LIKE ADDITION and multiplication, the ethics of racial discrimination are commutative. Discriminating by race is discriminating by race, no matter which direction it goes in. A times B equals B times A.
Refusing to hire an employee because of the minority group he belongs to is as wrong as choosing to hire an employee because of the minority group he belongs to. Admissions policies skewed to favor students of one race over students of another are intrinsically unfair -- whether the favored group is white students at the University of Alabama circa 1963 or black students at Georgetown circa 1995.
Judging people by the color of their skin instead of the content of their character is obtuse. It betrays the American promise that all men are created equal. That was true when black liberals said it yesterday; it is true when black conservatives say it today; it will be true no matter who says it tomorrow.
Yet 41 years after Brown v. Board of Education, some people still draw the color line everywhere. "Civil rights activists," they style themselves. "Reverse racists" would be more apt. The original civil rights workers struggled for the freedom of black Americans to be treated and judged as individuals on their own merit -- not as members of a group to which special laws and customs applied. But the latter-day reverse racists reject the standard of individual merit. They clamor for group rights and group status and group representation.
Groupthink! You don't matter to the reverse racists, the group you belong to does. Your color does. The little box you check off -- African-American? Pacific Islander? White? -- on the "diversity" form does. Never mind that you may be a classmate, a colleague, a neighbor. First and foremost, you are your race.
Of the many wretched consequences of affirmative action, this obsession with race is the worst. And worst of all when it clouds the minds of educated and talented blacks, who have the most to lose from perpetuating the stigma of affirmative action. Quotas and set-asides and race-norming and lowered standards -- inevitably, these cast little clouds of doubt around every real black achievement. Spoken or silent, the premise of affirmative action is that blacks can't make it on their own, that they need a little nudge from the government in order to compete with everyone else.
The reverse racists, to be sure, don't see it that way. In their view, affirmative action is an attempt to repair the ravages of discrimination, a way to right the wrong of past oppression and bigotry.
But when will this repair job be completed? Will it be completed? "Affirmative action," one angry black female recently wrote in the pages of the Boston Globe, "is payment on a bill that will always be due." Always?
You cannot atone for one sin by committing a second. Especially when the same principle -- punishing or rewarding on the basis of race -- is violated both times. And what about other victims of bigotry and persecution in American history? If the Irish, the Jews, and the Chinese were able to overcome legal discrimination and social exclusion without affirmative action, black Americans can, too. To claim otherwise is racist.
Defenders of affirmative action make the same arguments today that they were making 10 and 20 years ago. Their racial attitudes have calcified into a spleeny and spiteful color-consciousness. They walk around with great chips on their shoulders, seeing everywhere signs of "institutionalized racism."
Yet all around them, racism has been melting away. When affirmative action was instituted, blacks weren't governors and senators and bank presidents; they weren't multimillionaire sports superstars and hugely popular TV actors and superintendents of schools; black faces didn't gaze down from the Supreme Court, or anchor the nightly news, or pepper the newsrooms of big-city papers, or set off the four stars on the crisp uniform of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They do now.
Slavery and Jim Crow were hideous crimes. But those awful chapters in American history ended long ago. And they ended in great measure because white people turned against them -- because white people strained and argued and bled and died to end them. Because white people responded to the cries of Garrison, the admonitions of Douglass, the sermons of King, the sacrifice of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman.
To free the slaves, 359,000 Union soldiers, most of them white, gave their lives. Abraham Lincoln gave his. To abolish Jim Crow, white supporters threw themselves into the civil rights movement -- joining sit-ins, donating money, marching to Birmingham, registering voters, litigating court cases. And getting murdered as Mississippi burned.
We are not a racist people. There is no unpaid "bill that will always be due" to all black Americans as a group. This is a nation of individuals, not of racial castes and classes.
The content of our character, not the color of our skin, is what counts. Maybe we haven't yet reached the point where an individual's race is completely irrelevant. But let us at least be clear about the quickest way to get there: It is to treat every individual as if his race is completely irrelevant.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)