Monday, July 20, 2009

Racial Exhaustion in the New York Times

Ross Douthat's op-ed on race, published in the New York Times, reads like a piece of science fiction. Although Douthat makes well worn arguments about the perils of affirmative action, his ultimate conclusion that class-based measures should replace race in social policy rests on a description of America's near future that is utter fantasy.

Racial Exhaustion
Douthat frames his essay around Justice O'Connor's opinion for the Court in a 2006 case that upheld the use of race-based affirmative action in higher education. Near the end of the opinion, O'Connor expresses a hope that in 25 years, affirmative action would be unnecessary. Douthat agrees with O'Connor's sentiment.

But that decision was not the first time the Supreme Court fantasized about the diminishing need for race-based public policy. The first judicial expression of this mistaken view occurred in an 1883 opinion that invalidated the first federal statute banning racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. In the face of dramatic racial inequality, the Court opined that ongoing measures to address racial inequality were no longer necessary and that these provisions were simply handouts that made blacks the "special favorites of the law."

Similarly, immediately after the Civil War, conservative members of Congress contested policies designed to provide food, shelter, and protection to the former slaves on the grounds that the war and the abolition of slavery had ended the nation's racial issues and that these policies harmed whites and made blacks lazy. Racial exhaustion rhetoric (see my recent law review article on the subject) has existed throughout the history of the United States. It is unclear why Douthat believes his plea for the end of race-based measures sits outside of this long history of racial denial.

Obama's and Sotomayor's America
Douthat notes that some critics have argued that Sonia Sotomayor's treatment by conservatives proves the salience of race in the United States. In response, Douthat asserts that:

[T]he [Republican] senators are yesterday’s men. The America of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is swiftly giving way to the America of Sonia Maria Sotomayor and Barack Hussein Obama.
And just where are all of these budding black presidents and wise Latina Supreme Court justices? According to Douthat, they are the inevitable consequence of population increases among persons of color and the likely nonwhite "national majority" by 2042. Numbers alone, however, do not translate into material well being or even political power (just ask South Africans -- or poor Latinos in Texas). And having a black President and a Latina on the Supreme Court does not mean that race has become socially irrelevant. Oprah Winfrey, a black woman, is one of the richest persons in the world. Under Douthat's individualized approach to the question of inequality, women of color should have indisputable economic power. Instead, they are the poorest segment of the United States population.

Furthermore, Sotomayor and Obama both benefited from affirmative action. According to Douthat, however, their great success disproves, rather than proves, the necessity of race-based affirmative action.

Race "or" Class
Douthat makes a valid point regarding the importance of class-based remedies. But the class proponents (Douthat is not the first) never justify their "either/or" formulation. Most sociological data on the subject, however, indicate that race and class both shape the experiences of the nation's poor persons of color. And while they would certainly benefit from economic policies (see William Julius Wilson's "When Work Disappears") the persistence of poverty among persons of color results from more than race or class alone.

The proponents of the class approach also ignore the significant public hostility to anti-poverty policies and the fact that "programs for the poor" often morph into "programs for lazy and undeserving blacks and Latinos" in public discourse. According to very popular political rhetoric, undeserving black and Latino "subprime" mortgage-holders singlehandedly caused the global economic and financial crisis. Also, "welfare" supposedly ruins the economy because it leads black women to have more children than they can afford, mistakenly believing that an extra 100 bucks a month is worth the hassle. Although most women who receive welfare are white, they are largely invisible in conservative discourse.

Even in the area of public education, where class-based policies could have a tremendous impact, the political will for egalitarian measures is not strong enough. For example, despite the inequities that result from using property taxes to fund public schools, most states continue to utilize this approach, which the Supreme Court validated in 1973.

The conditions in public schools also counsel against an approach that attempts to separate race from class. Public schools have become highly "resegregated" in the last decade. Schools that have largely black and Latino student populations are also "poverty schools," while schools with predominately white student populations are likely middle-class and higher-income schools. The race-poverty schools are grossly underfunded, are revolving doors for teachers, and they rank at the bottom in most measures of pupil success (This has nothing to do with the availability of affirmative action -- as conservatives falsely argue). Due to racial residential segregation, poor students of color are more likely than poor whites to attend poverty schools.

