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Black Conservatives & Affirmative Action

Nathan Glazer's 1975 book, Affirmative Action, Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy, summarized white neoconservatives' objections to affirmative action: that, by the end of the 1960s, discrimination was no longer a major obstacle to minorities' access to employment, education and other social mobility mechanisms; affirmative action has not benefited the poor who need it most, but has primarily benefited middle class Blacks and other minorities; and affirmative action fuels white resentment against minorities.

In his 1984 book, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, Thomas Sowell repeats each of Glazer's basic objections. Quoting statistics from the Moynihan Report, Sowell insists: "The number of blacks in professional, technical, and other high level occupations more than doubled in the decade preceding the Civil Rights Act of 1964. . . .The trend was already under way." Also, like Glazer and other white conservatives, Sowell maintains that "The relative position of disadvantaged individuals within the groups singled out for preferential treatment has generally declined under affirmative action."

Sowell and the other Black conservatives insist affirmative action programs violate whites' "constitutional rights" in general and those of white males in particular. Not only is this seen as unfair, but, like Glazer, Black conservatives worry about the resulting white resentment. In Sowell's words: "There is much reason to fear the harm that it is currently doing to its supposed beneficiaries, and still more reason to fear the long-run consequences of polarizing the nation. . . .Already there are signs of hate organizations growing in more parts of the country and among more educated classes than ever took them seriously before."

What is most interesting about Sowell's affirmative action critique, however, is not that he repeats the standard white conservative critique, but that he adds a self-esteem component to that critique. It is this self-esteem component that reflects the personal status concerns of Sowell and other Black conservatives.

Sowell argues that while accomplishing few positive results, affirmative action actually undermines the efforts of successful minority individuals by creating a climate in which it will be assumed that their achievements reflect not individual worth, talent, or skill, but special consideration. "Pride of achievement is also undermined by the civil rights vision that assumes credit for minority and female advancement. This makes minority and female achievement suspect in their own eyes and in the eyes of the larger society."

Other Black conservative intellectuals follow Sowell's position, first making the same criticisms as white conservatives but adding self-esteem, personal diminishment, and status issues. Shelby Steele complains that affirmative action has reinforced a self-defeating sense of victimization among Blacks by encouraging us to blame our failures on white racism rather than on our own shortcomings. He too worries that affirmative action "makes automatic a perception of enhanced competence for the unpreferreds and of questionable competence for the preferreds-the former earned his way. . .while the latter made it by color as much as by competence."

In Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Stephen Carter denies being a conservative. But his discussion of affirmative action is a mirror image of the standard neoconservative critique. Like Glazer, Carter argues that "What has happened in America in the era of affirmative action is this: middle-class black people are better off and lower class black people are worse off." Carter's "best black syndrome" is the most quoted Black conservative status/self-esteem statement about affirmative action: "The best black syndrome creates in those of us who have benefited from racial preferences a peculiar contradiction. We are told over and over that we are the best black people in our profession. And we are flattered. . . .But to professionals who have worked hard to succeed, flattery of this kind carries an unsubtle insult, for we yearn to be called what our achievements often deserve: simply the best-no qualifiers needed!"

Carter and the other Black conservative intellectuals say they object to the fact that affirmative action benefits those minorities who are already middle income. They do not produce convincing statistical evidence to support this contention. Nor do they recognize that affirmative action was designed to address discrimination, not economic disadvantage, or that most government programs benefit middle and, especially, high income groups. Nor do Black conservatives ever recommend that affirmative action become a program for all poor people, including the more than ten million poor whites in this country.

What Black conservatives do argue for is that Blacks compete on merit and merit alone. Their "merit only" policy is clearly an idealized paradigm. It ignores the fundamental reality that any selection process is always a combination of some imperfect assessment of merit (skills and talent) and purely personal filtering processes. To assume that race and/or gender considerations are neutral at the level of personal filtering is naive to say the least.

What is clear in Black conservatives' defense of merit as the sole criterion for selection or advancement is their own sense of personal diminishment by affirmative action labels. Indeed, Black conservatives fret a great deal about proof of their personal talent. And their comments, focused as they are on white's judgments of them and their capabilities, demonstrate that, ironically, they remain very much the captives of white racism.

A genuinely confident African American does not care if whites see her/him as the beneficiary of affirmative action imperatives, knowing that racism ipso facto dictates that success on the part of Blacks be seen as the result of unfavorable advantages. Thomas Sowell adamantly denies ever having been an affirmative action beneficiary and reportedly resents being identified as a "Black" anything.

Glenn Loury blasted white liberal Hendrik Hertzberg for saying he'd never met a well-informed, unbigoted Black who did not agree we have to be twice as talented and twice as hardworking to achieve the same degree of success as our white counterparts: "How quickly he [Hertzberg] forgets! We've met more than once, and in the course of our encounters never did I confirm, and often did I contradict the sentiments he ascribes to all `well informed, unbigoted' blacks. I can only conclude that my earnest denunciation of affirmative action failed to register as the legitimate sentiments of a black intellectual. . .Perhaps he simply dismissed my opinions as a shockingly familiar neoconservatism in blackface."

Given that Black conservatives associate negative racial attributes with low-income Blacks, it is not surprising that much of Black conservative analysis seeks to distinguish middle class from lower class Blacks. An unstated but clear objective throughout Black conservatives' arguments is the attempt to recast the current American identification of "Black" with (in Steele's words) "the least among us" to one in which "Black" is identified with their positive stereotype of middle class Blacks.

Glenn Loury captures this point: "The fact that the values, social norms, and social behaviors often observed among the poorest members of the black community are quite distinct from those characteristic of the black middle class indicates a growing divergence in the social and economic experiences of black Americans." Loury produces no supporting evidence for this observation.

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