Commentary Magazine

Are Quotas Good for Blacks?

Race has never been an area noted for rationality of thought or action. Almost every conceivable form of nonsense has been believed about racial or ethnic groups at one time or another. Theologians used to debate whether black people had souls (today’s terminology might suggest that only black people have souls). As late as the 1920′s, a leading authority on mental tests claimed that test results disproved the popular belief that Jews are intelligent. Since then, Jewish IQ’s have risen above the national average and more than one-fourth of all American Nobel Prize-winners have been Jewish.

Today’s grand fallacy about race and ethnicity is that the statistical “representation” of a group—in jobs, schools, etc.—shows and measures discrimination. This notion is at the center of such controversial policies as affirmative-action hiring, preferential admissions to college, and public-school busing. But despite the fact that far-reaching judicial rulings, political crusades, and bureaucratic empires owe their existence to that belief, it remains an unexamined assumption. Tons of statistics have been collected, but only to be interpreted in the light of that assumption, never to test the assumption itself. Glaring facts to the contrary are routinely ignored. Questioning the “representation” theory is stigmatized as not only inexpedient but immoral. It is the noble lie of our time.



Affirmative-Action hiring. “Representation” or “underrepresentation” is based on comparisons of a given group’s percentage in the population with its percentage in some occupation, institution, or activity. This might make sense if the various ethnic groups were even approximately similar in age distribution, education, and other crucial variables. But they are not.

Some ethnic groups are a whole decade younger than others. Some are two decades younger. The average age of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans is under twenty, while the average age of Irish Americans or Italian Americans is over thirty—and the average age of Jewish Americans is over forty. This is because of large differences in the number of children per family from one group to another. Some ethnic groups have more than twice as many children per family as others. Over half of the Mexican American and Puerto Rican population consists of teenagers, children, and infants. These two groups are likely to be underrepresented in any adult activity, whether work or recreation, whether controlled by others or entirely by themselves, and whether there is discrimination or not.

Educational contrasts are also great. More than half of all Americans over thirty-five of German, Irish, Jewish, or Oriental ancestry have completed at least four years of high school. Less than 20 per cent of all Mexican Americans in the same age bracket have done so. The disparities become even greater when you consider quality of school, field of specialization, postgraduate study, and other factors that are important in the kind of high-level jobs on which special attention is focused by those emphasizing representation. Those groups with the most education—Jews and. Orientals—also have the highest quality education, as measured by the rankings of the institutions from which they receive their college degrees, and specialize in the more difficult and remunerative fields, such as science and medicine. Orientals in the United States are so heavily concentrated in the scientific area that there are more Oriental scientists than there are black scientists in absolute numbers, even though the black population of the United States is more than twenty times the size of the Oriental population.

Attention has been focused most on high-level positions—the kind of jobs people reach after years of experience or education, or both. There is no way to get the experience or education without also growing older in the process, so when we are talking about top-level jobs, we are talking about the kind of positions people reach in their forties and fifties rather than in their teens and twenties. Representation in such jobs cannot be compared to representation in a population that includes many five-year-olds—yet it is.

The general ethnic differences in age become extreme in some of the older age brackets. Half of the Jewish population of the United States is forty-five years old or older, but only 12 per cent of the Puerto Rican population is that old. Even if Jews and Puerto Ricans were identical in every other respect, and even if no employer ever had a speck of prejudice, there would still be huge disparities between the two groups in top-level positions, just from age differences alone.

Virtually every underrepresented racial or ethnic group in the United States has a lower than average age and consists disproportionately of children and inexperienced young adults. Almost invariably these groups also have less education, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The point here is not that we should “blame the victim” or “blame society.” The point is that we should, first of all, talk sense! “Representation” talk is cheap, easy, and misleading; discrimination and opportunity are too serious to be discussed in gobbledygook.



