The affirmative action dilemma in the United States arises out of a conflict between two important social goals: equality of rights for individuals and equality of results for groups. The first, which Martin Luther King articulated when he called for us to be judged by our character rather than skin color, is probably the most widely shared tenet of the American political creed. But if we wish to live in a pluralistic and inclusive nation, we will have to strive to avoid a social system in which some groups are durably ensconced at the top while others remained at the bottom; we cannot be indifferent to concerns about group equality of results.
Yet equality of rights for persons and equality of outcomes for groups are in conflict. An example from the University of California at Berkeley illustrates the point. I asked an admissions officer there to estimate the chances of acceptance for a black or Hispanic student with a high school grade average of A-minus and a Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) score of 1,200 out of 1,600. He said they were virtually 100 percent; the student would be guaranteed admission. I then asked him what were the acceptance odds for a student with the same grades, test scores, and extracurricular background who happened to be white or Asian. He said they would be about five percent.
So Berkeley, like most other universities, has established some racial preference in its admissions policies. Some conservatives have charged that Berkeley is getting rid of merit in its application process, but this is not strictly true. Berkeley is considering merit, but within a given racial group. Berkeley admits the best white applicants, the best Hispanic applicants, and so on. But there seems to be no direct competition across racial lines; each applicant competes, in a sense, by running in his or her own ethnic lane.
Why do universities like Berkeley act in this manner? The public pretense is that university officials are deploying affirmative action remedies to fight racial discrimination. But the main obstacle to higher rates of black enrollment at Berkeley is not bigots in the admissions office; it is the merit principle. Studies have shown that under a strictly meritocratic admissions policy, the student body at I the Berkeley campus would be more than 9 percent white and Asian (majority Asian). Black enrollment would be down in the 1-2 percent range. These ratios generate such intense liberal embarrassment that the pressure comes irresistible to manipulate the admissions standards to produce a result more hospitable to group equality.
The effects of such proportional representation are now evident throughout higher education. Both in student admissions and faculty hiring, universities have institutionalized the practice of combating historical discrimination by practicing it. Blacks from middle-class and affluent families are routinely granted preference at the expense of poor whites with stronger academic credentials. Hispanics who have historically been classified as white in this country now get preferential treatment at the expense of Asians who are themselves a minority, who have suffered both de facto and de jure discrimination, and who have played no part in America’s history of racial oppression. It is difficult to understand how these consequences of affirmative action help to promote social justice.
Even for groups who are intended as beneficiaries, the effect of affirmative action is mixed. Some students graduate from prestigious schools like Berkeley and are better off; but over the past decade more than 50 percent of blacks have dropped out, some for financial reasons surely, but many because they were outmatched in the extremely demanding atmosphere of Berkeley. Yet these are students whose level of preparation suggests that at another California campus, they would be evenly matched against their peers and would graduate in comparable numbers. These minority students are worse off as a consequence of the “ratcheting up” effect of affirmative action.
The Rise of Cultural Relativism
Where does the concept of proportional representation come from? It developed over the past generation as the logical and common-sense expression of cultural relativism. As anthropologist Renato Rosaldo puts it, all cultures are equally legitimate and “no one of them is higher or lower, greater or lesser than any other.”
In the early part of this century, cultural relativism became the best way for a new generation of American intellectuals and activists to defeat the old racism. The racism of the 19th century was not based on simple ignorance, fear, and hate as is often supposed; rather, it grew out of a rational attempt to account for the large differences of civilization development between the West and other cultures—specifically sub-Saharan Africa—that emerged beginning in the 16th century and that could not be explained by environment. The old racists erected a hierarchy stretching from savagery to barbarism to
civilization; only whites, they argued, were capable of civilization, while other groups occupied lower rungs on the totem pole of human achievement.
Led by the immigrant anthropologist Franz Boas and his famous students—Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Melville Herskovits, and others—a newly ascendant group of American scholars challenged the old racist hierarchy by asserting that civilization superiority was entirely in the eye of the beholder, that all human customs represented equally valid adaptations to local environments. The Boasians used a leveling vocabulary that replaced the 19th-century term “civilization” with the 20th-century term “culture.”
A tremendous battle erupted between the old racists and the new anti racists. According to the civil rights morality tale, the good guys prevailed through logic and force of argument. In fact, neither side had a clear edge; it was Hitler who settled the argument. Hitler discredited the old racism not by proving it false but by showing it could have genocidal consequences. After World War II, the cultural relativists had established themselves as the only ethical alternative to Nazism.
Cultural relativism is very much alive today; indeed, it is the hidden rudder for the movement that we know as multiculturalism. What is wrong, its advocates ask, with students studying other cultures and employing diverse perspectives in thinking about issues? Indeed, if multiculturalism represented nothing more than an upsurge of interest in other cultures, it would be uncontroversial. Who can possibly be against studying the Analects of Confucius or the writings of Al Farabi and Ibn Sina?
