Early in my career, with a Ph.D. from MIT and a limitless future
ahead of me in academia, I was one of those people who could
be heard complaining that my reputation was being besmirched
by affirmative action policies. After all, I got tenure at Northwestern
University three years out of graduate school with a flurry
of technical articles published in the best economic journals.
I didn't want anybody thinking I was an affirmative action professor.
I could do the differential equations and the functional analysis
with the best of them.
I was also one of the people to stress that it was the better-off
among the designated minority groups who would reap the benefits
from affirmative action. Although the moral impetus for doing
something about racial inequality derives substantially from
the suffering of the worst-off people in the minority groupthe
ghetto pooraffirmative action was dispensing benefits
that could only be accessed by those who had already solved
the problem of moving from the margin into the mainstream of
society. Those were the people who already owned businesses
that might benefit from a contract set-aside, the people who
could succeed were they to achieve admission to a top-flight
state university. So, based on my analysis of the costs and
benefits of this particular remedy for racial injustice, I found
myself in the camp of affirmative action's opponents.
But in the wake of what has become a well-organized and concerted
campaign to wipe out "racial preferences" wherever
they "rear their ugly heads," I began to see that
there was something missing in my understanding. Consider the
campaign's rhetoric. One of the advocates likes to point to
a typical application form and proclaim that Americans should
not have to check off those "disgusting little boxes"
to identify their race. This is a language one can fall in love
with. It has a certain self-justifying tone about it: "America
is a country where individualsnot groupshave rights,
a country where we succeed or fail on the basis of our merit."
As I've watched the righteous campaign to rid ourselves of
disgusting little boxes spread across the nation, I've noticed
a certain narrative account emerging from it. It goes like this:
We had racism; we had Jim Crow segregation. But we also had
the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King stood before the
Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and cried out that he had a dream that
one day his children would live in a country where they would
be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content
of their character. Now we are approaching being such a country,
but for those who insist upon irrationally continuing to define
themselves in terms of race. What does a person's race have
to do with any assessment of justice?
As I listen to that line, I have to object. The campaign against
affirmative action as it has developed is dangerous, in my judgment,
because within it lies the implication that any question of
social or public justice that is formulated in racial terms
is prima facie illegitimate.
One can oppose affirmative action and still believe that the
racial composition of a student body is a relevant factor among
many for a university to consider in the construction of its
educational mission. One can critique particular policy instruments
without rejecting the notion that racial justice is an appropriate
The key issue is not whether the instrument is colorblind.
One could use colorblind instruments to pursue racial goals
and color-conscious instruments to pursue goals that are not
necessarily racially defined. For example, let's say a governor
needs to appoint judges to the courts. He might say, "I
need to have a diverse group of appointees both for my own political
protection and in the long-term interest of maintaining the
legitimacy of the administration of justice in this jurisdiction.
If I appoint all white men, I'm going to do damage not only
to my own reputation but also to the institution of the court
itself because I'm going to create a situation in which people
do not feel that the institution fairly represents them. I have
a responsibility as the governor to ensure that does not happen."
Maintaining the legitimacy of the institution of the court
is not a racial goal. That's something everybody has a stake
in. And yet in order to do it, the governor might have to peek
into those disgusting little boxes to see whether his list of
possible appointees contains a sufficient number of women and
On the other hand, a federal anti-drug policy concentrating
on arresting street-level traffickers and putting them away
for a long time is a colorblind policy, but it has racial consequences.
Such policies have led to the incarceration of young people
of color in vastly disproportionate numbers, young people who
to some degree are engaged in the illicit traffic precisely
because they are at the margin of society and their alternative
opportunities are scant.
As a result of this and similar policies, out of the 1.8 million
people under lock and key on any given day in this country,
900,000 are African Americans. If we focus on the color-blindness
of the instrument, we fail to pay attention to the larger question:
Aren't we prosecuting a public policy in the criminal justice
area that has to be examined because of the cost it is imposing
on a particular community?
I don't want to put too much stress on the criminal justice
example because I understand that it is arguable. There are
people who will disagree with my sense that our anti-drug policy
is unjust. But I think one has to accept the logical claim that
this colorblind instrument raises questions of justice that
have as a part of their formulation the racial dimension of
the policy's effects.
I want to insist on this distinction because you can slide
very quickly from a forceful critique of policy instruments
into a stand that denies the legitimacy of any discussion of
public issues formulated in racial terms.
There are plenty of examples: Suppose many universities make
a commitment to hiring an African American economist of the
highest merit and quality, and suppose there are relatively
few African American economists of the highest merit and quality.
The consequence is going to be that the price of quality African
American economists is going to get bid up. They will get better
offers; they will get summer research stipends; they will get
the corner office.
You can pass a law that everybody has to be paid the same salary,
but that doesn't keep me from getting seven offers and my white
colleague from getting one. He and I may be the same quality,
but if the universities want to have a meritorious African American
faculty member, I'm going to enjoy a better market.
I don't necessarily deserve this result because my ancestors
were enslaved; that's not the point. My circumstances are an
inescapable logical consequence of the structure of the situation.
