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Who’s Afraid of Affirmative Action?

Meritocracy is rare indeed, however far back in history we may look.  Member-of-my-family-ocracy, on the other hand, can be found almost everywhere.  Political dynasties are as old as time.  Ancien régime France let state posts be passed down from father to son, like a house. In clannish Arab lands today, one’s spot in college, the army, or the civil service is largely determined by the power of one’s relatives. David Pryce-Jones on Arab society:

To take the everyday matter of wanting to obtain a job, a young man approaches the head of his family or clan, his patron.  The head of the family is under obligation to do his very best to make sure that his kinsman is given what he asks for.  The honor of the whole family is at stake. […]  In the event of the job going to someone else, the patron becomes the object of shame, and his standing is under threat […] Whether or not the young man deserved the job is no kind of consideration. Civic spirit, the good of the community, or mere consideration of who could best perform the job in hand has no part in these proceedings.

Where meritocracy is allowed, the results can be impressive.  The Ottomans’ Janissary corps is one example. The ancient Chinese civil service exam system is another. In the modern West, outbred and commonweal-oriented as we are, nepotism rubs us the wrong way.  Shouldn’t the best man get the job?

Enter racial quotas.

We may understand why they came to be, and loudly proclaim their time has gone. But the affirmative action coin has two sides.  What happens when a foreign group arrives among us and out-performs us? Are we in our rights to establish quotas to keep them from forming an alien elite? Indians in Uganda, Chinese in Malaysia, Ashkenazi Jews in the U.S., Europeans in South Africa–all have been excluded via quotas by a native population ill at ease with their success. Is this fair? When are quotas justified?

A quick look at the U.S.’s history of affirmative action reminds us of two things: (1) The race exclusion Afros complained of then was real and widespread, and (2) A.A. was only meant to be temporary.

1) Exclusion was real: Snapshots

A few headlines from our past:

“Boston, March 23. Refusing to associate with Dr. Melissa Thompson, a Negress of North Carolina, who has been appointed a physician in the maternity department of the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, five young white women doctors sent in their resignation.”

(Baltimore Sun, March 24, 1911)

“New York, July 2. Twenty teachers, about half the staff at Public School No. 125, in Wooster Street, Manhattan have applied for transfers, owing to the assignment by the Board of Education of William L. Burkley (mulatto) as head of the school.”

(Baltimore Sun, July 3, 1909)  (1)

Many companies simply refused to hire Blacks under any circumstances. Even during WWII:

After a series of hearings in 1942, the FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission (FDR’s baby)] chairman stated that on the West Coast “company after company admitted that it did not employ Negroes, or persons of Oriental background, regardless of their fitness for the job. Here, in the midst of around-the-clock appeals for national unity and for an all-out effort to build our instruments for defense, we found unfair employment practices only slightly removed from the Hitler pattern.” (2)

2) Affirmative actions’s humble beginnings

This extended to the army, civil service, universities, and trade unions. The first ‘fair employment’ initiatives were thus simply attempts to allow qualified Afro-Americans a foot in the door.  H.G. Graham describes it this way:

The race-conscious model of hard affirmative action was developed in trial-and-error fashion by a coalition of mostly white, second-tier civil servants in the social service agencies of the presidency (Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Health, Education, and Welfare). This was a network of Kennedy-Johnson liberals in Washington’s mission agencies, working with a small cadre of young, often black policy entrepreneurs, coordinating with allies in the Justice Department and the EEOC, and linked to counterparts in regional and municipal government by the sprawling federal grant network. Once started in this way, hard affirmative action spread during the 1970s with surprisingly little attempt by conservatives to stop it.  (3)

President Johnson faced angry protests from black construction workers shut out of northern trade unions.  Fearing more riots, in 1967 Johnson announced the ‘Philadelphia Plan’, the germ of affirmative action in this country. All federal contracts in the City of Brotherly Love had to be carried out by shops using a minimum number of Blacks. The Philadelphia Plan was scrapped, but Nixon revived it a few years later, and modern racial set-asides were born:

 [In 1970] the Labor Department issued Order No. 4. This dull bureaucratic label disguised an aggressive regulatory power play. It extended the Philadelphia Plan’s proportional hiring requirements from construction projects to all federal contractors. To qualify as bidders for government contracts, employers such as defense firms, builders, and suppliers were now obliged to submit written affirmative action plans, including detailed numerical goals and timetables for minority hiring that would remedy “underutilization.” Underutilization meant worker distributions in all job classifications that failed to reach proportional employment for protected classes (African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans).

[It] covered 230,000 contractors, together doing $30 billion worth of business and employing more than 20 million workers—one-third of the entire U.S. labor force.  Employment standards imposed… would set the new national standard.   (3)

3) A ‘temporary’ measure

A de facto quota system was born and, unsurprisingly, quickly challenged in the courts.  Which is where ‘temporary’ comes in.  Most early fans of affirmative action believed it should soon go the way of the dodo.  In the 1978 U. of California Regents vs. Bakke case, the Supreme Court rejected racial quotas but allowed race to be a ‘factor’ in college admissions. Justice Blackmun:

“I yield to no one in my earnest hope that the time will come when an ‘affirmative action’ program is unnecessary and is, in truth, only a relic of the past.”

Justice Marshall:

“If we are ever to become a fully integrated society, one in which the color of a person’s skin will not determine the opportunities available to him or her, we must be willing to take steps to open those doors.”