The idea that preferential treatment is going to “compensate” people for past wrongs flies in the face of two hard facts:

1. Public-opinion polls have repeatedly shown most blacks opposed to preferential treatment either in jobs or college admissions. A Gallup Poll in March 1977, for example, found only 27 per cent of non-whites favoring “preferential treatment” over “ability as determined by test scores,” while 64 per cent preferred the latter and 9 per cent were undecided. (The Gallup breakdown of the U.S. population by race, sex, income, education, etc. found that “not a single population group supports affirmative action.”1 )

How can you compensate people by giving them something they have explicitly rejected?

2. The income of blacks relative to whites reached its peak before affirmative-action hiring and has declined since. The median income of blacks reached a peak of 60.9 per cent of the median income of whites in 1970—the year before “goals” and “timetables” became part of the affirmative-action concept. “In only one year of the last six years,” writes Andrew Brimmer, “has the proportion been as high as 60 per cent.”2

Before something can be a “compensation,” it must first be a benefit.

The repudiation of the numerical or preferential approach by the very people it is supposed to benefit points out the large gap between illusion and reality that is characteristic of affirmative action. So does the cold fact that there are few, if any, benefits to offset all the bitterness generated by this heavy-handed program. The bitterness is largely a result of a deeply resented principle, galling bureaucratic processes, and individual horror stories. Overall, the program has changed little for minorities or women. Supporters of the program try to cover up its ineffectiveness by comparing the position of minorities today with their position many years ago. This ignores all the progress that took place under straight equal-treatment laws in the 1960′s—progress that has not continued at anywhere near the same pace under affirmative action.

Among the reasons for such disappointing results is that hiring someone to fill a quota gets the government off the employer’s back for the moment, but buys more trouble down the road whenever a disgruntled employee chooses to go to an administrative agency or a court with a complaint based on nothing but numbers. Regardless of the merits, or the end result, a very costly process for the employer must be endured, and the threat of this is an incentive not to hire from the groups designated as special by the government. The affirmative-action program has meant mutually canceling incentives to hire and not to hire—and great bitterness and cost from the process, either way.



If blacks are opposed to preferential treatment and whites are opposed to it, who then is in favor of it, and how does it go on? The implications of these questions are even more far-reaching and more disturbing than the policy itself. They show how vulnerable our democratic and constitutional safeguards are to a relative handful of determined people. Some of those people promoting preferential treatment and numerical goals are so convinced of the Tightness of what they are doing that they are prepared to sacrifice whatever needs to be sacrificed—whether it be other people, the law, or simple honesty in discussing what they are doing (note “goals,” “desegregation,” and similar euphemisms). Other supporters of numerical policies have the powerful drive of self-interest as well as self-righteousness. Bureaucratic empires have grown up to administer these programs, reaching into virtually every business, school, hospital, or other organization. The rulers and agents of this empire can order employers around, make college presidents bow and scrape, assign schoolteachers by race, or otherwise gain power, publicity, and career advancement-regardless of whether minorities are benefited or not.

While self-righteousness and self-interest are powerful drives for those who have them, they can succeed only insofar as other people can be persuaded, swept along by feelings, or neutralized. Rhetoric has accomplished this with images of historic wrongs, visions of social atonement, and a horror of being classed with bigots. These tactics have worked best with those most affected by words and least required to pay a price personally non-elected judges, the media, and the intellectual establishment.

The “color-blind” words of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or even the protections of the Constitution, mean little when judges can creatively reinterpret them out of existence. It is hard to achieve the goal of an informed public when the mass media show only selective indignation about power grabs and a sense of pious virtue in covering up the failures of school integration. Even civil libertarians—who insist that the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination is a sacred right that cannot be denied Nazis, Communists, or criminals—show no concern when the government routinely forces employers to confess “deficiencies” in their hiring processes, without a speck of evidence other than a numerical pattern different from the government’s preconception.



