Commentary Magazine


Collision Course by Hugh Davis Graham

Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America
by Hugh Davis Graham
Oxford. 246 pp. $30.00

During the Senate floor debate on the Civil-Rights Act of 1964, Hubert Humphrey memorably defended the legislation against the charge that it would lead to racial preferences. If anyone could show how Tide VII of the act, which banned discrimination, would make an employer “hire on the basis of percentage or quota related to color,” he said, “I will start eating the pages [of the bill] one after another.” A year later, President Lyndon Johnson, at the signing ceremony for another new law, the Immigration and Nationality Act, declared that its liberalization of existing policy was “not revolutionary.”

Both men, writes Hugh Davis Graham in his new book, turned out to be “profoundly wrong” in their expectations. Humphrey’s civil-rights act was quickly hijacked by the supporters of “affirmative action,” while Johnson’s supposedly modest immigration reforms fell prey to new economic and demographic realities. But that is not the end of this story of “unintended consequences,” according to Graham, a respected historian of the civil-rights movement who passed away in March. Having developed in ways that their authors did not anticipate, the two policies themselves, he argues, soon converged toward each other on a “collision course.”

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As Graham shows, affirmative action emerged as a policy idea even before passage of the 1964 act. At this early stage, it was understood in terms of outreach to blacks; officials took care to avoid the notion that the program required “proportional representation.” But by the late 1960′s, and in defiance of Title VII’s explicit requirement of colorblindness, federal agencies had devised what Graham calls “hard” affirmative action, which sought to ensure that blacks were given not just equal opportunities but equal outcomes in the competition for jobs. Humphrey’s legislation had been turned on its head, compelling the very sort of hiring quotas that he opposed. Before long, the policy had spread to other areas, most notably university admissions and government contracting.

As for the Immigration and Nationality Act, its basic achievement was to eliminate quotas, removing the nation-specific totals that since the 1920′s had favored immigrants from northern and western Europe over those from Asia. The new law also made family reunification a priority, inviting immigrants to bring in not only their spouses and children but also their brothers, sisters, and parents.

To the surprise of its sponsors, the most visible effect of the reform was, Graham writes, “a tidal wave of immigration.” With the overall number of new entries no longer capped, immigrants began bringing ever-greater portions of their extended families. Estimates had suggested that the revised law would attract some 300,000 newcomers a year, but by the early 1980′s, the annual total had reached almost 600,000. Surprising as well, in so short a period of time, were the dramatically different national origins of the new immigrants, with the overwhelming majority of them coming from Latin America and Asia.

What most interests Graham is how this unexpected influx has affected affirmative action. Though that policy was originally designed with blacks in mind, and specifically to overcome the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, even the first programs in the late 1960′s included Hispanics and Asians. By the 1970′s, some programs also encompassed women. Civil-rights groups had pressed for this expansion of the affirmative-action roster, Graham points out, because they believed that spreading the program to more groups would broaden and strengthen the coalition behind it. Little thought was given to the important historical and cultural differences both among the various groups and within certain ones, especially the overarching categories of Hispanic and Asian.

Within a few years, however, the unexpected rise in immigration had transformed the face of affirmative action. With a vastly greater population of eligible nonblacks, the policy could no longer be described just in remedial terms. By the 1970′s, a new rationale emerged. Affirmative action now presented itself, more expansively, as a way to ensure that institutions throughout society realized the full benefits of racial and ethnic “diversity.”

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As Graham sees it, immigration has made even more evident the illogic and incoherence that were present in affirmative action from the outset. Eighty percent of immigrants now qualify for minority preferences, he reports, a fact that makes a mockery of the idea that the program somehow compensates for past discrimination in America.

There is also the matter of racial classification. As first devised, affirmative action assumed that individuals could be assigned a single racial or ethnic identity. The program ratified, in effect, the racist “one-drop” rule under which the South defined anyone with even the smallest trace of black blood as black. But large-scale immigration has shown how flawed this assumption was, since one of its most visible results has been an unprecedented level of ethnic intermarriage. Graham cites the example of the golfer Tiger Woods, who could identify himself as Caucasian, black, American-Indian, or Asian, but famously settled on his own coinage, “Cablinasian,” to reflect his four-way background.

As for the prospects of the two policies whose fortunes he traces, Graham believes that, with respect to immigration, the long-running debate between restrictionists and liberalizers has shifted decisively in favor of the latter. Affirmative action is a different matter, however. Lacking “a coherent rationale consistent with social justice,” that policy is, he believes, in retreat. “Politically and philosophically,” he writes, it finds “almost no defenders in the ranks of American opinion leaders.”

Collision Course is a concise, informative history of two much-debated policies, made richer by Graham’s insight into their obvious relationship to each other. To be sure, a few important points about affirmative action go undiscussed here—most egregiously, Graham seems unaware that because of their high level of academic achievement, Asian-Americans long ago ceased to be included in affirmative-action admissions policies and are actually discriminated against—but the book’s candor on the subject is refreshing.

Writing as a historian rather than as an advocate, Graham does not offer his own view of affirmative action. But if he once was a supporter of the policy, it is hard to see how, on the evidence assembled in this book, he could have remained one.

Indeed, his own close study of affirmative action may have led him to underestimate its staying power. He suggests that the policy has survived largely because of its advocates’ success in “capturing” the civil-rights agencies and influencing a few key congressional committees. But its hold on the liberal imagination runs far deeper than he allows, as we have seen recently in the fierce legal and policy debate over racial preferences in university admissions. It would be a serious mistake to discount the ability of the civil-rights lobby to find ever-more convoluted reasons for maintaining our pernicious policies of official discrimination.

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