The Aristocratic Reign Of Group Preferences

Defenders and advocates of group preferences generally make their stand on a moral claim: group preferences are needed to advance the common social good. To oppose group preferences is, in turn, to act immorally. The vehemence with which defenders of group preferences frequently speak and the extreme tactics of some pro-preference groups such as By Any Means Necessary stem from this rootedness in moral conviction and moral antipathy.

Critics of group preferences also often make their stand on a moral basis. Many believe that group preferences perpetuate the sort of inequalities in our society that undermine the common good. Other critics tap directly into an almost visceral sense among Americans that group preferences are unfair. The critics of group preferences likewise imply some moral deficiency on the part of their opponents, who they see as not just advocates of unwise policy but also as architects of an unjust social order.

The moral claims of both supporters and critics run deep, but they of course do not exhaust the terms of the debate. We also make legal arguments, pragmatic claims about the likely consequences of policies, historical analyses, international comparisons, statistical investigations, and political appeals. This sprawl is characteristic of American life: whenever we debate something of fundamental importance, the arguments avalanche. Racial and gender preference began as an issue in graduate and professional programs in the 1970s, expanded into all of higher education, found welcome in the armed forces, and by the late 1980s moved into the corporate world. As the use of preferences expanded, the ideology of preferences centered on the concept of diversity diffused throughout American life until it was granted Constitutional imprimatur in 2003 in Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger.

But behind the avalanche of arguments when Americans debate something of fundamental importance, there is always a central moral question. Or perhaps better put, there is a tightly knit cluster of moral questions. Who are we? Whom do we aspire to become? What is the right way forward?

If these seem like universal questions that may be because we Americans like to think we are addressing the key issues that face humanity. But the reality is that these are rather unusual questions for a society to ask. Speaking as an anthropologist, I’d say most societies are not vexed by the question, “Who are we?” The answer is obvious in forms, such as, “We are the sons and daughters of X,” “We are the lords of Y,” “We are devoted followers of Z.” The wave of nationalism that swept through Europe in the last four centuries transformed the situation by making the question “Who are we?” into a matter that people actually had to reckon with. And Europeans returned with answers along the lines of “We are English; we are French; we are German.”

Nationalism offered a new kind of answer to the issue of collective identity. Kingdoms and empires had never troubled themselves to turn the obedience of subjects into a shared folk life and a belief in the inherent integrity of ethnic traditions. Nationalism, by contrast, urged the idea that Englishmen as Englishmen, Germans as Germans, Italians as Italians, participated in a common culture that, of rights, should be its own state. Europeans today are inching towards a post-ethnic state of some sort. But the United States beat them to this in 1776. America was, from its political inception, rooted in something other than an idealized common ethnicity. It was a state born with the questions, “Who are we?” “Whom do we aspire to become?” and “What is the right way forward?”

And these questions continue to give life to our most urgent moral debates. In the debate over group preferences, the answers divide up something like this. The pro-preference side says that American society was from its beginning and still is a tissue of hierarchy and oppression. The oppression was in its origins manifold: Europeans extirpated Native Americans and enslaved Africans, and wealthy colonists immiserated poor colonists too. Women were denied full participation in society. American aggression extended the oppression to the French, Mexicans, and Spanish; and unscrupulous labor and immigration policies brought Chinese, Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans under the heel. Generation after generation, wrong was heaped on wrong, but throughout this saga of humiliation and deprivation, American elites promoted the illusion that the nation remained a liberal state that offered Constitutionally protected freedoms to all and the opportunity to thrive. Today, in the name of making good on those betrayed promises, and to establish a genuinely liberal polity, we must give preferences in the distribution of social goods to the members of the groups that suffered and still suffer the centuries of enforced inequality.

This image of America is not a straw man propped up for the occasion of this meeting. It is rather the stuff of school textbooks and popular works, such as Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. It has become so widely accepted in some circles that it enjoys immunity from argument or evidence, and has that quality of implicitly accepted knowledge that we register with the words, “everybody knows.” Some of its supporters are more cautious and avoid the characterization of American society as through-and-through racist and oppressive, but nonetheless set store by the idea that, at this phase of our history, Americans are still morally bound to use group preferences to overcome the history of institutionalized inequality.

The pro-preference advocates have another, seemingly different line of moral argument bound up with the concept of diversity. I say seemingly, because the diversity argument incorporates the idea of redeeming the nation from its history of group oppression. It differs from the standard redemption argument in two respects. First, as promulgated by the Supreme Court, diversity is good because it enhances the classroom experience of students; racial preferences justified on the basis of diversity are, by the Court’s judgments, valuable for pedagogical reasons, and are not to be thought of in any way as restitution for past wrongs. Second, diversity invokes a distinct answer to the question, “Whom do we aspire to become.” In briefest compass, the answer is, “Celebrate diversity!” To unpack that edict just a little, it is a call to discard the pursuit of legal equality and personal freedom as the core values of the liberal polity and to replace them with primacy of group identity.

