Rights in America
Ethnic Dilemmas 1964-1982.
by Nathan Glazer.
Harvard University Press. 359 pp. $20.00.
It is hard to imagine that a book of three hundred pages on affirmative action and associated subjects, pages written over eighteen years of fierce and emotional debate on the issue, could be a model of clarity, measured reasoning, and, to use a word of unnatural political appeal nowadays, fairness. Nathan Glazer’s Ethnic Dilemmas 1964-1982, a collection of essays (a number of which first appeared in these pages), is such a book. The achievement is all the more remarkable because Glazer is not neutral on the subject. As between color-blind and color-conscious social policy, he is, as was the civil-rights movement before 1964, for color-blindness. Moreover, in the course of these eighteen years he has seen the cause of civil rights transformed from a struggle for universalized individual rights into a lobby for selective group rights. In what must be for him a major disappointment, color consciousness and group privilege have won victory after victory in the federal bureaucracy, in the courts, in the media, and even in the language: to be for civil rights today is to be for group quotas, or, to cite the euphemism of the 1984 Democratic platform, “goals and timetables,” adherence to which must be “verifiable.” Characteristically, Glazer’s response to these developments is not outrage but genuine puzzlement, which in turn elicits curiosity, and which finally engages his analytic talents. What, he asks, is the meaning of this transformation, and, most important, what are its consequences?
In some measure, it is the emphasis on consequences which accounts for the civil tone and the sense of equilibrium of these writings, an unusual feature in the literature of affirmative action. “I am a sociologist, not a political philosopher or a lawyer,” Glazer writes. “As a political philosopher or a lawyer, I would try to find basic principles of justice that can be defended and argued against all other principles. As a sociologist, I look at the concrete consequences, for concrete societies.” This leads him to judge affirmative action according to a “pragmatic principle”: “What policies to overcome discrimination give us the opportunity to best satisfy all the groups of a multi-ethnic society so they can live in some reasonable degree of harmony?”
Glazer is quite candid in assessing the effects of affirmative action on social harmony. He argues, with common sense on his side and in opposition to radicals who denigrate the achievements of affirmative action, that in the last two decades it has indeed contributed to the improvement in the social condition of blacks, particularly in facilitating entry into the middle class. Yet it is questionable how much quotas accelerated this movement, since there was already rapid improvement between 1964 and the early 1970’s, i.e., before “soft” affirmative action (aggressive recruiting, advertising, etc.) turned into the “affirmative discrimination” (Glazer’s phrase) of quotas.
Now, it is obvious that the existence of permanently depressed minorities, in whose midst class and ethnic differences coincide and reinforce one another, produces despair, alienation, and, ultimately, threats to social harmony. The reality of social mobility, and the hope it engenders among those still immobile, help defuse that threat. The (accurate) percepton among blacks that avenues of opportunity are opening, and indeed are being preferentially opened, fosters a crucial sense of participation and inclusion in the larger society. There is also a more cynical view of the same phenomenon: Marxists have long noted, to their sorrow, that one of the geniuses of capitalism is its ability to recruit the most able among the working class, thus depriving revolution of its natural leadership. In America, this process is known as cooption, and though it tends to be practiced on ethnic, not just class, elites, its social effects are similar.
So much for the benefits. The cost, argues Glazer, is greater: the Balkanization of American society. Once individual rights are made to yield to group rights, and these group rights are accorded only to some, all will scramble for the designation “disadvantaged,” with all its advantages: preferential treatment in government contracting, in admission to professional schools, in employment, promotion, protection from firing, and so forth. The result is not just a nasty system of racial classification, but also profound questions of equity.
The notion of group rights was originally intended for blacks to undo the legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. Yet as early as 1965 the federal government had extended the idea of special protection to American Indians, “Spanish-Americans,” and “Orientals.” The principle underlying the choice of favored groups had to do with a history of past discrimination resulting (presumably) in present underachievement. Yet “Spanish-Americans” included Americans from Spain and Cuba, neither group a victim of discrimination. “Orientals” included Japanese-Americans—if anything, chronic overachievers. Today, these categories extend to new immigrants from the Philippines and Vietnam who, on their day of arrival, before even acquiring a history in the United States, let alone a history of discrimination, are granted special protection. Not surprisingly, other groups clamor for inclusion, and, if they are deemed racially and ethnically worthy, get it. Indian-Americans (from India), certainly not an economically or socially depressed community, have successfully demanded inclusion as “Asian-Americans” (the correct term in today’s post-Orientalist world).
Glazer’s concern is that such policies set group against group, and, by elevating group rights over individual rights, violate the sense most Americans have of the social compact that ties the country together. The policies breed resentment among those denied these rights, principally the successful (or, as with, say, Polish-Americans, less successful) immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century. Among newer groups, they create bitter, often absurd, competitions of ethnic credential-flashing for a choice classification. And they anger original designees who fear the dilution of affirmative action as it is made to encompass more and more groups. Last year in the District of Columbia, for example, there was vigorous opposition to extending to some Asian-American groups preferential treatment in government contracting.
