Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Back to Class . . . and Race

The debate over the use of race in public policy is in full swing, at least as far as elite opinion is concerned. I can’t really figure out why. Michael Lind issued the latest salvo yesterday, writing in salon. Unfortunately, as it is often the case with this issue, his essay does little to persuade. The reasons become obvious after reading the first few paragraphs: those who assail racial preferences and those who defend them cannot even agree on a set of basic premises. This is a debate where people are talking past one another.
Lind begins in a familiar place: President Johnson’s famous analogy of the shackled runner, delivered during his commencement address at Howard.
But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "You are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
This analogy is often interpreted as a defense of affirmative action, but Lind sees it differently. For support, he offers the words of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the co-drafters – with Dick Goodwin – of the Howard speech. To the question whether the runner analogy was intended as a defense of affirmative action, Moynihan responded: "Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Not." . . . "We were not talking about affirmative action. We were talking about jobs. Safe streets. Good schools. The safety net. Healthcare. Strong families."

Lind then goes on to show that these very same goals were reflected in Johnson’s speech. In Johnson’s words,
There is no single easy answer to all of these problems. Jobs are part of the answer. They bring the income which permits a man to provide for his family.
Decent homes in decent surroundings and a chance to learn -- an equal chance to learn -- are part of the answer.
Welfare and social programs better designed to hold families together are part of the answer.
Care for the sick is part of the answer.
The problem with this formulation is that it is a straw man. Who could possibly be against more and better jobs, decent homes in decent neighborhoods, caring for the sick, and welfare and social programs that keep families together? Anybody?

Instead, the argument, then as now, is about how we should assign our scarce resources, from jobs and promotions to seats in our colleges and universities. To borrow from Johnson’s analogy, the difficult question is not whether we privilege some runners over others, but in how we design the race in the first place. Is this a long race or a short race, maybe even a marathon? Are some runners allowed to wear fancy running shoes, even if others cannot afford them? Are runners allowed to train with elite trainers even if most others cannot? These are not easy questions. Where we ultimately go wrong is in presuming that they are.

On Lind’s argument, for example, affirmative action simply allows an athlete crippled by racism and discrimination to start ahead of all others. This is terribly simplistic and ultimately unhelpful. Note that the runner analogy presumes access to opportunity, that is, the chance to be in the race at all. That is all that affirmative action can do, especially in a post-Grutter world. In the college admissions context, affirmative action simply presumes that questions of merit are contested and elusive, subject to myriad interpretations; in hiring, the presumption is that our tools for determining who is hired and promoted are rough proxies at best for rewarding applicants on the basis of just deserts. Seen this way, these are ultimately questions about the meaning of justice. It is unsurprising that finding common ground has proven so difficult.

Every time I think about Johnson’s race analogy – and the affirmative action debate in general – I am immediately reminded of the funeral games in Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad. The setting is for the first event is a chariot race among five participants. This is a very competitive race with a close finish. According to Homer, some of the drivers relied on tricks, not skill or the strength of their horses, and the outcome of the race itself would have been different had the race been longer. Also, the best rider, Eumelus, came in last, as the gods intervened in the race and broke his chariot, throwing him from his ride.

The question for Achilles was, how to award the prices for the race? In other words, who deserves the first price, and the second, and so on? Should prices be assigned by order of finish, even if knowing that the race had not been fair for all? Or should he do it some other way? Achilles’ answer is worth considering. Upon seeing Eumelus arrive in last, Achilles immediately said, "The best man is coming in last. Let us give him a prize for it is reasonable. He shall have the second.” The other competitors were then upset at Achilles for doing so, and at one another for their reactions to these changes. Nobody said that achieving just outcomes would be easy.

But that is the point. To suggest that justice – whether racial or otherwise – is something we can easily achieve, or that we even know what it looks like, is foolhardy.

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