The diversity doctrine does not satisfy everyone on the political Left. Some supporters of racial preferences reject the diversity doctrine in favor of a straightforward equity argument. Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy is in this camp. He has written that “Many who defend affirmative action for the sake of ‘diversity’ are actually motivated” by a “commitment to social justice,” and that, “They would rightly defend affirmative action even if social science demonstrated uncontrovertibly that diversity (or its absence) has no effect (or even a negative effect) on the learning environment.” Likewise several months before the Grutter decision in 2003, the liberal journalist James Traub confessed in the New York Times Magazine that diversity seemed to him “an elaborate charade to keep us from knowing what we’re doing.” He added that “the diversity rationale also insultingly assumes that black students bring a black ‘point of view.'” Traub argued that the real problem is not lack of diversity in the college classroom but “persistent black educational failure” and “minority access to higher education.”

While Kennedy and Traub would jettison the diversity doctrine and keep group preferences, others on the Left would prefer to jettison racial preferences for some kind of income or class-based preference system. This seems a good place to note that the debate over group preferences is not a strictly Left vs. Right affair. For example, Walter Benn Michaels, a political writer generally on the Left, argues in his 2006 book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, that the pursuit of cultural diversity has distracted Americans from the need to overcome class inequalities. He concludes, “When it comes to economic inequality, we should stop finding ways to ignore it, we should concentrate not on respecting the illusions of cultural difference but on reducing the reality of economic difference.” Michaels writes for a popular audience. Deep in the obscurity of the Leftist theory-jungle of English departments, the story is surprisingly similar. Timothy Brennan, for example, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and an avowed Marxist, has recently published – in vehemently obscure jargon – a volume, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, that likewise excoriates the American Left for its obsession with multiculturalism, which in his view diverted Leftist intellectuals from fostering more radical change.

These stirrings of discontent on the Left with group preferences are interesting, but they do not represent the wellspring of dissatisfaction that carried the anti-preference ballot measures to success in California, Washington, and Michigan. That dissatisfaction transcends party lines and the familiar ideological polarities, though it can be very roughly characterized as center-Right. But in what follows, I am less concerned with who opposes preferences than with the deep basis of this dissatisfaction. It is, I think, grounded in a vision of American society that is powerful and compelling, but for various reasons disdained by much of the country’s political and social elites.
The “Who are we?” question is answered for a great many opponents of group preferences with the simple answer, “We are individuals.” Of course this answer only seems simple, but its seeming simplicity is important. For one thing, it drives the supporters of group preferences into several unattractive responses, such as lecturing the people that their freedom to define themselves is an illusion, and that, if they were smart, they would understand that they are really defined by their group identity. The pro-preference advocates thus frequently end up arguing the peculiar elitist claim, “Trust us. We know better than you that you are being manipulated by an invisible elite that has tricked you into thinking you are an individual.” The Matrix-like logic of this does indeed appeal to a paranoid fraction of Americans, but it isn’t much likely to change the minds of Americans who do, in fact, see themselves as individuals.

For these Americans – and I include myself in their number – the sense of being an individual does not preclude participating in a wide variety of groups. Rather individuality is partially built out of the associational identities in which we participate. Some of these we choose outright; others are made available to us by our parents or the communities we live in; some are ascribed to us by others, but even the ascribed identities leave us with a broad range of choices. We can, so to speak, live on the Rez or off it; we can identify fully and thickly with a group identity, wear it casually, or treat it as irrelevant.
To be sure, our individual choices frequently bump into obstacles. One of these obstacles is the claim that a community makes on us, when some member of it says, in effect, “Don’t forget where you came from.” Another obstacle is the demand that a stranger – not infrequently a government bureaucrat – insists on telling us what our choices are. The first of the obstacles actually sharpens our sense of individuality, because it heightens the personal drama of choosing one’s allegiance. The second obstacle strikes most people the other way. It feels diminishing. We are made to fit ourselves to a set of impersonal options that may not at all reflect how we experience our lives.

In other words, when Americans claim to be individuals, they are thinking largely about personal freedom. They are not thinking a simple either/or: I am individual or I am member of my racial or ethnic group or some other identity group. Individuality and participation in community are blended together in American life in a way that most of find pretty congenial. And this, in turn, points to one of the ways in which group preferences cut against the social good in America. They tear asunder what we experience as a continuity. They do this by turning a fluid sense of being an individual who participates in a community into a rigid group identity.

