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There is an adage in football, this student explained: Take what your opponents give you, even if it is not exactly what you want. The ice broken and the tone for discussion set, the rest of the class agreed. Everyone disliked affirmative action and Shelby Steele in equal measure. It was a strange revelation, for all of us in that room knew that affirmative action had made this moment possible, both for me, as a Black professor at a prominently white university, and for them, as Black undergraduates at that same institution. At that moment, it was if the same realization struck us all: What does it mean that affirmative action brought us all here to criticize affirmative action? Why are we here? Therein lies a complex story of Black people’s feelings about affirmative action as both a gateway and a burden.
There is an adage in football: Take what your opponents give you, even if it is not exactly what you want.
There were a few things all of us Black kids who came to Penn in that year knew. We were the aggrieved and underprivileged being given access to education’s La La Land. We were expected to be a bit churlish — diversity must have its spice of difference and social adjustment — but also dazzled by the riches. We were Dorothy in Oz with a chip on our shoulders. Second, we knew we all felt varying degrees of severe inadequacy. Huddling together sometimes eased the dislocation, but it sometimes made it worse, reinforcing the sense of being a grunt lost in the gun smoke of a war. Finally, we all knew that this largess was not going to last. There was an expiration date to affirmative action. Everyone said so: jurists, civil-rights leaders, politicians, and folks on the street. “You better get it while you can,” I remember one Black co-ed telling me, “The white folks won’t keep the gates open forever. Once it’s closed, they’ll say, ‘we gave you your chance.’ White folks’ bouts of doing right by the Negro don’t usually last long.” Realizing this made everything seem urgent to me. I felt a bit like Jesus’ disciples immediately after he died: The end could come any day now.
But if affirmative action was viewed as a civil-rights victory by many Black people it never directly benefited, it often became a source of embarrassment for some it did. In college admissions, affirmative action effectively protected Black students from competing against non-Black students. Black people felt stigmatized by affirmative action because it came to mean that you had lesser qualifications — that you were admitted to a college or appointed to a job merely because of your race. In academe, a whole phalanx of jobs — including appointments in African American studies, in diversity, equity, and inclusion offices, and the like — became “race” jobs, jobs that existed in part in order to diversify the campus. Many Black people do not hold these jobs in as high a regard as, say, being the dean of an engineering or medical school. (For instance, my mother, who never understood the nature of my job but was exceedingly proud of whatever it was, would never introduce me as a professor of African American studies but rather as a professor of English.) Many Black parents do not wish their children to major in or even take courses in African American studies, as they don’t think of it as a practical or prestigious field of study. But the phenomenon of “race herding” on college campuses — students and faculty of color clustering in disciplines directly related to race — is partly misunderstood: Colleges, by their administrative nature, tend to encourage cliques, silos, and fiefdoms as vectors of power. Black people, in part, are just conforming to the academic environment, by using the element that got us in the door: our race.
Affirmative action has never benefited more than a small minority of Black people. Yet its symbolic importance has been enormous.
This institutional development over the past 50 years has made some Black people feel uneasy about, if not ashamed of, affirmative action, and led many Black elites on both the right and the left to deny that they ever benefited from it. How can one feel pride in winning something that perversely acknowledges, or even rewards, your historically induced inadequacies? Affirmative action seems to say not just that racism persists, but that there is — still — something lacking in Black life.
For Thomas, opposition to affirmative action is a not merely a test of conservative allegiance but a principle to be defended against the wrong-headedness of Black liberalism. His 57-page concurrence to the majority decision in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College is a full-throated denunciation of affirmative action as a shameful and cynical form of institutionalized special pleading on behalf of Black people. He advances, once again, the paradoxical position that Black Americans can best press their claims as a special interest group by behaving as if we had no racial grievances and accepting the basic aspirational fairness of a colorblind society.
Thomas argues that “the Constitution continues to embody a simple truth: Two discriminatory wrongs cannot make a right.” The U.S. Constitution does not allow punitive racial discrimination, but it also does not permit, as the dissenters argue, any sort of compensatory racial discrimination as amelioration for past discrimination. It does not permit racial discrimination — period. He proceeds “to offer an originalist defense of the colorblind Constitution.” Part of this defense is countering the “‘antisubordination’ view of the 14th Amendment: that the amendment forbids only laws that hurt, but not help blacks.” There are two overall points that Thomas makes. The first is the legal one about the constitutionality of racial discrimination. The second is social and practical, regarding whether discriminating in favor of a racial group really winds up helping that group. The dissenters argue that affirmative action is “‘good’ for black students.” “Though I do not doubt the sincerity of my dissenting colleagues’ beliefs,” Thomas responds, “experts and elites have been wrong before — and they may prove to be wrong again.” Thomas is expressing doubt about the insistence of Black liberals that Black Americans can only achieve their full citizenship claims through racially specific emoluments. He thinks that belief is not only specious but has damaged Black people, by effectively making them more racially self-conscious.
