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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Glenn Loury

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Racial Justice and Affirmative Action Policies: The Superficial Morality of Colour-Blindness in the United States
In this paper I reflect on the interconnections between economic marginalization and racial discrimination in the United States, focusing on African-Americans. My concerns are normative (seeking to evaluate the public morality of alternative policy responses to the scourge of racial inequality) and conceptual (seeking to clarify our understanding of the subtle processes that create and sustain durable racial inequality). I am interested in the overarching philosophical commitments that inform and structure thinking about this problem, especially in the industrial democracies of Europe and North America. Specifically, I want to question the adequacy of liberal individualism as a philosophical paradigm for addressing questions of racial justice, in US society and beyond.

I argue for two main conclusions. First, I attempt to show that the philosophical resources of liberal individualism are strained to the breaking point by the intractable problem of racial injustice. That is, the animating ideals of Western liberalism prove inadequate as a guide to achieving moral public action in the face of large and durable differences in life chances across racial groups in the United States. One implication of liberal individualism with which I take particular issue is the idea that the appropriate response to a history of racism and oppression is to establish a contemporary policy of ‘colour-blindness’—that is, inattention to the racial identity of citizens.

Second, and closely associated with the first point, I argue that it has become crucially important to distinguish between racial discrimination and racial stigma when discussing the problem of continuing social exclusion and economic disadvantage among African-Americans. Racial discrimination has to do with how blacks are treated, while racial stigma is concerned with how black people are perceived. My view is that what I call reward bias (unfair treatment of persons in formal economic transactions based on racial identity) is now a less significant barrier to the full participation by African-Americans in US society than is what I call development bias (blocked access to resources critical for personal development but available only via non-market-mediated social transactions). By making these points in the specific cultural and historical context of the black experience in US society, I hope to contribute to a deeper conceptualization of the worldwide problem of race and economic marginality.

I adopt the term ‘race-blind’ to identify the practice of not using race when carrying out a policy. And, I use the term ‘race-indifferent’ to identify the practice of not thinking about race when determining the goals and objectives on behalf of which some policy is adopted. If a selection rule for college admissions can be applied without knowing the racial identity of applicants, that rule can be called ‘race-blind.’ On the other hand, if a selection rule is chosen with no concern as to how it might impact the various racial groups, then that rule can be called ‘race-indifferent.’ The key moral question in matters of race is about indifference, not blindness. (This is not to deny, of course, that ‘blindness questions’ can sometimes matter a great deal.)

The power of this distinction between ‘indifference’ and ‘blindness’ becomes clear when one considers that both ameliorating the social disadvantage of blacks, or exacerbating this disadvantage, can alike be achieved with race-blind policies. Yet, whereas a race-blind policy explicitly intended to harm blacks could never be morally acceptable, such policies adopted for the purpose of reducing racial inequality are commonplace, and uncontroversial. Put differently, given the facts of US history, departures from race-indifference are, and should be, evaluated asymmetrically: those that harm blacks are universally suspect, whereas non-indifferent undertakings that assist blacks are widely recognized as necessary to achieve just social policy.

To illustrate, I observe that a recent federal court ruling forbade the practice of affirmative action in college admissions in Texas. The state legislature responded by guaranteeing a place at any public university to the top 10 per cent of every high school class in the state. This so-called ‘10 per cent rule’ mainly benefits students with low scores on national standardized test and good grades at less competitive high schools—disproportionately blacks and Hispanics—and certainly this was the intent. That is, this rule, while being race-blind, is most decidedly not race-indifferent. Thus we have a situation in Texas where the explicit use of race in a college admissions formula is forbidden, while the intentional use of a proxy for race publicly adopted so as to reach a similar result is allowed. Yet, can there be any doubt, had a different race-blind proxy been adopted in order to exclude black and Hispanic students from public institutions in Texas, that this would be morally unacceptable? This example shows why the choice of whether to be race-indifferent is often of greater ethical moment than the choice of whether to be race-blind: On the whole, Americans see reversing the effects of a history of immoral race relations as a good thing, and perpetuating those effects as a bad thing. Which instruments to employ in pursuit of these ends is generally a less important issue than the choice among the ends themselves.

