Renew the Struggle for Colorblindness

The classical liberal strand in Western political philosophy has historically opposed special government privileges for groups and prized equality before the law. Classical liberals favored eliminating the benefit of clergy and the privileges of the nobility. They fought against slavery. And, unlike some progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they opposed Jim Crow.

Whether classical liberalism should embrace laws that prevent private actors from treating people unequally on the basis of characteristics, like race and sex, is a more complicated question. But in my view, given the long history of Jim Crow in the United States, laws against discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity were justified to break ingrained habits encouraged by government discrimination against African-Americans. But here again the classical liberal view molded these laws into general prohibitions against discrimination, not special privileges for certain groups.

In the 1960s and 1970s progressives began to transform these laws into mechanisms of social engineering that took account of race in their planning.  But for a brief period in Reagan administration, the classical liberal strand of universalism reasserted itself as part of the core ideology of the Republican party. The result was an effort to treat laws on discrimination as general prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, no matter which race and ethnicity was at issue.  Colorblindness was banner under which the movement marched.

Sadly, this movement has dissipated. Periodically, there is litigation against racial preferences at colleges, and a few states have passed laws, not rigorously enforced, against such preferences. But as multiculturalism has gained steam, conservative politicians have mostly given up opposing reverse discrimination.  The George W. Bush administration was far less aggressive than that of Ronald Reagan in pursuing the colorblind ideal.

It is now time for a renewed effort. The last campaign saw how divided society becomes when colorblindness is not the norm.  One candidate consciously decided to ignore white working class voters.  Even more worryingly, a small but distinctive white supremacist movement threw its support to the other candidate.

Conservatives and classical liberals should begin, of course, by denouncing white supremacists. But they also should try to eliminate laws and misinterpretations of law that permit race and ethnic based privileges, because in the long run such preferences will contribute to  even more dangerous balkanization.

For instance, Congress should eliminate set asides for minority contractors.  All too often Republicans have acquiesced in such programs defined by race for much the same reason they acquiesce in ethanol subsidies:  A more concentrated group is placated and the costs are diffused over a larger group.  The Trump administration should also reverse race conscious regulations that grew up in the Obama administration, particularly in housing.

But beyond making laws colorblind, it is important for conservative intellectuals to reject the preferential hiring in higher education that goes under the name of diversity.  Of course, outreach to minority groups should be welcomed as method of avoiding subtle forms of discrimination. But conservatives recently have begun  to accept (or at least not actively oppose) harder edged diversity–perhaps in the hope that the concept can be turned against left liberals to demand the hiring of more conservatives onto monolithically left-wing faculties. But the effort to get liberal academics to abide by such neutral principles is likely unavailing. It also risks further entrenching race consciousness at the university, a development particularly damaging because universities should be the transmission belt of universalism.  Better to campaign against discrimination against conservatives and liberalism rather than ask for affirmative action.

The struggle against special privileges and for universal rights has been one of the most essential of Western Civilization. Classical liberals and conservatives must take up the cause again.

Reader Discussion

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on December 08, 2016 at 05:36:16 am

Is colorblindness possible for those who are "tone deaf" to the idea of personal wholeness, that aspect of human beings which transcends and integrates the sum of one's parts, (the "soul" of a person)?

Is colorblindness possible for those who do not acknowledge existence of "acting persons" whose personal integrity transcends psychology and biology?

If a living human being is simply "activated material", how, other than by taking into account what can be seen, heard, or measured can that "thing", which will one day be unactivated, be understood?

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Linda Smith
on December 08, 2016 at 11:47:01 am

Better to campaign against discrimination against conservatives and liberalism rather than ask for affirmative action.

Great. Two questions:
1) How’s that workin’ out for you? Has this campaign of your achieved any results?

2) Why would you think this campaign would work out any better when applied to race?

Of course, outreach to minority groups should be welcomed as method of avoiding subtle forms of discrimination.

Here McGinnis acknowledges that discrimination can arise from circumstances other than facially discriminatory policies, and that race-conscious remedies are justified to counteract such discrimination. Given these concessions, I have difficulty understanding the basis for the rest of McGinnis’s post. It would appear that he speaks not on the basis of principle, but of taste: Affirmative Action programs go too far to suit his pallet.

And that’s fine; there’s no disputing taste. But also little basis to advocate it.

Like McGinnis, I love the idea of remedying racism, sexism, ageism, etc., via facially neutral policies. And I generally believe that we should implement those policies. But again and again, these policies tend to result in segregated outcomes. Thus, we are forced to confront one of two possibilities: Either the racists are right and merit correlates with race, or “subtle forms of discrimination” endure even after facially neutral polices are put in place.

Our current environment provides a fine opportunity for exploring the nature of “subtle forms of discrimination.” Observe all the commentary about how well Trump did with the working class vote. This is far from clear to me. Rather, the data suggests that Trump did better with the white working class vote. Yet many commenters fail to note the distinction (although, in fairness, many do). The term “working class” is implicitly understood to mean white working class—even though blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented within the working class, pretty much regardless of what definition you might site. In other words, when you speak in a facially neutral way, you may nevertheless convey a racially biased message—because human beings are not unbiased observers. To design public policy in a manner that ignores this dynamic is to stick your head in the sand.

Or observe McGinnis’s declaration that “One candidate consciously decided to ignore white working class voters.” He offers no support for this assertion. Indeed, what possible support could he offer? Do campaigns issue press releases declaring the categories of voters they intend to ignore?

Instead, McGinnis is remarking on the fact that Clinton failed to make a conspicuous appeal for white working-class voters. In short, she adopted McGinnis’s recommendation to refrain from making explicitly race-conscious appeals—at least with respect to whites. And what was the result? The failure to make an explicitly race-conscious appeal is perceived as a form of rejection by members of the group that are conscious of their racial identity. Far from supporting McGinnis’s thesis, this dynamic eviscerates it.

So here’s our situation: We are not moving toward a world with fewer bases for discrimination. To the contrary. Where people feel vulnerable and a sense of scarcity, they demand ever stricter demonstrations of tribal loyalty from others--even if those demonstrations do nothing to alleviate the vulnerability and sense of scarcity. Note that working-class Brits voted to leave the EU. This policy is unlikely to help working-class Brits materially, but it will signal that if the nation sinks, they'll all sink together. The sin of the EU proponents was not that they adopted policies harmful to working-class Brits, but that they adopted policies that helped others—and that disloyalty was perceived to be the same thing.

As ever more jobs are replaced by automation, people throughout the world will feel increasingly vulnerable. And the fight for scraps grows more intense, we'll see ever more discrimination based on ever more criteria. (Ironically, automation will also make the world richer, but classical liberals are likely to impede efforts to share the wealth--thereby exacerbating the growing tribalism. But that's a topic for another post.)

Don’t get me wrong: I would love to believe that we could solve all our social problems without discriminating on any basis other than merit. And I believe that we should strive toward that goal. But evidence suggests that facially neutral policies don’t get us there; they merely impede our ability to meet discriminatory tendencies with countervailing force.

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on December 08, 2016 at 12:35:59 pm

You are over the top here, brudda~!

What a bunch of pyschobabble!

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