My friend Dimitri grew up in a New England fishing town, with grandparents who were Russian, French Canadian, and Puerto Rican. The families of his childhood fishing port friends likewise came from all over. It is hard to think that he missed any of the virtues of diversity as a youth, but when he went to college, he found himself classified as Hispanic. Dimitri had a sense of irony about this; he is not necessarily opposed to being Hispanic, but the label comes nowhere close to defining him. We can, like Dimitri, take these impositions lightly, but when we are then asked to ponder the official regimentation of such impositions in the form of group preferences, we – some of us at least – balk.

The violation of our own sense of individual autonomy is I think the most salient part of our resistance to group preferences, but it is very much the tip of an iceberg. What lies below the water line is the liberal polity on which that strong sense of individuality rests. The principles of liberty and equality enunciated in our Founding documents are not airy abstractions or mere legal formulations that the Supreme Court expands or contracts at will. They are also the very texture of American society, woven into everyday life.

We know this not because we have to think about it constantly but because it is built into our experience. We normally act as though we are equal and as though we are free, and the matter rises to our attention only when we bump against those who transgress these principles. Line-jumpers, recipients of VIP treatment, people who thrive because of their connections irritate most Americans. They may not in their advantages break any law, but they violate our basic egalitarianism. Not that egalitarianism is all there is to American social attitudes. Our egalitarianism exists in an ever-precarious balance with our love of personal freedom and our admiration of those who have been able to achieve success by taking advantage of their freedom. This is why, to the frustration of socialists, Americans have little interest in appeals to class. Americans tend to view economics success as the result of entrepreneurial freedom, not inherited advantage, and the feeling of equality among Americans usually balances with a generalized pride in the symbols of unequal success.

Americans may be mistaken about some of this. Inherited advantage plays a much larger role than we usually acknowledge. But it is, in its way, a constructive mistake, since it allows both principles – freedom and equality – scope to develop. Our liberal polity could easily founder if we were to tilt so far towards the pursuit of equality that we scanted the individual freedom; or so far towards individual freedom that we ignored the claims of equality.

This may seem an elementary civics lesson, but note how much of it has been ignored by our social and political elites in developing the doctrine and imposing the reality of group preferences, which simultaneously violate both core principles. Group preferences run hard against the ideal of the inherent equality of individuals, and at the same time, by elevating group identity, erode that sense of self-invention and personal freedom that is a key to our aspirations.

Defenders of group preferences are, at some level, aware that what they promote runs athwart the key values of American life. Because of that, they try hard to make group preferences sound as though they are extensions rather than contradictions of these principles. Thus group preferences are presented as a means to achieving equality, and personal identification with a racial or ethnic category is presented as the most authentic way of achieving the freedom of self-definition. These rationalizations self-evidently have their appeal. It is not at all hard to find individuals for whom the principles of equality and freedom are now filtered through the experience of identity groups, and the principle of group preferences subordinates is taken as the very heart of a just social order.

These individuals are mistaken and they also hold a losing political hand. They are mistaken because a liberal polity cannot be built on group preferences, and they hold a losing political hand because Americans remain fundamentally committed to the older principles of individual equality and personal freedom.

When we try to assess what group preferences do to a society, we have no shortage of comparative evidence from societies elsewhere in the world and at other times in Western history. In Affirmative Action around the World, Thomas Sowell points out that there is tremendous variety in the justifications societies invoke for group preferences. Malaysia, for instance, maintains a system of preferences for the majority Malay population because the minority Chinese population – descendents of Chinese laborers brought to work the rubber plantations a century ago – out-perform Malays on university examinations and in other competitive fields. Sri Lanka likewise developed an ethnic preference system to protect a non-industrious Sinhalese majority from competition with the highly-achieving Tamil minority. The Sri Lankan version of affirmative action, of course, helped to spark one of the grimmest civil conflicts in the world.

The most arresting fact of these two examples is that they are instances of group preferences aimed at compensating a majority group. Perhaps the surprise lifts if we consider that the United States does the same by extending group preferences to women. The larger points, however, are that public policies that grant preferred access to social goods on the basis of ethnicity are very widespread and are typically justified not by an appeal to universal principle but to local circumstance: a history, an anomaly, a certain situation that must be made right by government action. Sowell’s point is that the cure is always worse than the disease, in that the preferences create grievances and conflict. Even in nations, such as India and Nigeria where ethnic preferences and set asides are written into the constitution, they never appease group rivalry but always and everywhere exacerbate it.