In many areas of public policy the fundamental normative concern is not racial discrimination as such. Rather, it involves deciding how much account to take of the racially disparate consequences that may arise from alternative, non-discriminatory policies. Where, for instance, should the new public facility be located—in the urban centre or at the periphery? How will a county’s governing commissioners be elected—from local districts, or from a countywide competition? When should police officers be allowed to use deadly force—whenever they feel vaguely threatened, or only if they face the gravest of dangers? What should a school’s history curriculum emphasize—the glories of past European exploration and settlement, or the horrors visited by settlers upon indigenous peoples? To insist on an indifference to race when approaching such questions is to evidence both political stupidity, and a wilful ‘blindness’ to the concerns of justice, I maintain.

A worthy racial goal can often be effectively pursued by race-blind means, and a public purpose that transcends race can sometimes be effectively achieved by non-race-blind (shall we say, ‘race-sighted’?) means. Imagine a governor responsible for appointing judges to the courts. He or she might reason as follows: ‘I need to have a diverse group of appointees both for my own political protection and in the long-term interest of preserving the legitimacy of the administration of justice in this jurisdiction. If I appoint all white men, even though they appear to be the best qualified, not only might I thereby damage my reputation. I might also cause some people to doubt that the courts can be fair to them, thereby undermining public confidence in legal institutions. One of my responsibilities as governor is to ensure that this does not occur.’ Now, maintaining the courts’ institutional legitimacy is a race-indifferent goal, one in which everybody has a stake. Yet, to achieve this goal a governor may need to depart from race-blindness when making appointments.

With these concepts in hand, it is easier to see the relevance of the affirmative action controversy to my larger argument about the inadequacies of liberalism. The deep question here is this: When should we explicitly undertake to reduce racial disparities, and what are the means most appropriately employed in pursuit of that end? My argument in this paper asserts an ordering of moral concerns, racial justice before race-blindness, meaning that departures from ‘blindness’ undertaken to promote racial equality ought not be barred as a matter of principle. The broad acceptance of this view in US society would have profound consequences. When prestigious institutions use affirmative action to ration access to their ranks, they confirm this ordering of moral priorities in a salient and powerful way. Because they are not ‘indifferent’ to the racial effects of their actions, they opt not to be ‘blind’ to the racial identities of their applicants. If forced to be race-blind, they will pursue their race-egalitarian goals by other means. Ought they to do so? This is the key question, on which liberal individualism provides little useful guidance.

In taking up this question, I distinguish three domains or venues of public action in a racially stratified society where the ‘blindness’ intuitions of liberal neutrality might be applied:

First is the domain of policy implementation—deciding on the instruments of public action. Here we are admitting students to college or hiring public employees or distributing social benefits. Some mechanism is being used to do this, and that mechanism might, or might not, take cognizance of a subject’s race. ‘Blindness’ here means structuring public conduct so that people from different racial groups who are otherwise similar can expect similar treatment. This is what most people have in mind when they insist that the government should be ‘colour-blind.’

Second is the domain of policy evaluation—assessing the consequences of public action. Here we are deciding whether to build a prison or a school, and if it is a school, whether it should serve the general population or only the most accomplished students. We are fighting a war on drugs and deciding whether to concentrate on the buying or the selling side of illicit transactions. As a general matter, prior to choosing a course of public action we need to assess the relative costs and benefits of the alternatives before us. The impact of an alternative on particular racial groups might, or might not, be explicitly reckoned in this assessment. ‘Blindness’ here means not seeing a policy as more or less desirable on account of the race of those effected. This is what the ‘anonymity axiom’ of social choice theory requires.

Third is the domain of civic construction—developing a nation’s sense of shared purpose and common fate. Here we are building monuments, constructing public narratives, enacting rituals and, most generally, pursuing policies that have an inescapably expressive as well as a directly instrumental effect. ‘Blindness’ to race in this domain means deploying the instruments of civic pedagogy so as to promote a sense of national community that transcends racial divisions.

Veterans of the racial preferences wars are most familiar with the questions—having mainly to do with the unfairness of racial discrimination—that arise in the domain of implementation. To get a glimpse of the subtle dilemmas that arise in the domain of evaluation, imagine that the central bank is trying to decide whether or not to induce a recession, so as to lower the risk of inflation. Would it be legitimate to tolerate a somewhat greater chance of inflation while maintaining a strong demand for labour because doing so also manages to hold the unemployment rate of black youth at humane levels for the first time in a half-century? Can we reckon that this is a good policy because it contributes to overcoming racial stigma, draws blacks more fully into the mainstream of society, and permits them to earn the respect of their fellow citizens? (Here I mean to suggest that, but for this racial benefit, a different decision might be taken.) In other words, can we explicitly count as a benefit to society what we calculate to be the racially progressive consequences (reducing black economic marginality) of what is a race-blind action (electing to take a greater risk of inflation)?

