November 17, 2008
In a recent post on the neglected fallout of affirmative action, I wrote:
The justifications for PC racial discrimination have never been entirely convincing or morally palatable. Treating people not as individuals but as generic representatives of some designated victim group is condescending and unfair, and seems likely to perpetuate racial hang-ups and give license to opportunist role-play.
Stephen Hicks outlines some common arguments on the subject and notes their essential distinctions:
The argument for racial affirmative action usually begins by observing that blacks as a group suffered severe oppression at the hands of whites as a group. Since that was unjust, obviously, and since it is a principle of justice that whenever one party harms another, the harmed party is owed compensation by the harming party, we can make the argument that whites as a group owe compensation to blacks as a group. Those opposed to affirmative action will respond by arguing that the proposed “compensation” is unjust to the current generation. Affirmative action would make an individual of the current generation, a white who never owned slaves, compensate a black who never was a slave.
And so what we have here, on both sides of the arguments, are two pairs of competing principles. One pair is highlighted by the following question: Should we treat individuals as members of a group or should we treat them as individuals? Do we talk about blacks as a group versus whites as a group? Or do we look at the individuals who are involved? Advocates of affirmative action argue that individual blacks and whites should be treated as members of the racial groups to which they belong, while opponents of affirmative action argue that we should treat individuals, whether black or white, as individuals regardless of the colour of their skin. In short, we have the conflict between collectivism and individualism. […]
This seems a good point to ask which of the above sounds less bigoted and insulting. Less racist, if you will.
Advocates of affirmative action rely upon a principle of social determinism that says, “This generation’s status is a result of what occurred in the previous generation; its members are constructed by that previous generation’s circumstances.” The other side of the argument emphasizes individual volition: individuals have the power to choose which social influences they will accept. The second pair of competing principles follows: Do individuals most need to be made equal in assets and opportunities, or do they most need liberty to make of their lives what they will?
Some peddlers of grievance, among them Shakti Butler, Joseph Harker and Peggy McIntosh, have redefined racism as “prejudice + power” and argue that racism is something only members of the “dominant group” can indulge in. The “dominant group” is, of course, understood to be Caucasian, though one might wonder how this addresses overtly racist assaults committed by people with dark skin or the realities of power in other parts of the world – Zimbabwe, for instance. The formulation of “prejudice + power” is, it seems to me, disingenuous and absurd, and wilfully so. Consider, for instance, the following personal experience:
A few years ago, while visiting what was then my local newsagent, I found the owner being harassed and robbed by a teenager. The youth was obnoxious and threatening, shouting racist epithets at the owner, who was Indian, and smashing displays, throwing stock, etc. Two female customers looked on, saying nothing. Fearless hero that I am, I grabbed the youth by the collar, hoisted him outside and threw him to the pavement. Suitably deflated, the youth ran away, though not before shouting a colourful threat or two. The owner thanked me for intervening and explained that, despite onlookers, no-one had offered to help his wife when she faced a similar situation a few days previously. As I turned to leave, the two female customers looked at me in disgust and one accused me of being racist, presumably on the basis that the threatening youth happened to be black. I said nothing to the women (both of whom were white, since you ask), but I did pause to register the paper clutched by one of them. It was, of course, the Guardian.
Now I don’t mean to imply that this reaction is in any way typical of Guardian readers, but it does seem possible that reading the Guardian is a good way to internalise the views of the paper’s deputy comment editor, Joseph Harker, who deploys the term “racist” as a kind of rhetorical kryptonite and insists that,
All white people are racist… As a black man… I cannot be racist… because in the global order I do not belong to the dominant group.
But consider the events above. Who there had the “power”? Who embodied the “dominant group”? And what alternative course of action would comply with the collectivist model of grievance and payback?