There is no deep mystery here. Group preferences announce that a certain class of public goods – be it university admissions, oil revenues, access to bribes, jobs in the army – are to be thought of as ethnic spoils, rather than a common good to be distributed by merit or some neutral scheme, such as a lottery. Once the public good is classified as an ethnic spoil, the inevitably question is, “How can my group increase its share?” There is no way in which group preferences can escape this consequence. They are the natural fuel of group rivalry.

Indeed, if there is any mystery at all it is that smart people keep thinking up reasons why group preferences will not have these illiberal consequences. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, writes eloquently on what he calls “the politics of recognition.” This amounts to the idea that our cultural identifications are “fundamental defining characteristics” of our humanity, and that a just society must not only make room for such identifications, but also foster them. Taylor treats this as a moral duty for the individual, who loses his authenticity if he fails to heed the inner voice of his cultural identification and through it enter into dialogue with others. In short, Taylor advances a case for multiculturalism, in which “withholding recognition can be a form of oppression.” I don’t want to misrepresent Taylor, who is a subtle thinker. He does not think that multicultural respect should trump all the judicial rules of liberal society; rather, he thinks there can be a fruitful compromise.

But multiculturalism in practice is not merely wholesome respect for those who are different from one’s self. It is one of the theories that underwrites group preferences by justifying unequal access to public goods. Judging from his examples, Taylor is thinking about French Canadians, Inuit, or Hurons who he believes should receive preferences as French Canadians, Inuit, or Hurons in recognition of their cultural difference and in hope of preserving the dialogue among group identifications that is the moral duty of Canadians. Canada has abandoned itself to the delights and the ravages of multiculturalism far more than the United States.

Multiculturalism is important because it is a theory – attractive to many and widely taught in American schools – that attempts to make group preferences appear consistent with liberal values. This justification rests uneasily in the minds of most ordinary Americans, who are attracted to a live-and-let-live tolerance of people unlike themselves but feel the rub when they are told that their notions of equality, fairness, and liberty are obsolete. “Tolerance yes, preferences no,” seems to be the basic moral intuition of Americans.
And that intuition speaks well of the robustness of the liberal tradition. We seem to understand the harm that is in the offing, despite the soothing words and attractive rainbow packaging. Group preferences always and everywhere create an illiberal social dynamic. They diminish the capacity of a society to treat individuals as the owners of individual rights and liberties, including the right to act as a free agent in the political system. They enhance the capacity of groups to control and police the people those groups would like to claim as members, regardless of how the individuals themselves see the matter. Dimitri is part of the Hispanic caucus, whether he likes it or not. In this sense, group preferences turn individuals into clients of their assigned groups. We have heard a good deal in recent years about what this clientage feels like to those on whom it is unwillingly imposed. It feels stifling, and it is particularly galling to be stifled in the name of liberation.

The transformation of the individual into a client, however, has a double character, since the group itself is a client to the political and social elites who are able to award access to social goods. The University of Michigan Law School, for example, has put itself in a patron relation to the minority groups for whom it sets what it calls a “critical mass” of reserved seats. I have recently been working on an examination of how the field of social work is organized in the United States. The Council on Social Work Education has an elaborate system that sets aside seats on its board and all of its committees for appointees who are “gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered; Persons with Disabilities; African-Americans or other Blacks; Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders; Chicano, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, or Other Latinos, Latinas, or Hispanics.” Collectively, these set aside appointments must make up 50 percent of the members of the CSWE board and each of the several committees. When we consider the sheer effort of discovering and tracking the group identities of every participant, the notion of “social work” takes on an entirely new meaning.

Organizations that engage in this kind of harvesting of group affiliations send a message to the harvestees that they are valued primarily for those affiliations. They also send a wider social message that the organizations themselves can be counted on as a source for a certain kind of social benefit. The positions offer, after all, what Charles Taylor calls “recognition.” They turn group affiliation into a special purpose currency with certain odd characteristics. Why, for example, are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders interchangeable? They are not culturally, genetically, or historically the same, or similarly placed in American society.

Identity group preferences always run into what might be called the troublesome cases: the individual who does not easily fit the grid. This is a deeper problem that advocates of group preferences seem to realize, since the troublesome cases frequently speak up. They make the point vividly that a system of group preferences has built into a system of repression that forces what are often unwelcome and entirely unnecessary choices on individuals. In a genuinely liberal society, we exercise a fair degree of choice over how much and how deeply we define ourselves by ethnic affiliation. It a preference-based society, those choices are usurped by officials who have their own agendas.

