Thursday, July 16, 2009

Identity Politics, Part 1

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“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” So spoke the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. To a great extent his dream has been realized. Official barriers to certain races have been eliminated. The Jim Crow laws are no longer with us. Of course there are still bigots in the country but at least they can no longer use the force of law to keep people out of schools or jobs just because of skin color. However the official forces of evil have are still with us, ironically now sometimes represented by the very people who claim to follow Dr. King.

The identity politics of Dr. King’s time involved blatant discrimination against black people. Today’s identity politics is not as blatant but still advocates discrimination. In the name of civil rights some are now advocating that people be judged by the color of their skin or by their sex instead of by the content of their character or their ability. In the state of Oregon for example, the Department of Human Services brags about having a great majority of women in upper pay ranges. They claim that having a majority of women somehow gives them diversity. They also say that they need to hire more people of certain races. That is hardly the color-blind society of Dr. King’s dreams. I have to admit that I fail to see how that can be squared with the constitutional requirement for equal protection under the law.

Identity politics is based on the idea that certain people should be given preference. That used to mean not hiring Blacks, Irish or people of certain other ethnicities. Today it again means discrimination against people of a certain skin color or sex. It is a group-based instead of an individual based legal theory. If a white man of 50 or 100 years ago discriminated against a black man of that same time, identity politics says that today we should discriminate against a white man to make up for it. The fact that both men from 50 or 100 years ago are now dead does not enter into the equation, nor does the fact that neither the white man discriminated against today or the black man benefiting from discrimination were even born when the earlier discrimination occurred. This theory punishes and rewards people for actions outside their control, actions done by people long dead.

Suppose your neighbor whose hair is the same color as yours were to steal a large amount of money, then disappear. His victim also moves away to parts unknown. Would it be fair to require you to pay back the money to someone in the victim’s old neighborhood whose hair is the same color as the victim’s? Yet that is essentially what today’s identity politics does under the name of affirmative action. Its advocates want to punish people for having an appearance similar to dead bigots. They want to use that punishment to the advantage of people who look like dead victims of discrimination. Rewards and punishments are handed out to people who had no control over the actions on which those rewards and punishments are based.

Consider three babies born the same day in the same city. One is the child of a wealthy black physician, another the child of a white single mother who struggles to pay the rent, while the third is born into a middle-class Chinese family. The physician’s child goes to a top-tier university, expenses paid by his father. The white child manages to get into the same university, taking out loans and working part-time to get his education. Both graduate with honors and apply for the same job. Who do you think will be hired? Most likely the doctor’s child because of his skin color. In fact, for many jobs the black person will be hired even if his qualifications are lower than those of the white person.

And what about the child of Chinese ancestry? He wasn’t even admitted to that university, even though he was more qualified than the other two. He had the misfortune to live and study in California where students of oriental ancestry have done too well. They are discriminated against in order to restore “racial balance.”

Affirmative action is discrimination, pure and simple.

In the long run identity politics harms everybody. While it’s obvious how in harms those discriminated against, there is also real damage to the supposed beneficiaries. Those people are encouraged to spend their time and energy defending their preference instead of working to get educated and preparing to compete on a level playing field. The person who spends his time working to get preference in hiring may come away with a job but will probably not feel competent in that job. If he spends that time studying engineering, science, business or something similar he will probably become qualified for a rewarding and possibly lucrative career.

Fairness and the constitution both require a color-blind society. We must work toward that end. Identity politics and affirmative action mean judging people on ethnicity or other irrelevant characteristics, not on character or ability. That is discrimination, pure and simple.

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