Nevertheless, in 2007, the Court invalidated policies in two school districts, which sought to remedy the harmful effects of resegregation. The majority held that the school assignment policies, which included an innocuous racial "tie-breaker" -- if a long list of other measures failed -- were too broad. The four most conservative justices argued that states did not even have a "compelling interest" in remedying racial isolation in public schools (despite all of the problems that correlate with it). The problem of racially isolated poverty schools is much more severe in "liberal" states in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast -- despite those states having large populations of persons of color.

Although Douthat probably formed his views on the subject of race before Obama's election, he seems to read too much into the historical fact of the nation's first black president. He also fails to consider the substantive and political limits of a class-based approach to equality. Douthat also exaggerates the relevance of increasing numbers of persons of color to their overall well being. Accordingly, Douthat's vision of America's near future remains simply that: a vision.


Stray Yellar Dawg? said...


That concept of "racial exhaustion" sounds a lot like some of what Third Wave Feminism believes. Namely, that we have "arrived" (or nearly so) and would do better not to call attention to the ways in which we are not equal. They will often hold up one shining example and say "see... so and so has made it! Therefore discrimination no longer exists."

Those of us who fought in the armies of the Second Wave, and who now look forward to the Fourth Wave, have come to see the Third Wave as a sort of backlash. An anti-Feminist, Feminism if you will.

Perhaps this kind of "exhaustion"/ backlash is simply part of the natural ebb and flow of justice movements in general?

Kansas City said...

The public has tolerated race based affirmatvie action for years. It certainly would be willing to tolerate class based affirmative action. My goodness. Our president is black. It is time to move on. The country will be far better off.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hutchinson: That's all Martin Luther King had in 1953: a vision. Took a long time, and a ferocious amount of toil, tears, blood, and sweat to even begin turning that vision into reality. That's what so dismaying about this particular post: you don't even want to try to complete making King's vision real. The present system doesn't suit you, though I have the sinking feeling it would if quotas for blacks were greatly enlarged, with more generous portions for other docile "victims" of The Man. Treat gays well, but they better know their place. By no means is "Gay the new Black." Such a notion would imply moving off the throne of King Victimhood. Can't have that... I'd be very interested to read your thoughts on this incident but I'm not holding my breath.

We know Ross Douthat's vision of the future. What's yours? Can you speak or write it in public? Or is it, like SS's notorious if heartfelt "wise Latina" speeches, something that would embarrass you if made widely public, outside the soothing Lethic prone waters of the academy? Why is resegregation recurring? Are local governments surreptitiously resurrecting Jim Crow? Or is resegregation happening because of the notorious "white flight" factor, a factor that happens because of economics (whites are rich enough to flee, blacks aren't as a very crude first approximation.) Isn't it possible that class-based affirmative action would combat such a factor far better than the present system? Do you wish to discuss this? Or is this another of my flawed (your favorite word when dismissing objections) notions?

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Greg: Where do I begin? First, apparently you are inventing a perspective for me on the gay issue. Since you read my article, you know I said nothing that implied gaysshould "know their place." You are making up a bogus claim.

Second, the notion that you or Douthat are implementing King's dream is laughable. King himself embraced the idea of race-based remedies. The rightwing's exploitation of his speeches is shameful. Many scholars have debunked this effort, however.

Finally, I have written about 20 law review articles and hundreds of blog posts. If you don't have a clue about my larger views, this is your own fault. The article I linked on racial exhaustion is a good place for you to start -if you want to have an informed objection, rather than simple anger.

KC: The country has only tolerated race as a plus in college admissions. That has nothing to do with "remedying" the conditions of inequality. The country also does not "tolerate" existing efforts to provide benefits to the poor. Notice the GOP's constant chanting about "socialism." If people really cared about class inequality, they would not respond to anti-poverty programs the way they do. And electing a black president is a convenient way to claim "innocence." I predicted this a long time ago. After hearing so many white liberals experiencing ecstasy over Obama, I realized he became a symbol of a racial progress that did not comport with reality.

Kansas City said...


You exhibit a surprisingly bitter view of society and whites. Whites have sacrificed greatly to try to correc the injustices imposed on blacks, including with their lives and billions upon billions of dollars. I think you should recognize that and diminish your hostility and negativism.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hutchinson: Oh, I see:

a) if The One hadn't been elected in 2008, that would have proved the US is riddled with racism.
b) electing The One in 2008 proves the US is trying to purge itself of guilt cheaply.

Kansas City, 12:27 is hitting close to home, no?

