Why conservatives keep insisting that preferences hurt blacks

For years I have criticized the mainstream conservative argument that the reason racial preferences are bad is that they “hurt blacks.” I’ve pointed out over and over that most blacks, and virtually all black spokesmen, like racial preferences, derive all kinds of values from them, are passionately attached to them, and cry racist at anyone who tries to remove them. Therefore arguing that blacks are harmed by racial preferences somehow misses the point.

In the below exchange of e-mails, the reason why mainstream conservatives keep making this ineffective argument is uncovered. The exchange starts with an e-mail by me to the respected journalist Stuart Taylor (who, it should be remembered, was dismissed from his position as Supreme Court commentator on the NewsHour because he was too conservative, and was replaced by a perfectly PC, twenty-something girl).

Dear Mr. Taylor,

In your article on John Roberts in The National Journal, you write:

“I would guess (and I hope) that he will narrow Grutter and other pro-preference precedents but stop short of overruling them. In any event, while preferences have undoubtedly increased the number of minority-group members in high places, they have done little for most black and Hispanic people. And they have diverted civil-rights energy and attention from the plight of the uneducated poor and near-poor. These people are not even minimally qualified to take advantage of the preferential programs that so obsess the civil-rights groups who claim to be champions of the downtrodden.” [Emphasis added.]

I’m surprised that you say that Grutter should only be narrowed but not overruled. Grutter is a monstrosity! The essence of Grutter is that the transcendent goal of proportional diversity justifies race preferences throughout society. What is there in Grutter that you think should be kept?

Also, the argument that preferences “have done little for most black and Hispanic people” is simply wrong. One hears this silly, naive argument from mainstream conservatives all the time. Don’t you understand that blacks benefit hugely from preferences? Why do you think they want to keep them? Even those blacks who do not directly receive benefits receive the psychological benefits of racial pride, seeing blacks in many prominent positions that in many cases they would not be in absent preferences. How can we hope to fight a successful battle against preferences if we keep imagining that the people who are receiving them aren’t gaining a value (whether material or psychological) from them and will harm anyone who tries to take them away?

I thought you were a stalwart against race preference. What happened?

Sincerely disappointed,

Lawrence Auster

I sent a cc of this e-mail to a fellow opponent of race preferences. He wrote back to me:

Dear Lawrence,

Although I am also disappointed that Mr. Taylor (for whom I have profound respect) doesn’t want to overrule preferences, based on “race,” gender, color, ethnicity and national origin, in their entirety, I tend to agree with his assessment that they have “done little for most black and Hispanic people.” Race preferences benefit a very small segment of the black and Hispanic population and the benefits accrue largely to those who least need such benefit, but whose vocal support serve to perpetuate the status quo. In higher education, a relatively small number of middle and upper income blacks and Hispanics benefit; and in public contracting, the same can be said.

My disappointment for maintaining preferences is the debilitating effect they have on the ability of black people to stand on their own “two feet” in our society. Preferences breed and feed off of identity politics. While no cost/benefit analysis should be applied to something that I consider a moral issue—the right to equal treatment before the law for every person—if a cost/benefit analysis (including social, economic, fiscal and political considerations) were to be performed on preferential policies, I believe the costs would outweigh the benefits to the perceived beneficiaries and to our nation by a margin of something on the magnitude of 100:1.

I replied:

Dear _____:

I completely agree with you that preferences objectively harm blacks, in the sense that getting systematic unearned benefits based on a race-revenge model harms people morally. But obviously the majority of black people don’t share that view. The mistake that I see on the part of many conservatives is that they think that their view of what is good for blacks ought to prevail, while they ignore what most blacks themselves think is good for blacks. We can say to the black community all we want, “This is not good for you,” but if they don’t believe that it’s not good for them, what good is our argument? We have not even a shadow of a hope of persuading them to give up their present point of view, unless we first understand that it is in fact their point of view. And the conservative position systematically ignores the fact that the majority of blacks do regard preferences as a positive value.