Perhaps this goes too far in making group preferences sound unattractive. I began this essay by observing that advocates and defenders of group preferences stake a moral claim to the effect that these preferences are needed to advance the common good. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who make this claim and, in that sense, I cannot say that the socially destructive career of group preferences is self evident. It isn’t evident to everyone. But why not?

I can suggest two reasons. First, advocates of group preferences often mistake the resentment those preferences cause. They take that resentment to exhibit the underlying prejudices that the preferences are intended to overcome. The social turmoil produced by favoritism is misdiagnosed as the eruption of latent hostility that simply took advantage of the moment. The reasoning here is somewhat, but not entirely, circular. Surely some latent tensions exist among ethnic groups and between minorities and the white majority in the United States. One might have thought that good social policy would hasten the work of the last fifty years in erasing such tensions, and that policies that breathe new life into them are not so much revealing the tensions as re-generating them.

The other reason I suggest why advocates of group preferences so often fail to register the dire consequences of these policies lies in the old-fashioned word I put into the title of this paper: contumely. The preference regime is, in its very nature, an aristocratic scheme. That is to say, it is illiberal in the particular way of aristocracies: it pictures the world as made up of heredity groups of unequal merit. The merit gets transmitted generation to generation. It can fail to be recognized but endures and even grows in luster for being overlooked. Aristocracies everywhere tend to be a bit vague about what this ineffable quality is. In India, it is purity and Brahmins had it. In old Europe, it was honor, and the nobility had it. In America, the preference aristocracy is built on the notion of oppression. The group identities that matter – that ones that, in this theory, deserve outsized shares of social goods – are those that lay the most effective claim to a history of oppression.

This may be an unfamiliar way to use the word aristocracy, but it fits the case rather well. An aristocracy rules by the presumption of some kind of moral superiority and it takes strong umbrage at anyone who questions the basis of that moral quidity that sets it apart. In manner, the aristocrat is proud and his emotional stance towards those not of his rank is contumely, the disdain of the proud to the unworthy.

I don’t know whether this word – aristocrat – will stick to those who seek and those who traffic in group preferences. They like to present themselves in the camouflage of defenders of the underdog. The term diversiphile, which I launched five years ago, has had some modest success. The patricians of the preference class deserve their own tag. Perhaps they should be called prefies. I am not alone, however, in spotting the anti-democratic ethos of the prefies. When group preferences make it onto the stage of public debate, we often witness the spectacle of ensconced politicians of both parties and other privileged figures such as college presidents condescendingly explaining why the matter should not be brought to a vote.

While I have been speaking about the preference debate mainly as it carried forward within the United States, the aristocratic attitude of preference supporters connects in an important way with a broader phenomenon. The post-Cold War world has seen the rapid ascendancy of a kind of bureaucrat who combines an elaborate show of deference for cultures and identity groups with indifference bordering on disdain for the liberal polities that have historically fostered individual rights. This new political position favors non-democratic international organizations and transnational movements as a better basis for protecting our “rights” than our instruments of Constitutional government, including the ballot and the referendum. The “transies” – as John O’Sullivan and others have called them – prefer the edicts of courts and the findings of commissions to the working out of legislative remedies or popular initiatives.

In this light, it might be worth adding a third reason why advocates of group preferences so often fail to register the dire consequences of these policies. That is, the loss of freedom and the sacrifice of individual equality entailed in group preferences seem to these folks a small price to pay to achieve a new kind of world-wide cultural equity over which they themselves will preside. If it seems fanciful to suggest that our domestic pro-preference crowd owes something to Eurocrats in Brussels, UNESCO meetings, and the organizers of LiveAid Concerts, that may be because we are often more attentive to the people and arguments that we meet face to face in our local political contests. The theory of multiculturalism and the practice of group preferences, however, gain a measure of credibility from the play they get in contemporary international circles. But do we really have any lessons to learn about human rights from Brussels or Ottawa?

When I think of the harm done by group preferences to a democratic republic that has built a genuinely liberal culture and sustained a Constitutionally liberal polity, I think of the destructive trail of group preferences from the Hapsburg Empire to South Africa. I think of the strife in Kenya and the ungovernable state of Pakistan. I think of individuals constrained to choose between their parents in order to select an acceptable public identity, and the emergence of a system of clientage that trumps individual rights and opportunities. But in the mix, I also think of the distortions of personal character and the erosion of plain-dealing that are also the substance of life in a good society. But then I take heart – because Americans when they too look unflinchingly at what group preferences mean to our social life reject them outright. We want neighbors and friends, not clients. We want to be proud of each others’ accomplishments and look up to those who earn our esteem. The depressing regime of dependency and resentment seems to us un-American – because it is.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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