Commentary Magazine

Article Preview

When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson

- Abstract

Among many possible outcomes of the Supreme Court make-over now in progress is a new focus on affirmative action, also known as racial preference. This policy has had a long run as a hot-button issue in America; the questions swirling around it seem never to die, and never to get resolved. The Court itself had a singularly dismal day on June 23, 2003, when it served up two different decisions about admissions at the University of Michigan, ruling against racial preferences at the university’s undergraduate college but upholding them at the law school.* As presently practiced on campuses or in the workplace, affirmative action satisfies almost nobody. Conservatives tend to see the basic proposition as a series of elaborate, dishonest dodges designed to circumvent merit-based standards. Liberals, plainly less unhappy, see the existing preferences as inadequate. Either way, however, the argument itself has become a bit of a bore in recent years, and has been increasingly relegated to the intellectual sidelines. Ira Katznelson wants to get the argument going again, and believes he has some new thoughts to bring to the table. About that, he could be right. A Left-leaning scholar based at Columbia, where he occupies an endowed chair in history and political science, Katznelson has in the past criticized modern liberalism as intellectually flabby and politically unprincipled, an obstacle to the truly egalitarian society he wishes to create. The surprise of this book is that the same critique of liberalism is central to his case for affirmative action.

That case leans heavily on history. Katznelson reminds us that affirmative action is customarily defended by liberals as an effort to undo the effects of many generations of black slavery and oppression. To remedy that injustice, as President Lyndon Johnson declared in a much quoted speech at Howard University in 1965, a policy of mere nondiscrimination would not be enough: You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.