Unfortunately, many people who are unhappy with that outcome
have begun to object to what's generating the outcome: the desire
of universities to have qualified black faculty. What begins
as an argument against a practicehiring at the level of
an individual collegebecomes an argument against a goalwanting
to have some minority presence on the school's top-flight social
What is wrong with the goal? To answer that question, opponents
are forced to argue that the color of university economics professors
doesn't matter. They're forced to deny the common sense observation
that it is desirable for universities with African American
students to have some African Americans represented on their
In other words, they're compelled to make ahistorical arguments
that deny our social reality in order to protect a claim about
treatment. They have made the administrative practice the site
of the moral discussion, but the moral question doesn't just
What happens if young people of color see the world through
a racial lens? What happens if the descendents of slaves have
not forgotten that they're black? When we send a young black
man to prison boot camp, and we say, "Straighten up your
life," what happens if he finds that a more compelling
narrative when it's delivered by somebody he knows has walked
the same streets he has?
Consider the cold, hard reality of growing up in one of these
communities where every third person goes off to the penitentiary,
where gangs and violence and drugs are everywhere. You can walk
proud and tall wearing your colors in your' hood, but you put
on a suit, go downtown, and try to get a job, and nobody will
give you the time of day. That's where these young men are coming
And then we have intellectuals sitting back and saying, "What
does race matter?"saying in effect, "Those kids
should just get over it. They should stop seeing the world in
racial terms."Well, that is a wishful irrelevancy. It hasn't
got anything to do with the reality of those kids. It's an abstraction
put against the concrete history that generated the racial division
in our society in the first place.
This is not special pleading for a minority student to get
a seat at Berkeley that a white student has earned because the
white student's SAT scores are 1500 and the minority student's
are only 1200. This is an effort to keep our eye on the ball:
The question of social justice in our society cannot be meaningfully
formulated without entering into the ambiguous and morally complicated
morass of race.
There are some who would deny that racial justice is a meaningful
category. They would say, "There's justice, and there's
non-justice." I reject that argument. This is not a principled
rejection; it's historically contingent. It's a rejection based
upon the specific facts of our society and the way in which
people see themselves.
In America, people identify and define themselves in racial
termsand it's not only the minorities who do so. For example,
white men intermarry with Asian women at a rate 10 times higher
than they intermarry with African American women. I'm not saying
the men or the women are racist, but the figures do show something
about the preference for intimate association across racial
lines at the place where it really countswhere people
make lifetime commitments to bind themselves together and build
Take the case of adoption. To prospective parents, the price
of a healthy white baby is $40,000 as revealed by what people
are willing to pay the lawyers and social workers who arrange
the adoptions. The price of a healthy black baby seems to be
$6,000 to $7,000 by the same economic criteria.
Many black babies languish unadopted while white families
travel across great oceans and thousands of miles to adopt infants
from other countries. Again, I'm not saying the white families
are racist. There are blacks who don't want black babies adopted
by whites; I know that. What I'm saying is that the phenomenon
of disparity in intimate association is a reflection of the
depth of racial separation in our society.
You can see it on a less intimate level, as well, in Still
the Promised City (Harvard University Press, 1996), a study
by UCLA sociologist Roger Waldinger. Waldinger noticed that
immigrants from all over the world were occupying the bottom
occupational niches in relatively low-skill trades and low-paid
factory work in New York City, and he asked, "Why can't
poor blacks get those jobs?"
Were the employers racist? No, it was much more complicated
than that. It had to do with the fact that people get jobs in
the low-wage sector of manufacturing in New York by belonging
to a network of referral: The employer relies on incumbent employees
to bring him new workers.
Those networks turn out to have an ethnic coloration. Often,
they stretch back to the old country. The migrant who has already
settled in finds a job for the cousin or the friend of the family
who has just immigrated. This is not about skills; it's not
about merit. Basically, anybody who shows up every day is meritorious
in this kind of work. This phenomenon is about connection.
In contrast, New York inner city blacks, who walk with a certain
gait and listen to a certain kind of music and talk in a certain
way, tend to be stigmatized. They tend to be associated with
the drugs and violence that are prevalent in their neighborhoods
although the majority of them are just trying to find work like
The fact that they are locked out of work is not a conspiracy.
It's not some evil we can point to as we would to a Southern
segregationist governor and say, "If you get out of the
schoolhouse door, everything will be fine." It's a complex
residue of a historically evolved system of racial segregation
How can we talk about justice and equality in American society
without any reference to this reality? That's not colorblindness;
that's just blindness.
We must be prepared to define and map the social landscape,
in part, in racial terms. History and contemporary social reality
compel that. When we do, we will find that sometimes instruments
of public action formulated in racial terms are useful and their
benefits outweigh their costs as we pursue justice ideals that
can be defended with the best universalist philosophy. Sometimes
we will find that public purposes pursued by racially defined
instrumentssuch as affirmative actionare not a good
idea. That's a call we'll have to make.
But the one thing that, as serious people, we mustn't do is
suppose that we're talking about the real question of racial
justice when we limit ourselves to a disavowal of those disgusting
little boxes. That is weak intellectually and unforgivable morally.
director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston
University, Glenn Loury won the 1996 American Book Award for
One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race
and Responsibility in America (The Free Press, 1996). This
article is excerpted from his presentation for the 199899 Markkula
Seminar on Affirmative Action. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute
was a co-sponsor of the talk.