The mountains of mockery heaped upon Elizabeth Warren for her tin-ear revelation of her DNA-tested proof that she does, indeed, have a few micrograms of Native American heritage have reopened, at least in some circles, discussion of affirmative action and diversity. Once we’re done laughing at the cavalcade of memes her 1/64-1/1024th Native heritage has spawned, it may be a good time to take a hard look at the matter of preferential treatment based on identity markers itself. This is doubly true, given the concurrent beginning of a lawsuit against Harvard University that asserts anti-Asian discrimination in the school’s admissions policy and process.

Affirmative action, introduced in 1961 by President Kennedy, was an effort to “level the playing field” and right past systemic discriminations by granting preferential treatment to minorities. The idea therein was to help individuals who were unjustly wronged and/or suffered a disproportionately larger “hill to climb” due to systemic racism the same opportunities that un-oppressed members of society had. From a strict perspective of liberty, such discrimination based on identity markers is unjust, but in the face of a greater and systemic injustice, it represented an imperfect but positive remediation.

It is important here to recognize that affirmative action was about helping individuals in their pursuit of self-improvement. A smart black kid, it was argued, had a tougher road to success than an equally smart white kid. When affirmative action was first introduced, it was difficult to disagree. There are problems with affirmative action, and there are potential negative consequences (including the difficulties faced by a less-prepared student in elite universities, the reduced chances of success, the potential for greater success in a school more suited to his level of preparation, the lifelong question of whether success was earned or bestowed dogging him) that are worthy of discussion, but I’ll set those aside herein to address a different point.

At some point between its inception and today, preferential treatment changed from being about helping systemically disadvantaged individuals with a “leg up” to being about “diversity.” We hear, today, that there are benefits garnered from having a culturally diverse student body, or work force, or (in Warren’s case) faculty. These benefits are conferred to the entirety of a student body or work force. Thus, preferential treatment ceased being about giving a leg up to that smart black kid, and started being about shaping everyone’s experience. It stopped being about individuals.

Only a willfully blind person could argue that racism does not exist today, but it is equally ludicrous to argue that the same systemic racism that prompted affirmative action exists today, either. If we are to consider disparities in primary and secondary school achievement that would work against students being accepted to elite universities, we find far more plausible causes elsewhere. The failures of public education, the disintegration of traditional family structure, the welfare trap, shifting cultural paradigms, the War on Drugs, and many other factors impose significant obstacles to minority students’ success. These are not the reasons that affirmative action arose in the first place, and they are matters that should be addressed in and of themselves, not remediated by a policy whose original aim has been forgotten.

Sadly, we instead witness behavior foretold by George Santayana:

Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.

Nowadays, affirmative action has become about itself, about “diversity,” about having a mix of identity markers that satisfies some clucking scolds’ ideas of how things should be, and isn’t about individuals any more. It’s how Harvard, without irony, could identify the whiter-than-Ivory-soap Elizabeth Warren as a “woman of color.” It’s about conforming to (and padding) statistical distributions that somebody, somewhere, feels are “correct,” not for the benefit of individuals believed to have been wronged by society, but under the assumption that having a “just-right” mix makes for a more desirable outcome (according to someone whose opinion seems to matter to them).

In this conclusion, I’m being very generous as to motive. Were I to pen a more cynical one, I’d suggest that this diversity game is a means to perpetuate tokenism, to assuage liberal guilt and white guilt, and to justify discrimination because “it feels right.” It also provides cover for the failures I noted earlier, many of which can be traced back to progressivism, and whose addressing would require progressives to take a good, hard look at the harm their good intentions have wrought.

The people who should be most angered by Warren’s Native American story are those who she’s displaced. Given that Harvard felt pressured to have a more “diverse” faculty, using Warren to pad their stats means that there was less pressure to hire a woman with actual Native American bona fides. No matter what you think of affirmative action, it remains that the diversity game failed to achieve its original goal. Not that anyone on the Left noticed. They’re circling the wagons, fearful that, should they not continue to back Warren’s side of things, it’ll work against them on the political landscape, and it doesn’t matter if an individual here and there gets short shrift.

Therein we find the problem with today’s leftists, progressives, social justice warriors, and their ilk. They’ve forgotten that it’s supposed to be about helping individuals. Indeed, they’ve proven, time and again, that they’re willing to sacrifice individuals to their goals, and that goes as far back as Bill Clinton, if not farther.

They have become Santayana’s fanatics. Breaking from fanaticism, just like escaping a cult, is brutally difficult. It comes with near-certain ostracizing and expulsion, and even an attempt to speak moderation puts one at risk from the fanatics’ long knives. I don’t see how today’s Left recovers its senses.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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