Why try to brush off those who disagree with you?
"Finally, I have written about 20 law review articles and hundreds of blog posts. If you don't have a clue about my larger views, this is your own fault." None of the databases I have checked in the system of public libraries I have used has any of your articles. SSRN has two, but only "Racial Exhaustion" can be viewed by the public.

Reading "Racial Exhaustion" was a chore, or as the Catholics such as SS put it, penance. Sentences like this from page 2 of the SSRN download:

"These data suggest that whites have, in fact, grown frustrated ongoing claims of racial injustice."

do not communicate much, for all the rhetorical artillery you use. I think you meant to insert "with" after "frustrated", but it's also possible you meant to delete "grown."

Or your footnotes 106, 116, 124, 125, 128, 134 which I reproduce in their entirety:


Or this gem from page 65:

"Thernstrom and her husband Stephen Thernstrom, have spent a lot of intellectual energy attemping to disprove the existence of racism in contemporary United States society (306.)"

"306" is the footnote that will give the reader examples of the Thernstroms efforts. What does footnote 306 say?:

"306. See e.g.________"

Some footnotes. Are you are publishing first drafts? If so, these drafts certainly don't make your views clear. Perhaps this is what you want. For example, your notions of "Racial Exhaustion" are just a highfalutin' way of saying "bad faith," the staple of legal briefs everywhere. Do you really think that those who opposed Ives-Quinn were "exhausted" from their efforts, or just using legal bad faith to push an unwelcome point away?

Another example of the dodginess of "racial exhaustion." Suppose The Man acknowledges the history of racial discrimination in this country, and agrees that remedies are in order. Lyndon Johnson did this in much of his Great Society legislation. But what has been neglected is a performance standard. How much affirmative action is necessary to remedy past evils? What's the test the nation will use to decide if the remedies have succeeded, or if more is needed? Sharpen the point: what's the dollar value of reparations? What's eligible? How about the 10 officers and 177 men of the 1st Minnesota Regiment who died fighting for black freedom in the American Civil War. Are these, almost surely all white, soldiers entitled to reparations for giving their lives for black freedom?

I should think you'd keep a list of your publications here on the blog, so you could refer those, like me, who want to study your notions and ideas, and give you the boon of our dismay at the sloppiness of academic writing. The SSRN article isn't appreciably better in its lack of citations, misspellings (watch your use of "priciple" for "principal" for example) than many blog posts. I am amazed at your publishing first (I hope) drafts.

List of your publications shouldn't take much effort on your part, and would stimulate your readers to read what you've written. Perhaps that thought horrifies you. I wonder.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster
(not of CUNY)

Decidere said...

Okay, I'll hazard a guess on one - I think frequently accepted journal papers are embargoed from publication elsewhere, but rough drafts are okay.

Darren seems to be noting that class-based observations and fixes are not enough to address age-old problems with racism. I'm not even sure why that's even controversial. Black men aren't kept out of high level positions because they're poor and come from bad neighborhoods. They're kept out because of their color.

Recently I noted the parallel with John Dunning's endemic and structural defects in the market on whether it's appropriate for government to act, and if so, to account for both positive and negative effects in accomplishing this policy. I think this same analysis and standard applies to racial remedies. [Darren, if you use this, I want citations, Decidere Imposterus, Legal Schmeagle, 2009]. Instead, we seem to have fallen for the Republican line that affirmative action is always bad.

Calling Darren "bitter" is rather an air ball. Either you haven't been following the site or you just want to score some cheap hits. Oops, foul out.

Anonymous said...

Dear Decidere: "The Republican line that affirmative action is always bad." We might be able to move past this if there was a clear standard of performance. Mr. Hutchinson and you would come down on me hard if I claimed that the election of a black man as Prez proves there is no racism in American society. But what do the results of the 2008 election prove? Obama could not have been elected Prez without white votes. What does that count for, so far as measuring racial progress goes? It's this silence when folks on the Right ask for a measurable standard that undermines confidence in the Left's good faith. What is the standard of progress this nation must use to determine when affirmative action can be ended? Or do you echo George Corley Wallace and yell "Never!"?

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Decidere said...

I frankly don't know what Obama's election meant except that there is now a high amount of tolerance and even enthusiasm for a black man in the highest office. Did he deserve it? Is this a case of public affirmative action? It will be easier for a black to run for president next time, but there will still be racial hurdles that didn't go away.

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