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.