affirmative action and the rhetoric of racial self-interest

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.


  1. I’m guessing, but if Shikma Dalmia were to respond, the rebuttal might look something like this: insofar as groups are subject to laws that discriminate against them as a group–as blacks were and are, and as Asian Americans are under some affirmative action regimes–it is legitimate for them to band together as a group and to fight for equal treatment. But it is illegitimate for a group to band together for the purpose of putting a discriminatory law in place that benefits that group. It’s an argument I’m still pondering.

  2. “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.”

    I think Conor makes a worthwhile point in his comment above, but I can’t get past this argument of Dalmia’s that we shouldn’t favour groups because it will be unfair to this group.

  3. It seems like the zero-sum system is the real problem here. The unspoken assumptions behind debates about affirmative action in higher education are that we must have an elite, that that elite must be racially diverse and merit-based, and that that elite will inevitably make a lot more money than those outside it.

    Some cures would be free higher education and a maximum wage for all workers. This sort of racial identity politics usually functions as little more than a means of splitting the working class. As a result, most Americans are eagerly striving for personal and group success and forgetting about broader kinds of solidarity. I get that racism against black people is still a real problem, but the way out isn’t by talking more about racial equity within an otherwise highly stratified society. We’ve tried that for about 50 years, more or less.

  4. Dalmia is just using the historical oppression argument to appease liberals and because it’s in the general stock of arguments in popular political discourse. People make opportunistic political arguments, exclusive, breaking, in all caps, etc. This post is a good sum up of this dynamic.

    That post is basically “The Liberal Case Against AA in the UC System” because “The Conservative Case Against AA in the UC System” is pretty banal.

    I suppose that the real reason that Dalmia supports Asian political tribalism in CA is that the results coincides with the kind of policy his meritocratic taste preferes. Asians aren’t asking the same kind of preferential treatment that African Americans are getting. If Asian Americans demanded that elite private universities admit Asian applicants with an SAT score of X at the same rate that they admit African American or Hispanic applicants with the identical SAT score of X, I’m doubt Dalmia would support it.

    If African Americans asked that the admission standards for black students to the public university system remain the same so that the rates of admission for a black student with an SAT score of X would would not become lower than the admission rate for a white, hispanic, Asian applicant with the identical SAT score, I would today’s conservatives would oppose such an opposition.

    It’s the same reason why Nozick applauds the vacation salesman but not the guy who kidnapped your wife and is asking for a ransom. Both are using incentives to get you to do something in a way that benefits them, but one is coercion and the other isn’t. Asian Americans are fighting for their interests, and in this case they’re right. African Americans pushing for AA in the UC system are fighting for their interests too, and they’re wrong.

    (Before anyone accuses me of comparing African American AA advocates to extortionists, this is just the same example that the SEP references Nozick using in their page on Coercion.

    I don’t think you can dismiss the embrace of meritocracy by white conservatives as purely self-serving opportunism. Many do believe in equal opportunity. Charlton Heston marched in Civil Rights protests in the 1963, then became a Republican when he saw that it was turning it something about equal results and not just equal opportunities.

  5. Affirmative Action is a purposeful distortion away from the expected ethnic representation of enrollments in under the baseline admission system process.

    The only constitutionally-compliant legal justification for a lack of racial colorblindness as an exception to equal protection is purported to be the compelling government interest in providing an education that includes the powerful benefits of students being exposed to a more ethnically diverse student body.

    And yet underrepresented minorities that have access to community colleges with ethnically diverse student bodies nevertheless lobby for affirmative action even in very selective institutions. Clearly, they perceive that they will achieve a definite advantage over and above mere ‘exposure’. And of course they aren’t stupid and are perfectly correct in this perception.

    One can make certain arguments about ‘zero sum’, but how is this non-exposure-related advantage gained by, say, a marginal black beneficiary of affirmative action in admission to a selective university with an inherently limited population size, not commensurable to the disadvantage experienced by the marginal Asian student who now will not be admitted?

    1. Well, I don’t agree with some of the assumptions of your question, but aside from that– Asian students are already dramatically overrepresented in California’s public universities relative to their percentage of California’s population, and black students, dramatically underrepresented. Which means that if a) you have even minimal reason to believe that there are unique structural disadvantages for black people in education and economics and b) even a minimal commitment as an institution to having a minimally diverse student body, the advantage to the system is greater in letting in the black student.

      1. I’m interested in this conversation, so if you have time, please let me know which of those assumptions you think are invalid.

        When you say, “… the advantage to the system is greater …” do you mean, “greater than the disadvantage to the marginal Asian student?”

  6. Affirmative action would absolutely benefit SE Asian American interests, if the Census ever acknowledged ‘SE Asian’ as a distinct category. With Hmong, Cambodian, and Lao immigrants, college graduation rates are similar to those among African Americans and Hispanics. I think this point works both to Dalmia’s advantage (the point underscores the futility of trying to sum up people’s actual needs according to their “group” affiliation) and to his disadvantage (Dalmia has an oversimplistic understanding of “Asian Americans”).

  7. “In a democracy, we assume that working for your own best interest is natural, unless you’re black, in which case it’s pathological.”

    Really? What’s the color of the sky on your world? Black Caucuses and Black Student Associations are uncontroversial. Substitute “White” and there would be impassioned accusations that the KKK had risen again.

    Of course Asian Americans have a right to band together to fight discrimination against them in college admissions. As do Blacks. It’s getting together to screw everyone else that’s illegitimate.

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