Preferential admissions. Preferential admissions to colleges and universities are “justified” by similar rhetoric and the similar assumption that statistical underrepresentation means institutional exclusion. Sometimes this assumption is buttressed by notions of “compensation” and a theory that (1) black communities need more black practitioners in various fields; and that (2) black students will ultimately supply that need. The idea that the black community’s doctors, lawyers, etc. should be black is an idea held by white liberals, but no such demand has come from the black community, which has rejected preferential admissions in poll after poll. Moreover, the idea that an admissions committee can predict what a youth is going to do with his life years later is even more incredible—even if the youth is one’s own son or daughter, much less someone from a wholly different background.

These moral or ideological reasons for special minority programs are by no means the whole story. The public image of a college or university is often its chief financial asset. Bending a few rules here and there to get the right body count of minority students seems a small price to pay for maintaining an image that will keep money coming in from the government and the foundations. When a few thousand dollars in financial aid to students can keep millions of tax dollars rolling in, it is clearly a profitable investment for the institution. For the young people brought in under false pretense, it can turn out to be a disastrous and permanently scarring experience.

The most urgent concern over image and over government subsidies, foundation grants, and other donations is at those institutions which have the most of all these things to maintain—that is, at prestigious colleges and universities at the top of the academic pecking order. The Ivy League schools and the leading state and private institutions have the scholarship money and the brand-name visibility to draw in enough minority youngsters to look good statistically. The extremely high admissions standards of these institutions usually cannot be met by the minority students—just as most students in general cannot meet them. But in order to have a certain minority body count, the schools bend (or disregard) their usual standards. The net result is that thousands of minority students who would normally qualify for good, non-prestigious colleges where they could succeed, are instead enrolled in famous institutions where they fail. For example, at Cornell during the guns-on-campus crisis, fully half of the black students were on academic probation, despite easier grading standards for them in many courses. Yet these students were by no means unqualified. Their average test scores put them in the top quarter of all American college students—but the other Cornell students ranked in the top 1 per cent. In other words, minority students with every prospect of success in a normal college environment were artificially turned into failures by being mismatched with an institution with standards too severe for them.

When the top institutions reach further down to get minority students, then academic institutions at the next level are forced to reach still further down, so that they too will end up with a minority body count high enough to escape criticism and avoid trouble with the government and other donors. Each academic level, therefore, ends up with minority students underqualified for that level, though usually perfectly qualified for some other level. The end result is a systematic mismatching of minority students and the institutions they attend, even though the wide range of American colleges and universities is easily capable of accommodating those same students under their normal standards.

Proponents of “special” (lower) admissions standards argue that without such standards no increase in minority enrollment would have been possible. But this blithely disregards the fact that when more money is available to finance college, more low-income people go to college. The GI Bill after World War II caused an even more dramatic increase in the number of people going to college who could never have gone otherwise—and without lowering admissions standards. The growth of special minority programs in recent times has meant both a greater availability of money and lower admissions standards for black and other designated students. It is as ridiculous to ignore the role of money in increasing the numbers of minority students in the system as a whole as it is to ignore the effect of double standards on their maldistribution among institutions. It is the double standards that are the problem, and they can be ended without driving minority students out of the system. Of course, many academic hustlers who administer special programs might lose their jobs, but that would hardly be a loss to anyone else.

As long as admission to colleges and universities is not unlimited, someone’s opportunity to attend has to be sacrificed as the price of preferential admission for others. No amount of verbal sleight-of-hand can get around this fact. None of those sacrificed is old enough to have had anything to do with historic injustices that are supposedly being compensated. Moreover, it is not the offspring of the privileged who are likely to pay the price. It is not a Rockefeller or a Kennedy who will be dropped to make room for quotas; it is a De Funis or a Bakke. Even aside from personal influence on admissions decisions, the rich can give their children the kind of private schooling that will virtually assure them test scores far above the cut-off level at which sacrifices are made.

