Via the Dish, I read Shikma Dalmia making the case against California’s attempt to increase black and Hispanic enrollment at their best public universities– still, after all of the neoliberal assaults and constant funding cuts, the best public university system in the world– and arguing that this defeat was a natural priority of California’s large Asian population.
I reject almost all of Dalmia’s reasoning for opposing race-based affirmative action, but I’m more interested here in a particular kind of argumentative asymmetry. Dalmia writes: “Setting aside the moral objections to putting groups rather individuals at the heart of a scheme of social justice, such racial balancing is profoundly at odds with Asian American interests.” You’ll note Dalmia’s assumption here: Asian people have a legitimate interest in exercising the political process in a way that specifically benefits them as a racial category. I mention this because that assumption, when exercised by black people, has been a source of ridicule for decades. When black people engage in political action with the intent of pursuing their own best interests in precisely the way Dalmia suggests Asian people are doing, they are guilty of identity politics, of being a “special interest,” of playing the race card, of being pathetic. In a democracy, we assume that working for your own best interest is natural, unless you’re black, in which case it’s pathological.
Or try this: “Under such increasingly competitive circumstances, it’ll be a losing battle to ask Asians to conform to the mentality of white liberal guilt. They won’t apologize for their success or abandon their dreams — especially since they themselves have been repeatedly subjected to white discrimination. Remember the Asiatic Exclusion League and the Anti-Coolie Act?”Again: this is a tactic that, when used by black people, is frequently dismissed by white conservatives, called axe-grinding, an impediment to progress, a culture of victimhood, or grievance politics. Reference to historical oppression of black people, presumably, is off-limits in a way that reference to historical oppression of Asian people is not. And what about that white guilt? What makes Dalmia’s invocation of white oppression of Asian Americans different from the invocation of white oppression of black Americans by affirmative action defenders? Why is one an example of defending success and following dreams, and the other playing to white guilt?
I hope to write at greater length about the substance of pieces like Dalmia’s, and particularly the thorny question of the ethics of racial preferences in a zero-sum system. But I think it is absolutely essential that we confront the tacit assumptions and cultural attitudes we have towards questions of race and self-interest in this country first. Otherwise, we risk participating in a conversation where other racial groups are assumed to be working for their rational self-interests, but black people are asking for charity.