Saturday, September 3, 2011

Race-Neutral but Race-Conscious Policies

There's a very thoughtful and smart op-ed by Professors Desmond King and Rogers Smith in the NY Times on the absence of race on the political agenda.  King and Smith make two points.  First:
The two parties, which openly clashed over race from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, have for the last decade pretty much agreed not to talk about race — a silence that impedes progress toward racial equality.
Democrats mention race as little as possible, even though minority voters are crucial constituents, because colorblind positions are far more politically popular. Affirmative action has been supported in every Democratic presidential platform since 1972, but since the Reagan era, Democrats speak of it less and less.
President Obama, for example, does not openly renounce affirmative action, but he pragmatically stresses universal social programs like health care. He manages to avoid appearing especially concerned about African-Americans.
This tack leaves modern Republicans with little to criticize, lest they appear to be race-baiting, so they too keep quiet.
Political leaders must openly recognize that we cannot progress either by ignoring race or focusing exclusively on it. It is not only legitimate, but also essential, to evaluate policy options partly on the basis of whether they are likely to reduce or increase racial inequalities.
Compromise policies — measures that are not explicitly race-targeted but are chosen partly because they will benefit nonwhites especially — should become the basis for policy debates.
Incidentally, the King/Smith prescription is similar to one advanced by Virginia Law Professor Kim Forde-Mazrui in this paper in which he advocates the using race-neutral measures that are motivated by race-conscious aims to address racial inequality.

I have a couple of brief quibbles with the King/Smith prescription.  The first quibble is minor.  They date the Democratic Party's silence on race to the mid-1990s.  I date it to the 2008 Presidential election.  But let us assume that they are right.  My second quibble is that the same reasons that have moved racial equality from the public policy arena are the ones that will make it hard, if not just as hard, to implement race-neutral but race-conscious policies (policies that are racially-neutral but are enacting with an intent to have a disproportionately beneficial impact on communities of color.)  A recent case in point is the recent controversy in Wake County North Carolina where a new school board reversed a previous policy that promoted socioeconomic integration in the way that school lines were drawn.  The old policy was thought to benefit students of color primarily.  White parents revolted, elected new members to the school board, and they changed the policy.  It did not seem to me that the old race-neutral but race-conscious policy that used socioeconomic diversity as a proxy for race was any more popular than good old-fashion race-conscious affirmative action.  Indeed, one could argue that by failing to make the case for race-conscious affirmative action, the race-neutral policy became incoherent.

I should hasten to add that I am not faulting King and Smith.  They are addressing a difficult problem that all of us find challenging: how do you address racial inequality, which is becoming greater in some measures, when there is no longer the political will to put racial equality on the public policy agenda?

By the way, as I understand King/Smith, they are not advocating Obama's race-avoidance strategy, which I recently criticized.  King and Smith are advocating for, in part, public policies that are intended to and designed specifically to disproportionately benefit communities of color even though the policies themselves are race-neutral.  As I understand the Obama administration's race policies, they are not designed specifically with communities of color in mind.  They are designed to address disadvantage and the assumption is that because people of color are more disadvantaged than whites, than people of color will benefit disproportionately.

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