particular right may acquire it isn’t evidence that “equal rights” is a logically coherent concept, let alone that it refers to something objectively real. So Mr. Auster’s examples don’t really help.
I don’t understand Matt’s argument.
you’re not alone. no one understands it including matt
The classic example is property. Any right to property is a right to an actual, particular piece of property. It is not only not an equal right, it is an exclusive and particular right. Indeed the only point to having it is that nobody else shares it and it is different from everyone else’s. So it is with all rights (including a right to vote).
The usual objection (there are several, but this is the most common) is that everyone can own property. So everyone has the potential to have an actual right to some actual property. But a potential right cannot be asserted; it is only when that potential right is realized as an actual (exclusive and particular — as not-equal as can be imagined) right that it can be asserted as a right that binds the actions of others to the will of the right’s possessor.
(In my example above I illustrated this with the right to vote since that was the example Mr. Auster used, but that one is less intuitively obvious than property as an example. Indeed voting is often thought as the most fundamental of equal rights specifically because it lends itself to the illusion of abstraction better than most other rights).
It is true that the modern mind simply does not want to accept any of this. The modern mind does not want to see the antinomy, and wants to think that “equal rights” actually does mean something coherent (even though it objectively does not). Putative examples are presented even though they are clearly false, but no unequivocal understanding of what “equal rights” is actually supposed to mean can be expressed, because one doesn’t exist. Any actual right is always exclusive and particular, belonging solely to its possessor and distinct from that possessed by any other: the antithesis of equal.
Matt writes: “The classic example is property. Any right to property is a right to an actual, particular piece of property. It is not only not an equal right, it is an exclusive and particular right. Indeed the only point to having it is that nobody else shares it and it is different from everyone else’s.”
What Matt is giving is one definition of “right”—a person’s right to the property he actually owns, which, I agree, is not an “equal” right but a unique and exclusive right. But surely Matt realizes that there is another definition of “right” and that is the definition people are thinking of when they speak of equal rights. If two people want to buy a piece of property in a particular town, and both have the money to do so, and neither of them are barred from doing so, then both of them have the equal right to buy that land. If one of them is barred by law from making that purchase because, say, of his race, then he has been denied the equal right to purchase property.
In another thread white guy claims that the commonly understood definition of race is an illusion. Is Matt going to say that the commonly understood definition of “right” and “equal right” that I have described here is also an illusion?
Two people don’t have an equal right to buy a piece of property though. Who gets to buy it is subject to the will of the owner, although it is true that in the pursuit of actualizing-the-abstraction liberalism attempts to deny the owner’s right in that case.
I’ve said that there is no unequivocal coherent concept of “equal rights”. The ability to buy something with money isn’t a “right”, though it is true that the more leftist one gets the more one attempts to make it into a right.
There are plenty of different concepts of rights, and as I’ve said the abstract potential to own something may be possessed by everyone but it doesn’t make sense to say that something that can’t be asserted — a potential — is a “right”.
Mr. Auster asks:
“Is Matt going to say that the commonly understood definition of “right” and “equal right” that I have described here is also an illusion?”
The short answer is yes, at least to “equal right”. In the other thread we discussed the category of race, and the fact that it has fuzzy boundaries, and the fact that those fuzzy boundaries don’t invalidate it as a concept. “Equal” is a specific disallowance of fuzzy boundaries: if my right is equal to yours then the fuzziness that gives rise to difference and heirarchy is specifically disallowed.
“If one of them is barred by law from making that purchase because, say, of his race, then he has been denied the equal right to purchase property.”
I didn’t intend to ignore this specific example, by the way. Its just that this is generally true of all laws, all the time, without exception. What a law does is draw distinctions in order to treat people unequally, with authority. It is true that some laws may be bad, and some may be good; but an example of the nonexistence of a particular law that makes a particular discrimination doesn’t establish a coherent concept of equal rights.
A right, by the way, is always a species of law. A law is a rule that binds the will to a certain course of action (or inaction). A right is a law that binds (or I could say “enslaves” to be provocative) the will of others to the will of the right-holder. Both rights and laws always, without exception, discriminate; and in the context of politics they discriminate under authority backed ultimately by the threat of death. Equality can hide itself behind a natural human desire for justice and charity; but all it represents itself is the bare, unguided, arbitrary destruction of authority.
In an earlier comment Mr. Hare had said: “The existence of significant racial differences does not necessarily imply that society’s rules should not be race-blind. Is Lawrence Auster hinting that different laws ought to apply to different races?” I replied that that wasn’t what the article stated. But in looking at it again I realized that, by describing the center-right as “the true liberals who believe in race-blind rules for society,” the article makes it sound as though the “unrespectable right” doesn’t believe in race-blind rules. So I have altered the text to read as follows:
“Of course, many of us on the unrespectable right do believe that there are significant racial differences in intellectual abilities, and, furthermore, that this is one of the reasons to oppose racial preferences for blacks. But Herbert’s attempt to tar the centrist and center-right opponents of affirmative action as racialists, when in fact they are the true liberals and the foremost proponents of race-blind rules for society, was too much.”
In the amended version the center-right are the foremost proponents of race-blind rules, not the only proponents of race-blind rules, which was implied in the earlier version of the article and made it sound as though the “unrespectables” who believe in racial differences are against race-blind rules, which wasn’t my intent.