Glazer’s predictions of Balkanization, made ten or fifteen years ago, no longer seem so speculative in 1984. Consider, for example, that corner of American political life where group quotas have been most enthusiastically embraced: the Democratic party. What was so curious about the 1984 Democratic convention were the frantic attempts of party leaders to “bring the party together”—in the almost total absence (unlike 1968 or 1972) of ideological conflict. In San Francisco there were no war or antiwar factions, no regulars or insurgents, no establishment or counterculture to be reconciled. Even the fight over affirmative action was simply a dispute over whether to say the word “quota”; both sides had accepted the principle. The great fear of the party’s falling apart derived almost exclusively from divisions based on group identification: blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, Southern whites, women, white ethnics, Jews. Not that coalition politics did not exist in the past. But it is one thing for political parties to broker conflicting interests; it is another to arbitrate claims for official recognition, official protection, and official favor, which are the principal demands of the emerging new groups today. These are constitutional changes in the social compact; to many Americans, indeed to a majority, they are constitutional violations.
Defenders of quotas counter that these are mere temporary measures, that their own ultimate goal is color-blind and group-neutral arrangements in a future that will come into being as soon as the effects of past discrimination have been eradicated. Glazer curtly dismisses their argument. Even if color-blindness truly is the intent of the group-rights advocates, it will not be the effect. It is hopelessly naive to believe that any group will relinquish hard-won special status, and the political and economic power that comes with it. And what kind of evidence for the final eradication of discrimination is a group likely to accept? Glazer’s concern is that the emerging new order is not easily revocable. Once transformed into a confederation of groups, the polity will not easily revert to the traditional American arrangement whereby groups were granted social legitimacy, but not legal and political standing.
In the end, Glazer’s assessment of affirmative action is based not so much on the balance of costs and benefits as on a vision of how a multi-ethnic society should constitute itself. His own preferred vision is perhaps best embodied in the 1964 Civil Rights Act itself: a nation that defines fraternity in the largest sense, encompassing the whole country and endowing all its people with equal and interchangeable citizenship. But he is not dogmatic on the issue. He does not claim that his is the only vision compatible with democracy or justice. He points quite fairly to other democracies, like Canada and Belgium, that accept the confederational idea, and that constitutionally sanction group rights, often at the expense of individual rights. Indeed, this experience is not wholly alien to the United States: American Indians have long been granted special protection and privileges.
But these examples bring us to the rub of the argument. American Indians enjoy—or perhaps, suffer—the official status of a separate nationality, joined to but not merged with American nationality. The confederational idea carries with it the germ of separate citizenship, which inevitably means super-citizenship for some, sub-citizenship for others. We have not yet reached the point of internal passports, stamped with one’s “nationality,” but they lie along this road. Indeed, Canada and Belgium are cautionary examples: they are the Western countries most threatened by Balkanization. Had they the choice, as the United States does now, they might not choose confederation.
For the United States, Glazer is against confederation, because of the consequences. But what of justice? One of the most refreshing parts of this book is its lack of interest in the question. This is not simply because, as Glazer modestly confesses, he is not a political philosopher—he is of course well-acquainted with the arguments on both sides—but because he suspects that abstract claims for and against affirmative action tend to degenerate into the self-serving searches for a theory to justify one side or the other. And while he refuses to dismiss meritocratic arguments completely, à la John Rawls, he prefers to ground his opposition to quotas in their consequences, and not in first principles.
It is, I think, a wise decision. On the one hand, Allan Bakke, to take a celebrated example, was denied admission to the University of California medical school because of his color. Had he been black, he would have been admitted. That is a direct and powerful violation of the notion of justice as fairness. Justice should be blind.
On the other hand, justice makes other demands. One can make a good case that individuals growing up in this country, who enjoy its bountiful endowments, should also share its historical burdens. Allan Bakke, after all, did not spring up full grown at the door of the University of California admissions office. He was the beneficiary of national assets—an educational system, an abundant economy, a free and liberal polity—which helped him achieve what he did, and to which he had contributed nothing. He had also contributed nothing to America’s historical crimes against blacks. But it is hard to see why justice should exempt him from bearing a share of a collective remedy. There is such a thing as historical guilt and resulting collective obligation. Democratic Germany today, for example, has special obligations to the Jewish people (e.g., not to sell arms to Israel’s enemies) and will retain those obligations even after the last Nazi has died. Furthermore, society routinely allocates social costs to blameless individuals, for reasons often of mere expediency, not even justice. In times of high inflation, for example, government will induce a recession, which exacts a disproportionately heavy penalty from the poor and working classes. It does so in the name of a higher necessity—saving the currency—because it knows of no other way to solve the problem. If it weren’t the only way, justice would dictate trying something else.
Given the difficulty of resolving the justice issue, it is a pleasure to encounter a discussion of affirmative action which focuses on the question of whether there is another way (like “soft” affirmative action) and whether the current way (quotas) really works at all—whether it might not destroy the social currency while trying to save it—and which leaves the question of justice to the political philosophers and other metaphysicians.