Is Affirmative Action Necessary to Redress Racial Injustices?

This essay is based on my opening speech for a debate that I participated in that was hosted by the NYC Political Forum, one of the largest meetup groups in New York City concerned with the discussion of ideas. The debate itself was Oxford-Style and featured two teams, each with two members. I was partnered with my good friend Chuck Braman. As is customary for our team debates, Chuck opened with a statement that established the broader moral context for our position, and I provided a battery of economic and historical support for our view. The resolution was “Affirmative Action is necessary to redress racial injustices,” and we argued the negative position that Affirmative Action is not necessary. We ended up winning the debate by a small margin, based on a vote taken before and after the debate.

I want to remind everyone of my partner’s moral argument, which is that the individual is the basic unit of humanity, not the group. We believe that it is unjust to reward people today for crimes that may have been committed against their ancestors yesterday. We also think it is immoral to inflict handicaps on individuals today for injustices committed by their ancestors yesterday. It on this individualist basis that we reject Affirmative Action, which we regard as a thoroughly racist policy.

Yet there may be some in the audience tonight who say to themselves: “that’s well and good in theory, but what about the facts on the ground? Isn’t it true that blacks have been disadvantaged by racial discrimination and the legacy of slavery? Shouldn’t the government do something to fix it?” These are valid questions and I want to take some time now to answer them with relevant economic and historical facts.

Let’s be clear at the outset that blacks have suffered state-sponsored discrimination in the United States. Slavery was a legal practice endorsed by the state governments and enforced through slave codes. Segregation was enforced as law by the state and local governments during the “Jim Crow” era. The attitudes that gave rise to these institutions were real, but we have come a long way since then. The questions now on the table are whether discrimination is the primary cause of problems in the black community and whether Affirmative Action is the proper solution.

It is true that the black population as a group ranks high in terms of poverty, fatherlessness, and other negative statistics. However, it is a mistake to blindly assume that historical discrimination is the primary cause of this. The fact is that life for blacks was getting better every year in the first half of the 20th century, only to stagnate and even decline in the latter part of the century. There are several relevant facts about the state of blacks in the earlier part of the 20th century, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the implementation of Affirmative Action programs, that one should take cognizance of:

  • In 1960, only 20% of black children lived in single-parent homes, and in just under thirty years later that number had tripled.
  • In 1940, 19% of black children were born out of wedlock. By 1975 that number was 49% and by 2000 it was a staggering 68%.
  • In 1940, 13% of black families had incomes below the poverty line. By 1960, blacks as a group had pulled themselves out of poverty and that number, was 53%. By the end of the 1960’s it had risen again to 70%, and since then it has stagnated and fallen in some jurisdictions.

How can it be that racism and discrimination were worse the further back you go in history, and yet black poverty is higher today relative to other groups than it was in the 1960s?

The cause of these disgraceful statistics is the creation of the welfare state in the late 1960s and the passage of legislation that incentivized blacks to become dependent on the government, such as subsidized housing and the minimum wage.

American blacks have been the special target of an intellectual establishment that prioritizes groups over individuals. These intellectuals have sought to use the historical crimes committed against blacks in America’s past in an attempt to hamstring America’s future. After all, if you can convince a man that the world hates him for his race and that only government can save him, you have earned yourself a lifelong voter.

I submit as evidence for this nefarious campaign the fact that the advocates for Affirmative Action neglect to mention the experience of Asian Americans. Consider that just as blacks have lower credit scores than whites, make less money than whites and get denied mortgages more often than whites, the same can be said about whites in relation to Asians. In just under a century, Japanese male income was higher in the United States than white male income despite decades of discrimination against Japanese and their internment by the US government during World War 2. And yet, we never hear about “Asian privilege,” precisely because it does not serve to drive the wedge of racial tensions.

This is probably news to many in this room. Poor scholarship and an unfortunate obsession with collectivistic politics have led to a misdiagnosis of the problem facing blacks in America. What should not be news to people in this room is the havoc created by the supposed remedy for this misdiagnosis, which is Affirmative Action. Economist Thomas Sowell, for example, has written extensively on how black students are systematically mismatched in college admissions processes due to Affirmative Action and as a result, they end up dropping out of school at higher rates than they otherwise would.

More pressing is the mental and psychological destruction that Affirmative Action afflicts on members of both minority and majority groups. To understand this, consider the psychological effects of a policy which states that your ability does not matter but the color of your skin does. Affirmative Action establishes a double standard that robs individuals in the minority group of their self-esteem. How can someone in one of these groups know that they earned their achievements by merit and that they were not rewarded out of pity for their ancestors by some “well-meaning” bureaucrat?

Meanwhile, those not in the minority group are judged as being “privileged” and denied opportunities that they may have earned, all on the basis of who their grandparents were. How can people respect their minority peers when it is impossible to untangle those who earned what they have from those that were given awards due to their genetic makeup? It is a policy like Affirmative Action that exacerbates existing racial tensions and generates new ones where before there were none.

The United States is not the only country where Affirmative Action has been tried. India was the first country to experiment with it in order to assist the Untouchables, who had been oppressed for centuries. Though the policy there was originally meant to be limited in scope and last ten years, it continues to this day and bolsters inter-caste hatred. Affirmative Action was also tried in Malaysia, where the Chinese minority was generating immense wealth despite being only 10% of the population. The result was Affirmative Action for the majority, and when that failed, they outright kicked Singapore (where many Chinese lived) out of the country! Finally, Affirmative Action has led to outright civil war in Sri Lanka and Nigeria.

One cannot automatically assume that statistical differences between groups are always the result of discrimination. It is a fact that there have been group differences in societies all over the world not caused by discrimination for centuries. In Malaysia, the Chinese population comprised 10% of the population and yet it was responsible for 40% of the commercial activity. What was the cause? Chinese culture emphasizes education and frugality, compared to the Malay culture which does not. In Czarist Russia, the German population comprised 40% of the officer corps despite being 1% of the population. What was the cause? Prussian culture emphasized militarism and glorified the honor of warfare. Similar facts obtain when one studies Jews in Eastern Europe, Italians in Brazil, Armenians in Turkey and Lebanese in West Africa. The truth is that different cultures have produced better and worse ideas, but it is always individuals who must act on these ideas to better their own lives, or not.

 I want to end by emphatically asserting that the abolition of slavery and segregation were glorious victories made possible by the Enlightenment philosophy of individual rights. As you celebrate these achievements this weekend with the celebration of Martin Luther King Day, I ask you to remember the ideas that King fought and ultimately died for. Dr. King eloquently told us to place character above color, and wrote from his prison cell in Birmingham that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Like Dr. King, we believe that matters of justice are properly black and white, though not in the same way that our opponents do. Not only is Affirmative Action unnecessary, but it is downright destructive and should be abolished.