"Colin Powell's Not Black" and Other Underminers of Affirmative Action

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One thing I've been covering in my ethics course this summer is whether it's possible for there to be black anti-white racism and black anti-black racism (I say yes to both). I've been suspicious of a common attitude toward Colin Powell and Condi Rice fits both categories, namely that they're not really black due to their being conservative, serving in a Republican administration, being part of "the man", etc. I've written on this subject here, here, and here. What just occurred to me yesterday is that the main argument for the line of thinking that I'm suspicious of seems quite at odds with one of the main arguments for affirmative action.

One common argument for affirmative action is that diversity is worth pursuing in its own right. The minimal version of this is something I accept. If you have two roughly equal candidates in other ways, and one is from an proportionally underrepresented group, then I think there are moral considerations for favoring that person. This involves no lowering of standards, since they're roughly equal candidates anyway, and you need some way of choosing between them. Even the staunchest opponents of affirmative action (e.g. Justices Scalia and Thomas and Chief Justice Rehnquist) tend not to have a problem with this. I'd got further myself, and most affirmative action supporters must go further than I do.

Some affirmative action proponents go further by holding that a candidate's merely being in an underrepresented group can justify lowered standards for hiring or admissions. For this argument, I don't even need to assume that view, though the people I'm criticizing almost always believe that. What I'm arguing is that even the minimal affirmative action view leads to the problem I'm about to present for these claims about Colin Powell and Condi Rice, since they're both clearly as qualified for the positions they're in as virtually anyone else who might have been considered.

So according even to this weak version of affirmative action, you're justified in hiring someone of an underrepresented group who is especially qualified, as these two are, for a high position in government simply out of a desire to pursue diversity among people occupying those posittions. That, I think, is exactly what President Bush was doing when selecting an unprecedented number of the members of his cabinet from underrepresented groups. So even the weak view of affirmative action thus undermines the view that it's somehow illegitimate for Bush to have selected them simply out of a desire to have more of his people from underrepresented groups.

What about the claim that that Colin Powell and Condi Rice are somehow race traitors? To be clear about why this is also at odds with even weak affirmative action, we need to look at the origin of these claims. For some people, it's that they're simply in the system rather than fighting against it. For others, it's that they're sellouts for having conservative views. I can't really think of another reason that isn't at least similar enough to one or the combination of both of these two. Let's take each consideration in turn.

So is it wrong to be appointed to a system if the system is opposed to your people? That's the claim, I take it. Aside from the fact that this view ignores that you can change a system from within, I wonder if affirmative action proponents can say this. If white institutional control is what prevents underrepresented groups from taking full advantage of those institutions, and affirmative action is thus justified to correct those problems by selecting people from those groups to occupy positions of authority, then wasn't Bush doing a good thing in selecting Rice, Powell, Abrahams, Paige, Chao, Mineta, Martinez, and Jackson (Matrinez's replacement, for those like me who haven't been paying attention)? Were they wrong to take such positions? If so, then isn't it undermining the argument for affirmative action? How can it be morally required of those in authority positions that they seek to increase the representation of those in other authority positions if it's somehow morally wrong for those people of underrepresented groups to take such positions on the grounds that it's becoming part of the system? Wasn't that the point?

So this leaves the other reason. For some people, it's not merely being in the system that would be a problem. It's that they're not seen as making progress for the groups they're supposed to be representing. This ignores the fact that their mere presence there is progress compared to the lower levels of representation in every previous administration. That is progress, all other things being equal. Some deny that it's progress if they don't like the ideas of the people in those positions, but that's a mistake. Even if somehow it's intrinsically bad for there to be conservatives in these positions, particularly conservatives representing these underrepresented groups, it's a philosophical mistake to think that something's being bad about a situation makes that situation itself bad. It ignores the possibility that something else about the situation might be good. In this case, their being there might have good and bad aspects, given both assumptions (one of which I wouldn't grant). It might overall be worse if the bad of it outweighs the good of it, but that doesn't mean there isn't good to it to begin with. There is, on the basis of the affirmative action principle.

Still, if the bad is bad enough, one might argue that it outweighs the good of having people of these groups in such positions. Why might someone think such a thing? The only explanation I've been able to discern is that Rice, Powell, Paige, et. al. are pursuing and furthering policies that undermine the motivation for having them there in the first place. In other words, they're race traitors for enacting Republican policies. First of all, this is completely insulting to any intelligent person who holds views along the lines of Republicans on principle, including all of these people. It's pure liberal bias to assume that, just because you have arrived at a deep conviction that liberal views are the ebst policies for underrepresented groups, any intelligent person will think the same way. The fact is that a growing number of African Americans are moving in the other direction. I hear assertions now and then that Rice, Powell, etc. must just be stupid, or perhaps they're pretending they're conservative for some personal benefit. Do people really believe that stuff? Are they resorting to conspiracy theories because they'd like them to be true? Has it not occurred to them that Rod Paige believes his views on education because he's seen them work in Texas or that Mel Martinez supports Republican-style welfare reforms encouraging responsibility because he believes them to be the better for those who are currently on welfare than simply allowing generation after generation of complete dependence with no hope for a better lot in life?

The last stand of the people I'm criticizing will be to admit that these people believe such policies to benefit their own people but to insist that their just deluded. It doesn't matter that they're sincere if they're wrong. Well, that may be so (leaving aside that Colin Powell himself supports affirmative action publicly, so it's not as if being in the Bush Administration means suporting every Bush position or even acting as if one supports every Bush position). I happen to disagree quite strongly with those who see these views are delusions. Still, even if it's so, all that can be said is that one disagrees with these people in positions of authority in a Republican administration and that you believe those policies to be harmful to the groups some the leaders in that administration are part of. You can't call them race traitors simply because they disagree with you on what's best for your people who also happen to be their people. They're only betraying their people to the point of being worthy of being called "not truly black" (in the sense of not valuing what black people should value, anyway) if they aren't really valuing what black people should value. I haven't seen any indication that this isn't true of Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Rod Paige, or any other black conservative or moderate. I'd say something similar about the non-black non-white members of the administration.

So it really does seem to me that people who say this sort of thing are undermining the argument for affirmative action. They must think that merely wanting these people in these positions, and merely accepting them, could be grounds for some sort of charge of immorality. If so, it must be bad to do so under any affirmative action situation, since these of any positions would be the most important ones for affirmative action to support.

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Carnival of the Vanities #97 from Jeff Doolittle dot com on July 28, 2004 12:13 PM

Welcome to the 97th Edition of the Carnival of the Vanities. This week's Carnival takes us on a tour of "On This Date in History," highlighting important historical events which have taken place on July 28th. Each person who submitted an entry chose t... Read More


The early church appointed deacons who had Hellinistic names. In essense, appointing to leadership positions those who were in the minority.

Acts 6

1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."
5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.

The apostles were responding to the issue that Hellenistic Jews were being overlooked, and the Twelve didn't have time to do both the teaching of the word and the more physical ministry of distributing food, so they appointed people from the Hellenistic Jews to deliver the food to them. This may have been the origin of deacons. There's great wisdom in appointing Hellenistic Jews to serve the Hellenistic Jews who were being overlooked, but I'm not sure that's exactly like affirmative action in itself. The difference is that affirmative action appoints leaders over everyone, and it's not clear that that's what's happening here. You might be able to derive such a principle from this given that any leader over everyone is also over the overlooked and underrepresented groups, though.

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    The Parablemen are: , , and .



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