A personal reflection on racial preferences
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the legal and policy issues presented by the racial preference cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, which were recently argued before the Supreme Court. I’ve contributed my small share, starting soon after the cases were filed. Here, I instead want to offer a personal anecdote that I think gets to the heart of what’s been wrong with affirmative action as it’s been practiced for the last half century—since it morphed from special efforts to recruit minority applicants into overt race conscious selection.
My very first introduction to the idea of racial discrimination, and I’m pretty sure to the concept of race itself, came at a dinner table conversation between my parents in the Fall of 1960, when I was five years old. This was at the inception of the Civil Rights Movement, but the conversation had nothing to do with that. Rather, it was about my mother’s health. She had fallen very ill with what would later be diagnosed as an infected kidney stone, but at the time she’d been to a succession of doctors who had no idea what was wrong with her. (The first, her family’s long-time physician in Middle Village, Queens, had treated her for a similar mystery illness twenty years earlier; it was later discovered that she had only one kidney and that the other had presumably been destroyed by that earlier infection.)
My father was a pharmacist in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, at the time. Someone I’d heard him mention before was a doctor there, Dr. Robinson, or “Robbie” as he was known, with whom he and the other pharmacists were friendly. I was dimly aware of him in the way that young children are dimly aware of grownups their parents sometimes talk about, and I don’t recall being aware that there was anything unusual about him.
In this conversation, however, it became clear that there was something different about Dr. Robinson. My father broached the possibility of my mother seeing Dr. Robinson about her mystery illness and asked, somewhat hesitantly, if she would be “comfortable being examined by a colored man.” I don’t remember the exact dialogue that ensued 62 years ago, but I do remember the upshot of it: yes, she would be comfortable with that—despite coming from a background where, apparently, “colored people” weren’t all that highly regarded— because “for a colored man to have become a doctor he must be better than the white doctors.”
As I recall, she did go to see Dr. Robinson, and he was the first to correctly diagnose the problem. He referred her to the urologist who successfully treated her. Dr. Robinson went on to become an official at Coney Island Hospital, and he later served for many years as the Chief Police Surgeon of the NYPD. His wife, Dr. Thelma Lennard Robinson, was also a physician.
I didn’t think of my parents’ conversation again until eight or nine years later, when racial preferences in hiring and college admissions were first instituted in response to the demands of the radical progressive movements of the late sixties. By then I was a part of those movements, full of the sanctimonious certainty of a 14-year-old and righteous fury at the racism of my relatives who hadn’t regarded “colored people” (for which I of course substituted whatever name was then in vogue) highly enough. To most observers, I perfectly fit the mold of a supporter of these new racial preferences.
Yet, as much as it would have helped my progressive bona fides, I couldn’t bring myself to buy in; the logical implication of that conversation my parents had kept coming back to me. If setting the bar higher for Dr. Robinson than for whites, as it almost certainly had been in the days of Jim Crow, led people—even some of those inclined towards prejudice—to rationally conclude that he was probably more qualified than white doctors held to a lesser standard, then why shouldn’t the reverse apply as well? If standards were lowered for black medical school or law school or college applicants, wouldn’t it be equally natural to assume that, on balance, they were less qualified and competent than their white counterparts? And what would that do for race relations in a society that was just taking its first baby steps towards Dr. King’s dream of judging people “based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin?”
Of course, the two situations aren’t exactly parallel. When the bar is set higher for members of a particular group, we know that anyone in the group who nonetheless succeeds must have needed to clear that higher bar. But when the bar is set lower for a certain group, we can’t know the capabilities of each individual member of that group. Some may have only been able to clear that bar because it had been lowered for them, but others would clear the higher bar with ease. They may have even been capable enough to clear the bar that Dr. Robinson and other black Americans needed to as they ran the gauntlet of mid-century racism. We don’t know—but by instituting racial preferences, it leaves open the door for people to question an individual’s ability because of their membership in a certain racial group, which is precisely what the Civil Rights Movement sought to do away with.
This is the tragedy of racial preferences. As Justice Clarence Thomas has written, race-based affirmative action policies “stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority.” They suggest, in the words of black Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, that “blacks can’t compete on a level playing field” while “stigmatizing the ones who can.” For fifty years they have poisoned race relations in this country—unfairly tarnishing the hard-earned achievements of Thomas, Riley, and countless others, and creating the perverse situation in which today’s Dr. Robinson is assumed to be less rather than more qualified than his colleagues. It’s time for the Supreme Court to end racial preferences in hiring and college admissions and get us back on the path that the Civil Rights Movement laid out for us—to judge people as individuals, not representatives of a racial group.
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