Just as the students who are sacrificed are likely to come from the bottom of the white distribution, so the minority students chosen are likely to be from the top of the minority distribution. In short, it is a forced transfer of benefits from those least able to afford it to those least in need of it. In some cases, the loose term “minority” is used to include individuals who are personally from more fortunate backgrounds than the average American. Sometimes it includes whole groups, such as Chinese or Japanese Americans, who have higher incomes than whites. One-fourth of all employed Chinese in this country are in professional occupations—nearly double the national average. No amount of favoritism to the son or daughter of a Chinese doctor or mathematician today is going to compensate some Chinese of the past who was excluded from virtually every kind of work except washing clothes or washing dishes.

The past is a great unchangeable fact. Nothing is going to undo its sufferings and injustices, whatever their magnitude. Statistical categories and historic labels may seem real to those inspired by words, but only living flesh-and-blood people can feel joy or pain. Neither the sins nor the sufferings of those now dead are within our power to change. Being honest and honorable with the people living in our own time is more than enough moral challenge, without indulging in illusions about rewriting moral history with numbers and categories.



School busing. It is chilling to hear parents say that the worst racists they know are their own children. Yet such statements have been made by black and white parents, liberals and conservatives, and without regard to geographical location. It is commonplace to hear of integrated schools where no child of either race would dare to enter a toilet alone. The fears and hatreds of these schoolchildren are going to be part of the American psyche long after the passing of an older generation of crusading social experimenters. It is quite a legacy to leave.

The ringing principles of equal rights announced in the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education have been transformed by twenty years of political and judicial jockeying into a nightmare pursuit of elusive statistical “balance.” The original idea that the government should not classify children by race was turned around completely to mean that the government must classify children by race. The fact that the racial integration of youngsters from similar backgrounds has worked under voluntary conditions was seized upon as a reason for forcing statistical integration of schoolchildren, without regard to vast contrasts of income, way of life, or cultural values. Considerations of cost, time, feelings, or education all give way before the almighty numbers. As more and more evidence of negative consequences to the children has piled up, the original notion that this was going to benefit somebody has given way to the idea that “the law of the land” has to be carried out, even if the skies fall. Less grandly, it means that judges cannot back off from the can of worms they have opened, without admitting that they have made asses of themselves.

The civil-rights establishment has a similar investment of ego and self-interest to protect. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund now insists that the issue is not “educational” but “constitutional.” This might be an understandable position for an academic association of legal theorists, but not for an organization claiming to speak in the name of flesh-and-blood black people—people who reject busing in nationwide polls and who reject it by large majorities in cities where it has been tried. The head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brushes this aside by saying that they cannot ask “each and every black person” his opinion before proceeding, but the real question is whether they can consistently go counter to the majority opinions of the very people in whose name they presume to speak.

The tragic Boston busing case shows all these institutional ego forces at work. Local black organizations urged Judge Garrity not to bus their children to South Boston, where educational standards were notoriously low and racial hostility notoriously high. Both the NAACP and the judge proceeded full-speed-ahead anyway. Black children were forced to run a gauntlet of violence and insults for the greater glory of institutional grand designs. In Detroit, Atlanta, and San Francisco the NAACP also opposed local blacks on busing—including local chapters of its own organization in the last two cities. The supreme irony is that Linda Brown, of Brown v. Board of Education, has now gone into court to try to keep her children from being bused.

That “a small band of willful men” could inflict this on two races opposed to it is a sobering commentary on the fragility of democracy. Moreover, what is involved is not merely mistaken zealotry. What is involved is an organization fueled by money from affluent liberals whose own children are safely tucked away in private schools, and a crusade begun by men like Thurgood Marshall and Kenneth B. Clark whose own children were also in private schools away from the storms they created for others. The very real educational problems of black children, and the early hopes that desegregation would solve them, provided the impetus and the support for a crusade that has now degenerated into a numerical fetish and a judicial unwillingness to lose face. What actually happens to black children, or white children, has been openly relegated to a secondary consideration in principle, and less than that in practice.