The issues arising in the domain of civic construction are also subtle. Consider the practice of capital punishment, which may or may not deter murder, but which is most definitely the state-sanctioned killing of a human being. Would it be legitimate when deciding whether or not to undertake the powerfully pedagogic public ritual of executing lawbreakers to take note of what may be a large racial disparity in its application? (Here I am supposing for the sake of argument that the processes of policing, judging and sentencing that lead to persons being executed are not racially biased, and I am asking whether we might nevertheless reject the use of capital punishment because of its racially disproportionate effects.) In other words, must we be blind to the possibility that such a racial imbalance could distort our civic self-understanding in the United States? Or, to take a very different case, consider the conscious act of integrating the elite who exercise power and who bear honour in the society—the people to whom we delegate discretion over our lives. Suppose we undertake to ensure that there are, visibly, African-Americans amongst that elite. Suppose this goal is pursued not to bestow benefits on black people, as such, but with the specific intent of integrating the national community by rubbing out in the consciousness of the populace a perception of racial difference in inherent capacities or deserved social standing. Would that be a valid enterprise? Such a project, after all, pays tribute to the idea of race-blindness, too: it seeks to diminish the sense within the polity that we consist of racial groups that are differently endowed or unequally worthy of respect—with some more deserving than others of inclusion in the prized venues of public life.

We have, then, these three domains—implementation, evaluation and civic construction—giving rise to three classes of public questions: How should we treat individuals? How should we choose the goals to be pursued through our policies? And how much awareness ought we to have of the ways in which the conduct of public business can perpetuate into yet another generation the inherited stigma of race?

It seems to me that liberal individualism militates strongly in favour of race-blindness as a moral position in both the first and the second domain. The burden of my argument, however, is to reject that position as a-historical and sociologically naïve. Race-blind proceduralism is not adequate, I suggest, because (among other reasons) it is not closed to moral deviation. And a principled stand of race-indifference is unacceptable as well, because it rules out policies (like the 10 per cent plan in Texas) that are almost universally credited as being necessary and proper.

I maintain that it is only in the third domain, where the paramount concern is the construction of national community, that some notion of race-blindness should be elevated to the level of fundamental principle. The operative moral idea would be that no race-conditioned civic boundary should be erected, and, where any such boundary exists, it is our imperative to rub it out.

Thus, when elite college presidents who practice race-preferential admissions say, in effect, ‘while administering multibillion dollar philanthropies that enjoy (for the public good) the protection of tax exemption, we endeavour, among other things, to construct an elite leadership cadre of African Americans at the end of the twentieth and at the beginning of the twenty-first century,’ they say a very modest thing. In a study of elite schools, the average admissions rate for whites is found to be about 25 per cent. Getting rid of all the affirmative action is calculated to raise that rate to about 27 per cent. So, for every 75 whites rejected under the regime of race-preferential admissions currently being practiced, 73 would still be rejected after the eradication of affirmative action. Why, then, all the energy, why all the angst, why all the hand wringing, why all the clamour, why all the concern that America is being run aground, that our standards are being trashed, that the barbarians are at the gates? Why such resistance when, as the study shows, the boundary of racial hierarchy is being erased just a little bit by the trickling few black students who, at the margin and because of the colleges’ practice of affirmative action, are being inducted into the leadership cadres of the United States?

Conversely, why is there so little alarm at the enormous racial disparity in the rates of imprisonment experienced by young men in the United States? Why is it that, when a black American scholar of unquestioned competence raises this question, he can be accused of ‘playing the race card’—that is, of letting his sense of racial loyalty take precedence over his commitment to promote universal public goals? In a society that loves justice and that has a troubled racial history, like the United States, is not avoiding the further demonization of disadvantaged and socially isolated inner city black youth a public purpose of trans-racial significance?

I hold that there is nothing in political liberalism that should lead us to reject that public goal. There is nothing wrong with a liberal, concerned about social justice, undertaking to fight racial stigma. There is nothing wrong with constructing a racially integrated elite in the United States. There is nothing wrong with fretting over 1.2 million African-American young bodies under the physical control of the state. Indeed, I am led to wonder how any thoughtful person aware of the history and the contemporary structure of US society could conclude otherwise.