Denying Western Cultural Superiority
The debate about multiculturalism, however, is not about whether to study other cultures but about how to study the West and other cultures. Multiculturalism is based on a denial of Western cultural superiority.
But the doctrine that all cultures are equal does not square with our everyday observation of the world. Most of the developed world today is white and European. Asian countries are progressing rapidly, Latin and South America are gaining more slowly, while much of southern Africa remains mired in economic and political chaos. This pattern is repeated within the United States: on many important measures of academic and economic performance—from the SAT to the firefighters’ test to rates of small business formation—whites and Asians come out on top, Hispanics fall in the middle, and blacks do least well.
Advocates of multiculturalism attribute
these differences entirely to externally imposed factors such as a history of racist oppression. This is not to protest the moral legitimacy of the multicultural assault against slavery. Yet slavery was historically a universal practice; it is the abolition of slavery that is distinctively Western. Ironically, multiculturalism has come to suppress systematically the liberal tradition of the West that produced the abolition of slavery, the liberation of women, and other advances in civilization, even as it camouflages the illiberal traditions of non-Western cultures.
These classroom abuses are being increasingly exposed and recognized for what they are. Western civilization is proving more attractive than non-Western cultures, even to people who live in non-Western cultures. The deservedly neglected figures of Third World cultures who are now being forced into the academic canon cannot survive comparison with the greatest thinkers and creative minds of the West. In the long term, Shakespeare will survive Stanley Fish, one of today’s leading literary deconstructionists.
The Liberal Metamorphosis
How liberalism metamorphosed from an attack on racism to an attack on merit makes an interesting story. Cultural relativism supplied the premises for the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Since racial groups were presumed equal in endowments and potential, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King took it for granted that inequality was the consequence of whites at the top oppressing blacks at the bottom. They expected that outlawing racial discrimination would produce group equality. Martin Luther King himself predicted that equality of rights for individuals would lead, within a reasonably short period of time, to equality of results for groups-to “privilege and property widely distributed.”
Over the past few decades, we have discovered that this premise is false. Merit, no less than the old racism, produces inequality—not just inequality between individuals but inequality among groups. Consequently, many civil rights organizations, and intellectuals such as black legal scholar Derrick Bell and white political scientist Andrew Hacker, now attack merit standards as a camouflaged form of racism. Stanley Fish argues that tests like the SAT measure little more than “accidents of birth, social position … the opportunities to take vacations or tennis lessons.”
Yet put aside the verbal section of the SAT, which conceivably includes terms like sonnet and sonata that are more familiar to young people who grow up in the suburbs, and concentrate only on the math section. Would anyone with a straight face maintain that equations are racially biased or that algebra is rigged against African Americans? Yet from the College Board, which administers the SAT, show that year after year the racial gaps apparent on the verbal section of the test are equaled or exceeded on the math section.
This is the heart of America’s race problem, which today is less a race problem than a black problem. The hard fact is that blacks are basically uncompetitive with other groups on many important measures of academic achievement and economic potential, so that equality of rights typically produces scandalous inequality of results. The liberal explanation is that black underperformance is the product of white racism, now expressed in increasingly subtle and exotic institutional forms. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve suggest that the problem may be due partly to genetic differences. If either of these views is correct, then it is very difficult to conceive a way out of our present racial dilemma.
A Dysfunctional Culture
Yet there is an alternative theory that has greater explanatory power than either the liberal view or the genetic view. According this view, group differences of academic achievement, economic performance, and social stability can be attributed to differences in culture. For instance, studies by psychologist James Flynn and sociologist Sanford Dombusch show that little separates the IQ test scores of whites and Asian Americans at an early age. Yet Asians on average do better on tests of academic performance in later years.
The reason: Asian American students study harder. Cultural factors such as intact families and an orientation toward hard work and deferred gratification undoubtedly contribute to greater academic diligence among Asian
American youngsters. African Americans in this country are held back by aspects of black culture that developed as adaptations to historical circumstances, including racial opposition, but that has become outdated and dysfunctional today. Among these cultural traits are a reflective racial paranoia that blames racism for every problem, even those that are intensely personal; a heavy reliance on government, both for jobs and welfare; a neglect of entrepreneurship; a hostility to homework and academic success, which are viewed as “acting white”; the valorization of the outlaw or “bad Negro,” whose incivility and irresponsibility are viewed as forms of courageous resistance to white oppression; and the normalization of illegitimacy and single-parent families.
These problems are not the result of genetic deficiency and they are not caused by contemporary white racism. Indeed the most serious of them did not exist in their present form a generation ago. For the first half of the 20th century, African Americans had an illegitimacy rate of around 20-25 percent, considerably higher than the white rate but vastly lower than the current rate, which is approaching 70 percent. Similarly, black crime rates have soared over the past generation. A generation ago the gene pool for blacks was roughly the same as it is today, and racism was far more overt and pervasive.