In portions of his concurrence, Thomas offers a mildly chauvinistic version of Black history that, on the whole, shows us as a striving, hard-working folk who had intact families, full employment, and excellent schools, like the legendary Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, in Washington, D.C. We Blacks went along on our self-reliant, religiously conservative, social valiant way until something called social-welfare programs in the 1960s came along, and Black progress came to a crashing halt: a virtuous, dignified people made into dysfunctional dependents overnight. (This declension story is much indebted to the economist Thomas Sowell, an intellectual who has had an enormous impact on Thomas; he refers to five different works by Sowell in his concurrence.)
Thomas argues that “the Constitution continues to embody a simple truth: Two discriminatory wrongs cannot make a right.”
Such jeremiads against the welfare state are the way Black conservatives display race pride: by telling the race to be true to itself and abhor the aberrations of liberalism and leftism. For the Black conservative, Black people being liberal or leftist is essentially inauthentic. After all, we are reminded by white Republicans and conservatives, as well Black conservatives themselves, how brave Black Republicans are for taking the positions that they do in the face of admittedly bitter and sometimes unfair or opportunistic attacks from Blacks who are, to use the conservatives’ language, still on the liberal plantation. These attacks are proof of the Black conservative’s sincerity. Black Americans were noble once, coming out of the hellfire of slavery, and they can be noble again, by following the conservative platitudes of responsibility, rectitude, and respectability.
Thomas details the principal points of the Black conservative’s opposition to affirmative action: It violates the colorblind intentions of the constitution, particularly the 14th Amendment; it stigmatizes Black people as inferior and in need of help; highly selective colleges that accept Black students who do not meet their admissions standards only hurt and demoralize these students; affirmative action helps only a small number of bourgeois-aspiring Black people. Nothing new in any of that.
Thomas’s concurrence is especially strident in its criticism of the dissents of his fellow Supreme Court judges, the liberal justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor. At one point, Thomas characterizes Jackson’s linkage of slavery and white inherited wealth as locking Black people into a “seemingly perpetual inferior caste” as “irrational,” “an insult to individual achievement and cancerous to young minds seeking to push through barriers, rather than consign themselves to permanent victimhood.”
Finally, Thomas emphasizes in his concurrence his intense dislike of racial categories, which he thinks “are little more than stereotypes, suggesting that immutable characteristics somehow conclusively determine a person’s ideology, beliefs, and abilities.” Orlando Patterson strikes a different chord: “The simple truth, the simple reality, is that ‘racial’ categorization is a fact of American life, one that we can do away with only by first acknowledging it.” Patterson’s view, like those of many other supporters of affirmative action, is that the virus that made you ill can be made into the vaccine that cures you. But if racism is evil, Black conservatives like Thomas would argue, how can the fruits of racism be good? To think as Patterson and other Black liberals do validates the logic of racism as something that can be manipulated but never transcended.
For Thomas, the ongoing insistence on racial categorization is the inevitable result of protest politics, which revels in the charisma of the category as identity. What Black conservatives fear is that Black Americans overvalue the power and the repetition of protest, which intensifies our experience as an immutable social category, which is why Black conservatives complain so passionately about Black people clinging to victimhood. This is the category-binding that denies Black people transcendence, any hope of escaping race consciousness, or of having a full-fledged, authentic life, as the Black conservative sees it. To glorify protest, Thomas and other Black conservatives argue, is simply to reduce Black people to anger and reaction.
There has been much mourning for affirmative action among liberals of all races in the past couple of weeks. But a recent Economist/YouGov survey found that 44 percent of Black people supported the court’s decision to end affirmative action, while only 36 percent oppose it. Perhaps affirmative action has been more of a burden on us than we have been willing to admit, and Thomas’s triumph may speak for more Black Americans than we realize. Will the strange hope in colorblindness in a country crazed by color save us from the tyranny of our categorization? It is actually touching that some Black folk think it can.