My correspondent replied:

The point that I believe Mr. Taylor is making is not what blacks and Hispanics perceive or whether they support preferences, but rather whether “most” have actually benefited. I totally concur with all that you write below about the position of the overwhelming majority of blacks. But, that is not the same as saying that something one supports has actually benefited them. Few blacks have received “affirmative action” to go to college, primarily because a relatively small percentage of their population go to college. The same applies to preferences in public contracting. In short, I believe we are addressing different issues. Perception of blacks and the practical application of preferential policies. I can’t speak for Mr. Taylor but that’s my story and I am sticking to it.

I replied:

If, as you write, only a minority of blacks have benefited from preferences, but the great majority support them regardless, then whom is our side speaking to we say that preferences should be dropped because most blacks don’t benefit from them? Clearly that argument is not having an effect on the majority of blacks, who continue to support preferences.

And now the answer occurs to me for the first time: It would appear that the argument, “Preferences don’t help most blacks,” is not directed at blacks, but at whites. It is to help whites feel ok about opposing preferences, since, as the whites are being told, preferences don’t help blacks. It is to help whites feel that they are not racist for opposing preferences.

In other words, the argument is sort of like the orchestrated minority extravaganza during the first three days of the GOP convention in 2000. When the objection was made that this would not help the GOP win black and Hispanic votes, the answer emerged that the minority extravaganza was not to win over blacks, but to convince white soccer moms that the GOP was not racist.

But if this is the approach, there is a huge flaw in it. If the object is to persuade whites that preferences don’t help blacks, and therefore that whites can feel ok about opposing preferences, the strategy must fail because when those same whites are confronted by blacks who fiercely defend preferences and denounce as racist anyone who challenges them, the whites’ belief that “preferences don’t help blacks” is going to fall apart. White opposition to preferences will collapse in the face of black charges of white racism. The only way the anti-preference belief could be sustained would be by the whites telling themselves, “Even though blacks are passionately saying they believe in preferences and don’t want them touched, I am going to ignore what they are saying, because I know the real truth, which is that blacks do not benefit from preferences.” In other words, in order for the whites not to feel anti-black for opposing preferences, they must consciously choose to ignore and discount the passionately stated feelings of the majority of blacks.

Does this sound to you like a plausible strategy that has any realistic hopes of success?

To me it is obvious that, under the pressure of a black defense of preferences and black statements that whites who oppose preferences are racist, whites will drop the anti-preferences position.

Therefore, in order to have any chance of success, the anti-preferences side must be more honest about the fact that the majority of blacks support preferences and will continue to support preferences, and that if preferences are to be ended, it must be done AGAINST the will of most blacks. In other words, as long as whites are told, “Ending preferences is a pro-black position,” the anti-preferences side will keep failing under the impact of actual black opposition to it. The only way whites will have the will to push through an anti-preferences agenda is if they understand from the start that blacks (regardless of the fact that preferences are objectively harmful to them) are pro-preferences and that ending preferences requires going against the actual desires of the majority of blacks.

Therefore, the main argument to be used against preferences is not, “Preferences don’t benefit blacks.” The main argument to be used against preferences is, “Preferences are unjust.”

And this leads to the next question. To whom are preferences unjust? Primarily, to whites.

Ultimately, then, if preferences are to be ended, (1) it is only whites who can end them (because, as you acknowledge, the overwhelming majority of blacks support them); and (2) the main argument that must be used against preferences is the fact that they are unjust—to whites.

Of course, the main argument is not the injustice of preferences to any particular group, it is the injustice of preferences, period. Preferences are un-American, unconstitutional, and socialistic. But the fact remains that the group that is being directly harmed by this injustice are whites.

I realize how radically different all this is from the usual anti-preferences approach. But the logic of the situation seems to lead step by step to it. I’m open to any criticisms.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 28, 2005 07:29 PM | Send

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