The 1954 Brown decision did not limit itself to ruling that it is unconstitutional for a state to segregate by race. It brought in sociological speculation that separate schools are inherently inferior. Yet within walking distance of the Supreme Court was an all-black high school whose eighty-year history would have refuted that assumption—if anyone had been interested in facts. As far back as 1939, the average IQ at Dunbar High School was 11 per cent above the national average—fifteen years before the Court declared this impossible. The counsel for the NAACP in that very case came from a similar quality all-black school in Baltimore. There are, and have been, other schools around the country where black children learned quite well without white children (or teachers) around, as well as other schools where each race failed to learn, with or without the presence of the other. The most cursory look at the history of all-Jewish or all-Oriental schools would have reduced the separate-is-inferior doctrine to a laughingstock instead of the revered “law of the land.”

The Court’s excursion into sociology came back to haunt it. When the end of state-enforced segregation did not produce any dramatic change in the racial makeup of neighborhood schools, or any of the educational benefits anticipated, the civil-rights establishment pushed on for more desegregation—now stretched to mean statistical balance, opposition to ability grouping, and even the hiring and assignment of teachers by race. If the magic policy of integration had not worked, it could only be because there had not yet been enough of it! Meanwhile, the real problems of educating real children were lost in the shuffle.



However futile the various numerical approaches have been in their avowed goal of advancing minorities, their impact has been strongly felt in other ways. The message that comes through loud and clear is that minorities are losers who will never have anything unless someone gives it to them. The destructiveness of this message—on society in general and minority youth in particular—outweighs any trivial gains that may occur here and there. The falseness of the message is shown by the great economic achievements of minorities during the period of equal-rights legislation before numerical goals and timetables muddied the waters. By and large, the numerical approach has achieved nothing, and has achieved it at great cost.

Underlying the attempt to move people around and treat them like chess pieces on a board is a profound contempt for other human beings. To ignore or resent people’s resistance—on behalf of their children or their livelihoods—is to deny our common humanity. To persist dogmatically in pursuit of some abstract goal, without regard to how it is reached, is to despise freedom and reduce three-dimensional life to cardboard pictures of numerical results. The false practicality of results-oriented people ignores the fact that the ultimate results are in the minds and hearts of human beings. Once personal choice becomes a mere inconvenience to be brushed aside by bureaucrats or judges, something precious will have been lost by all people from all backgrounds.

A multi-ethnic society like the United States can ill-afford continually to build up stores of inter-group resentments about such powerful concerns as one’s livelihood and one’s children. It is a special madness when tensions are escalated between groups who are basically in accord in their opposition to numbers games, but whose legal establishments and “spokesmen” keep the fires fueled. We must never think that the disintegration and disaster that has hit other multi-ethnic societies “can’t happen here.” The mass internment of Japanese Americans just a generation ago is a sobering reminder of the tragic idiocy that stress can bring on. We are not made of different clay from the Germans, who were historically more enlightened and humane toward Jews than many other Europeans—until the generation of Hitler and the Holocaust.

The situation in America today is, of course, not like that of the Pearl Harbor period, nor of the Weimar republic. History does not literally repeat, but it can warn us of what people are capable of, when the stage has been set for tragedy. We certainly do not need to let emotionally combustible materials accumulate from ill-conceived social experiments.


1 Gallup Opinion Index, June 1977, Report 143, p. 23.

2 Black Enterprise, April 1978, p. 62. A newly released RAND study similarly concludes that very little credit should be given to government affirmative-action programs for any narrowing of the income gap between white and black workers. The RAND researchers write, “our results suggest that the effect of government on the aggregate black-white wage ratio is quite small and that the popular notion that . . . recent changes are being driven by government pressure has little empirical support” (New York Times, May 8, 1978).

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