Richard Kahlenberg reports:

Congressman Robert Drinan (D-Mass.) called race and gender preferences “an interim strategy,” and Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Carter, acknowledged that “there is a general consensus in our society” that affirmative action “ought to be temporary.” Most proponents did not specify a time limit, though a few did. Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League called for “a decade of discrimination in favor of Negro youth, ” and Justice Blackmun said he hoped that affirmative action programs would be unnecessary “within a decade at most.”  (4)

Quelle naïveté!  Three and a half decades later:

[Attorney General] Holder expressed support for affirmative action, saying that he “can’t actually imagine a time in which the need for more diversity would ever cease.”

“Affirmative action has been an issue since segregation practices,” Holder said. “The question is not when does it end, but when does it begin … When do people of color truly get the benefits to which they are entitled?”

When indeed, Afro-American Attorney General. When indeed.

4) Reining in an alien elite, yesterday

Just as a ‘temporary’ toll booth gets harder and harder to give up as time goes by, these ‘temporary’ level-the-playing-field measures have stretched out to nearly half a century, with no end in sight.  Human biodiversity being what it is, we’re all familiar with the absurdities created: Dumbed-down firemen and police exams, black students with 1100 SAT scores given college spots over white students with 1400s, colleges scrapping cancer research in favor of diversity outreach departments.

The answer is obvious–get rid of quotas, and let the best man win, right?

But what if the best man isn’t our man?

Henry Feingold:

These ambitious Jewish students [of the early 1900s] were unaware of what Thorstein Veblen called the “canons of genteel intercourse” which governed these institutions and were transmitted by them. Character, sportsmanship, and leadership ability ranked higher than scholarship and intellectualism. The governing class naturally possessed a sense of proprietorship in the older and more prestigious universities which their parents and sometimes grandparents had attended. Their resentment was expressed in a popular ditty sung by members of the established fraternities:

Oh, Harvard’s run by millionaires
And Yale is run by booze,
Cornell is run by farmer’s sons,
Columbia’s run by Jews.

So give a cheer for Baxter Street
Another one for Pell
And when the little sheenies die,
Their souls will go to hell.  (5)

                               Harvard men of yore


Although never officially legislated, between 1918 and the 1950s a number of private universities and medical schools introduced numerus clausus policies limiting admissions of students based on their religion or race…

For instance, the [Jewish] admission to Harvard University during that period fell from 27.6% to 17.1% and in Columbia University from 32.7% to 14.6%. [U.S. Jewish population was then 3 %.] Corresponding quotas were introduced in the medical and dental schools resulting during the 1930s in the decline of Jewish students: e.g. in Cornell University School of Medicine from 40% in 1918–22 to 3.57% in 1940–41, in Boston University Medical School from 48.4% in 1929–30 to 12.5% in 1934–35.

An alien group, making up just a fraction of the country’s population, taking up to 50% of the top college spots.  A reason to worry?

5) Reining in an alien elite, today

Is this a reason to worry?

A freshman at Yale filed a complaint in the fall with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, contending he was denied admission to Princeton because he is Asian. The student, Jian Li, the son of Chinese immigrants in Livingston, N.J., had a perfect SAT score and near-perfect grades, including numerous Advanced Placement courses.

“This is just a very, very egregious system,” Mr. Li told me. “Asians are held to different standards simply because of their race.”

To back his claim, he cites a 2005 study by Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung, both of Princeton, which concludes that if elite universities were to disregard race, Asians would fill nearly four of five spots that now go to blacks or Hispanics.

“I’ve heard from Latinos and blacks that Asians should not be considered a minority at all,” says Elaine Kim, a professor of Asian-American studies at Berkeley. “What happened after they got rid of affirmative action has been a disaster — for blacks and Latinos. And for Asians it’s been a disaster because some people think the campus has become all-Asian.”

Are these worries legitimate?  Does a historic population have a right to keep aliens out of its institutions? In the 1920s, elite colleges resented the Jewish invasion:

“The idea that any shrewd boy can by cramming get by on written examinations,” asserted the President of Brown University, and “must thereby automatically be admitted to college is anti-American.”

To fight it, Ivy League schools put in place ‘legacy admissions,’ and more:

Increasingly such devices as alumni screening committees, character tests which sought such factors as “public spirit” and sociability, and quotas based on geographic region, were employed to limit the enrollment of Jewish students. (5)

All criteria, we note, that are used today to bring larger numbers of Afros and Hispanics into the collegiate fold.


*     *     *

Euro-Americans who are HBD-aware seem almost split in two camps: (1) Those who favor an all-white or mostly-white society, pushing out folks such as the high-performing Chinese and Indian immigrants, and (2) Those who favor a multi-racial society of cognitive elites, where eugenics weeds out the least fit.

Whose vision is better?

Our African problem complicates things: Afros in America did not come here by choice. Not only were they brought against their will, but if you are of Irish, Italian, or Polish blood, their ancestors came here before yours.  Despite their cognitive deficiencies, do they have a ‘right’ to some slice of the employment/education pie, as cognitively-inferior Malays have given themselves against their superior Chinese minority?  Furthermore, should ‘white’ Americans–at this point an ethnic hodgepodge–reserve for themselves a certain slice of that pie against high-achieving alien immigrants today?

The poorly-conceived 1965 Immigration Act nearly assured that we would become the racially fractured state we are today, with wailings of ethnic grievance rising to the rafters on all sides.  In an ethno-stew like ours, meritocracy is never as clear-cut as it seems.  Genetic science may soon leave policy-makers with the unenviable task of doling out racial spoils in a world that is HBD-aware.  What grief could be saved tomorrow if we try to start thinking clearly about it today.

(1) Collins, W.H. The Truth About Lynching and the Negro in the South. NY: Neale Publishing Co., 1918.
(2) Anderson, Terry H. The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action. NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.
(3) Graham, Hugh Davis. Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America. NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.
(4) Kahlenberg, Richard D. The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action. NY: Basic Books, 1997.
(5) Feingold, Henry L. Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1974.