Some critics have pointed out that the African American cultural problems are really American problems, and to some degree this is true. The illegitimacy rate for whites today, for example, is not far from the black rate that Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about in his famous report on the black family in the1960s, leading my colleague Charles Murray to warn of a “coming white underclass.” The glamorization of violence and promiscuity pervades all of American popular culture today. Yet, even controlling for socioeconomic status, blacks are far more likely to bear children out of wedlock than other groups. Similarly, although crime rates for young people have risen nationwide, young black males are several times more likely to be arrested and convicted of burglary, rape, or homicide than their white counterparts.
The results of tests of academic achievement show that while there has been a decline in standards across the board, its effects are especially severe when it comes to the performance of African Americans. Data from the College Board, for example, show that whites and Asians who come from families earning less than $20,000 a year consistently score higher on the SAT than blacks who come from families earning more than $60,000 a year. These are ethnic, not merely socioeconomic, differences in academic skills.
Relying on Government
Now there is much in African American culture that is both distinctively black and distinctively admirable; the black middle class has produced many notable leaders in education, religion, and the professions and is generally beset by many fewer problems than poor blacks. Yet there are some problems that the two groups share. One is a high degree of reliance on government, and there is a historical reason for it. While whites in America have historically viewed the government as the enemy of rights, for African Americans the federal government has been a deliverer and guarantor of rights, It was the federal government that abolished slavery, abolished Jim Crow and segregation, and that was employer of last resort (and in many cases first resort) for many blacks for much of this century.
Yet, this cultural orientation, which made sense for a long lime, is problematical today because government resources are more limited, because its record of solving complex social problems has proved to be poor, and because public confidence in government is at an all-time low. Other ethnic groups are finding that entrepreneurship is today a much quicker and more reliable route to prosperity and security.
Describing the contemporary black problem as largely a cultural problem is a tough message because nobody likes to hear that his culture is in any way less than perfect. Yet it is also a hopeful message, because if cultural deficiencies are recognized and confronted, they can be corrected. Unfortunately, I have found among many prominent intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, a ferocious aversion to acknowledging cultural breakdown in the black community. All criticism of black culture is dismissed as a form of racism or “racialism” or a callous way of “blaming the victim”
Now no one is to blame for being a victim. Yet If as a reaction to being victimized, a group develops patterns of behavior that perpetuate poverty, dependency, and violence, then continuing to inveigh against the historical oppressor cannot offer the victim group much relief. Indeed, if white racism were to disappear overnight, many of the most serious problems plaguing the black community would remain.
Regarding pathologies like illegitimacy and violent crime, the victim may be in the best position to address the problem even though he was not entirely responsible for causing it. This does not absolve society of a responsibility to help, but in a free society the tentacles of government do not reach far enough to reform socialization practices. Blacks, then, must take primary responsibility even for cultural traits they did not freely choose, but which were to some extent imposed on them.
Toward a Race-Neutral Public Policy
Mainstream black intellectuals and civil rights activists are not inclined to see matters this way; they are committed to a philosophy in which black problems are the fault of white
oppression. Similarly, many white liberals refuse to support social policies that treat blacks as fully responsible citizens because they view black failures as the product of socially imposed deprivation. Raising the question of “why so many young men are engaged in what amounts to self-inflicted genocide,” Andrew Hacker provides the prescribed answer:
“It is white America that has made being black so disconsolate an estate.”
This brings us to the ultimate irony: cultural relativism, once an effective weapon against the old racism, has now become the main obstacle to improving the civilizational standards of African Americans. Committed to a doctrine of cultural parity, relativism refuses to recognize the cultural dysfunctionalities in the black community. The black anthropologist Elijah Anderson identifies two cultures in the inner city: a besieged culture of decency, characterized by people who work hard, maintain steady jobs, and keep their families together, and a hegemonic culture of incivility, promiscuity, and violence. Cultural relativism prevents many political and intellectual leaders from saying that one is better than the other.
Racism need not always be with us; it had a historical beginning, and it may have a historical end. But to achieve a society of true racial harmony in the United States, we need to adopt a new strategy, very different from the one that served so well in the civil rights era. We need, in my view, a twofold strategy: first, a public policy that is strictly race neutral; second, a program of cultural restoration. The University of California regent took an admirable step recently by outlawing racial preferences.
Yet color-blindness cannot succeed unless it is accompanied by a vigorous program of cultural restoration, so that blacks will become competitive with other groups on a wide range of measures of social achievement. Only then can African Americans dispel suspicions of inferiority, win the earned respect of other citizens, and gain full access to the fruits of the American dream.
Dinesh D’Souza served as a senior domestic policy analyst in the Reagan administration during 1987-88. He is currently the John M. Olin Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.