Monday, July 20, 2009

Demography, Equity, and Affirmative Action

A columnist in the New York Times today offered the following comments regarding demographic trends and affirmative action in light of the recent confirmation hearings of Judge Sotomayor:

To affirmative action’s defenders, Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings have been an advertisement for the latter course. Here you have a Hispanic woman being grilled by a collection of senators who embody, quite literally, the white male power structure. Her chief Republican interlocutor, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, even has a history of racially charged remarks.

But the 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.

The nation’s largest states, Texas and California, already have “minority” majorities. By 2023, if current demographic trends continue, nonwhites — black, Hispanic and Asian — will constitute a majority of Americans under 18. By 2042, they’ll constitute a national majority. As Hua Hsu noted earlier this year in The Atlantic, “every child born in the United States from here on out will belong to the first post-white generation.”

As this generation rises, race-based discrimination needs to go. The explicit scale-tipping in college admissions should give way to class-based affirmative action; the de facto racial preferences required of employers by anti-discrimination law should disappear. (Read the whole column here)

Whites becoming a numeric minority relative to non-whites may have a variety of social, political, cultural, and economic implications that are difficult to foresee. However, we should question whether demography will automatically translate into changes in underlying attitudes and the distribution of power which continue to make race a correlate of quality of life in America. It is entirely possible that in the demographic future the columnist is anticipating, the "post-white" generation will live in a society where the white "minority" continues to enjoy a variety of privileges which non-whites do not, whites and non-whites remain segregated and racial tensions continue. If so, the need for policy that takes into consideration racial inequities will not have disappeared. Because class inequities are both raced and gendered in America, it may be that class based affirmative action is a reasonable compromise between those who prefer color-blind policies and those who insist that we have not yet achieved a post-racial society. Ultimately, racial inequities are the result of a history of conscious efforts to create them. Achieving racial equity will also be the result of conscious effort. Demography is not destiny.

These words addressed to the American Baha'i community in the 30's are worth pondering in relationship to the issues raised in this post:

"The ceaseless exertions which this issue of paramount importance calls for, the sacrifices it must impose, the care and vigilance it demands, the moral courage and fortitude it requires, the tact and sympathy it necessitates, invest this problem, which the American believers are still far from having satisfactorily resolved, with an urgency and importance that cannot be overestimated." (Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 33)

If you are interested in further reading on this topic, I'd highly recommend Reverend Jim Wallis' post called Sotomayor and the Fundamentals of Diversity and Affirmative Action. Wallis provides interesting theological and political reflections on these issues.