Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Unintended Consequences of Affirmative Action

By David Pan, Telos

As the Supreme Court hears arguments concerning racial preferences at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, it is hopefully not too late to reverse the deleterious effects of almost fifty years of affirmative action policy enabled by the Court’s previous decisions to temporarily set aside the commitments to equality in the 14th Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Paul Piccone’s 1990 description of the unintended consequences have largely been borne out in the intervening years. He writes in Telos 86 that

to the extent that these considerations [the seeking of proportional representation by minorities in admissions and hiring] shortcircuit the traditional meritocratic system (which, notwithstanding whatever abuses it may have facilitated or tolerated, remains the only legitimate modus operandi in matters of hiring, admissions, promotions, etc.), they overemphasize gender, racial and ethnic differences, and become obstacles to the constitution of new communities based on common interests, free interaction and shared expectations. Thus they subvert the emancipatory objectives of affirmative action legislation. Far from becoming increasingly insignificant attributes, ethnic, racial and gender differences now become essential for employment, promotions, etc., and they are thereby reinvented, reinforced and reified. Furthermore, suspicions that the reason proportional representation does not obtain in certain culture-related occupations is a function of what kind of culture is produced and reproduced, result in conflicts concerning the character of that culture and, eventually in challenges to the very values embedded in the US Constitution, the upholding of which originally warranted the deployment of affirmative action legislation. The result is not only multicultural and postmodern chaos, but a new form of racism predicated on resentment, increased social inequality (because of the consequent racial polarization and therefore a narrowing of the field of opportunities), growing intolerance of racial or ethnic differences now deemed decisive, and a gradual delegitimation of those fundamental universal values underpinning American society, now indicted as particularistic Eurocentric residues. No longer bound by any collectively shared values, society tends to disintegrate into a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes where order can be eventually restored only by authoritarian means anathema to any democratic system.

As predicted, the emphasis on race-based diversity has created a hardening of the race-based notions of identity that the policy was supposed to eliminate. The result has been a weakening of the common liberal values of American society, leading to the current polarization of U.S. politics. In this week’s post on TelosScope, I review some of the arguments against affirmative action from previous Telos issues and consider the ways forward after its likely repudiation by the Supreme Court.


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