Why conservatives insist that racial preferences are bad for blacks
(This is a revised version of a blog entry from last September that is supposed to be published at some point in Ward Connerly’s newsletter, The Egalitarian. If you read this article when it was posted on Thursday afternoon, check out the new arguments that were appended to it on Thursday evening.)
It is a belief universally held among mainstream conservatives that racial preferences are bad because they “hurt blacks,” or, alternatively, because they “have done little for most black (and Hispanic) people.” The problem with this idea is that most blacks, and virtually all black leaders, like racial preferences, feel that they derive valuable benefits from them, and cry racist at anyone who seeks to end them. Even those blacks who do not receive material benefits, in the form of preferential employment or university admissions, receive the psychological bonus of racial pride at the sight of their fellow blacks occupying prominent and visible positions in our society that in many cases they would not occupy absent preferences. Thanks to proportional representation, many mainstream institutions have indeed become “mirrors of America,” and blacks, remembering a time when all the prominent faces in our society were white, clearly derive deep satisfaction from this change.
The question therefore arises: how can the devotees of individual rights fight successfully against race-conscious preferences if they refuse to acknowledge that the very people for whom they feel they are waging this battle are in fact gaining a value from preferences, and will strike back at anyone who tries to take them away? (Of course, we’re not even speaking here of the white elites who are just as fiercely devoted to racial preferences as the minorities are.)
The problem does not go to the objective rights and wrongs of the case, but to what people believe. I agree with the conservative view that preferences only benefit a small segment of the minority population and that the benefits accrue mainly to those who least need them. I agree that the so-called benefits cause harm, weakening black self-sufficiency and breeding a race-entitlement mentality, with all the attendant corruptions and social divisions. Anti-preference conservatives agree on these points. But the irony is that the conservatives, most of them white, obtusely go on imagining that their view of what is good for blacks ought to prevail, even as they ignore what most blacks think is good for blacks. Conservatives, acting on their conservative code of values, may say that it’s bad for a person’s character to receive unearned benefits; but if most blacks don’t share that code, or if they believe they have earned the benefits by virtue of racial oppression, they won’t be persuaded that preferences are bad for them.
Since the overwhelming majority of blacks support preferences for reasons that make complete sense to them, to whom are the conservatives speaking when they insist that preferences should be dropped because they don’t benefit blacks?
The answer is that the conservatives argument is not directed at blacks at all, but at whites. Its purpose is to assure whites that it’s not racist to oppose preferences, since preferences don’t help blacks anyway.
This tactic is doomed to failure. Obviously, when those same timorous whites, whose chief concern is that they not be perceived as anti-black, are confronted by blacks who insist that preferences are essential to their well-being and who denounce as racist anyone who challenges them, the whites will be cowed, just as whites in this country are always cowed by black anger. White opposition to preferences, based on the assumption that blacks can be persuaded that preferences harm them, will collapse in the face of blacks’ actual support for them.
Which leads us to a surprising conclusion: The only way white conservatives will have the will and firmness to end racial preferences is by realizing that it must be done against the wishes of most blacks.
Therefore the main argument to be used against preferences is not, “Preferences don’t benefit blacks,” but, “Preferences are unjust.”
But this leads to the next surprising result. To whom are preferences unjust? Primarily, to whites.
We thus have arrived at the exact opposite of conventional conservative wisdom. First, if preferences are to be ended, it is only whites who can end them (because, as is acknowledged, the overwhelming majority of blacks support them). And, second, the main argument to be used against preferences is that they are unjust—to whites.
Of course, it is not the injustice of preferences to any particular group that matters, but their injustice, period. Preferences are un-American, unconstitutional, and socialistic. But the fact remains that the group that is most directly harmed by this injustice are whites.
I realize how radically at odds this conclusion is from the usual anti-preferences approach. But the logic of the situation leads step by step to it.
Sage McLaughlin writes:
Your post on how best to think of arguments against racial scale-jockeying is even more applicable to another common conservative talking point. Namely, that it is actually racist—“soft bigotry” is the appellation—to suggest that racial preferences are necessary for black achievement. It is an essentially liberal argument. It never ceases to amaze me how totally the liberal racial paradigm has infected our public conversation. Affirmative action is wrong to conservatives for the single most damning reason which can possibly be suggested in liberal society—because it somehow hurts blacks.LA replies:
Terrific points. Let me attempt to tie this all together.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 08, 2006 05:05 PM | Send