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Racial preferences and recycled Jim Crow arguments

By W. James Antle III
web posted September 1, 2003

When did people who claim to be civil rights activists start supporting government-sponsored racial discrimination? Forty years after Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream Speech," many people and organizations who claim to be his heirs argue that rather than judging people by the "content of their character," the government isn't classifying people by the color of their skin enough.

It's become a cliché to quote Dr. King in opposition to race-conscious affirmative action programs. It's true that the most famous leader of the civil rights movement was more open to these types of government policies than many political commentators today would care to admit. But it's still hard to square the rhetoric he used in his stirring oratory during the March on Washington with the government picking winners and losers on the basis of race, and it was precisely with that kind of noble appeal to color-blindness that he and the civil rights movement won the national argument against Jim Crow.

Sadly, that argument is now treated as if it were hopelessly naïve. At the same time Californians are scheduled to go to the ballots to decide the recall election, they will also have the opportunity to vote on Proposition 54. Also known as the Racial Privacy Initiative, it would prohibit the state government from collecting information that would be used to classify residents by race. Gone would be those obnoxious check boxes that force Americans to state whether they are black/African-American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or Caucasian/non-Hispanic white, among dozens of other categories. Instead, everyone would be categorized as Americans and Californians.

California Gov. Gray Davis meets with members of the League of United Latin American Citizens during their state board meeting on August 23 in Newport Beach, Calif. Davis spoke to the L.U.L.A.C. board, addressed the current recall effort and Davis' opposition to Proposition 54
California Gov. Gray Davis meets with members of the League of United Latin American Citizens during their state board meeting on August 23 in Newport Beach, Calif. Davis spoke to the L.U.L.A.C. board, addressed the current recall effort and Davis' opposition to Proposition 54

California Gov. Gray Davis, in yet another example of why he so richly deserves to be recalled, told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, "This is another effort to divide the state by race. I strongly recommend that you vote 'no'." A ballot initiative that would prevent the state from gathering information on people's races and reinforce the principle government race-neutrality divides people by race? To stop using race as a criteria for whom the government will do what for is racially divisive? George Orwell must be rolling in his grave.

Davis and many liberal advocates of identity politics oppose this measure because they fear it would endanger racial preferences, which California voters already outlawed when they passed Proposition 209 in 1996. They condemn the Racial Privacy Initiative because it would deprive the self-styled diversity industry of its power to break citizens down into convenient racial categories and dole out spoils based on the number of boxes checked off for each group on government forms.

Racial preferences have been transformed from an ill-advised but well-intentioned effort to remedy the historical injustices suffered by black Americans into a political patronage program owned and operated by the diversitycrats. In order to entrench this system, proponents have worked to increase the number of beneficiaries. This is why they have revived something like the Jim Crow-era "one drop rule," that offers racial preferences to the growing number of multiracial Americans as long as they can trace their lineage back to a protected minority group. It is also why groups that claim to represent the interests of black and Hispanic Americans support continuous mass immigration despite the disproportionate impact it has on the employment and wages of minorities.

Not content to effectively discriminate against whites and in many cases Asians, proponents of these preferential policies recycle other arguments that sound like they come from defenders of Jim Crow. Often it is suggested that if it weren't for racial preferences, there would be no black middle class. This argument, which one also hears from white racists, completely ignores black occupational advancement from the 1940s to the 1960s, before the establishment of racial preferences.

Ward ConnerlyWard Connerly, the courageous activist behind both Proposition 209 and Proposition 54, received a remarkable letter from Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.) about the possibility of him campaigning for an anti-preferences initiative in Michigan. Connerly was told to "go home and stay there," arguing that there was "no need to stir up trouble where none exists," or "itinerant publicity-seekers, non-resident trouble-makers or self-aggrandizing out-of-state agitators." Despite the similarity in tone to letters segregationist politicians sent civil rights leaders in the 1950s and ‘60s, the congressman had the audacity to accuse Connerly of "divisive racial politics."

Defenders of racial preferences often argue that by continuing such divisive policies now we will be able to realize a more color-blind future. In her majority opinion in the Supreme Court's disastrous Grutter decision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor predicted without offering any coherent reason to do so that the type of affirmative action she voted to uphold would no longer be necessary in 25 years. Not only does this position not make any logical sense, the unfortunate reality is that racial preferences have become an entitlement with a growing political constituency mobilized to defend them. They will no more end on their own than the state "withered away" under communism.

But this doesn't mean that it won't be best for all Americans if they were to end. In an article for the Cato Institute's Cato Journal, the economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams argued, "We can better serve the interests of large numbers of blacks by focusing our energies on fraudulent education, disintegrating families and inner cities with climates that are hostile to economic development and personal safety." Thomas Sowell has noted in such comprehensive international studies as Preferential Policies that government racial micromanagement has an unimpressive record of helping intended beneficiaries.

Most importantly, Americans rejected the argument that treating people differently on the basis of race was compatible with equality and the rule of law a generation ago. In order to best uphold the rights of the individual, we are due for another restatement of these principles in our own time.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Breaking the chains by James Landrith (September 1, 2003)
    For James Landrith the Racial Privacy Initiative is a deeply personal issue and the proposition's victory won't just be political but moral as well

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