ONE HUNDRED YEARS after Plessy v. Ferguson, we are counting by race more obsessively than ever.
To be sure, racism as it was commonly practiced in 1896 has all but vanished in 1996. American law and society, once coldly indifferent to the plight of black citizens, is today deeply concerned with, and anxious to improve, their plight. State segregation is dead. From the White House to Wall Street, from Hollywood to Harvard, there is no position of influence or honor in America that is off limits to blacks. The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy 100 years ago next month -- that segregating the races by law into "separate but equal accommodations" was constitutionally "reasonable" -- is now regarded as the second-most-notorious ruling in its history. Only Dred Scott, in 1857, was worse.
And yet the heart of Jim Crow beats on. The belief that people are first and foremost members of a race is alive and well and living under the rubric "affirmative action" -- or, as we now call it, "diversity."
Once, affirmative action was seen as a way to promote equal opportunity, to redress generations of discrimination by helping those who had been hurt by it. Today, the goal of affirmative action is racial diversification. The absence of discrimination isn't enough. If minorities A, B, and C are found in society, minorities A, B, and C must be found in every social institution -- ideally in exact proportion to their presence in the community.
But why? When did diversity of skin color become a virtue? Become the virtue? Racial diversity for its own sake is no more or less praiseworthy than racial unity for its own sake. Diversity is a condition, not a state of grace. Sometimes it is good, sometimes bad, usually irrelevant.
If 26.3 percent of a city's population is black, why does it follow that 26.3 percent of its city councilors ought to be black? What makes racial variety in a classroom so important that kids have to be bused for miles to achieve it? What does a university gain from having a "diverse" student body that justifies rejecting better applicants in favor of weaker ones? Why should skin color enter at all into the awarding of government grants, the staffing of newsrooms, or the appointment of judges? Absent discrimination, what relevance can skin color possibly have?
"I will give you a government that looks like America," promised Bill Clinton in his 1992 campaign. By which he meant: a government variegated by race and gender. And indeed he named a Cabinet that was, by his standard, fully diverse. It had blacks and whites, women and men -- even two Hispanics.
But it "looked like America" only in that banal and sterile sense. Of Clinton's 18 Cabinet-level nominees, 14 were lawyers. Ten were millionaires. All, presumably, were Democrats. That's diversity? A roomful of very rich Democratic lawyers? Is that what America looks like?
Only if the most meaningful thing about each of us is our pigmentation can the quotas and preferences of affirmative action -- or the segregated railway cars of Jim Crow -- make sense. The truth is that few things matter less than our race. Character matters more. Upbringing matters more. Neighborhood matters more. Work habits matter more. Aptitude matters more. Beliefs matter more.
Quota advocates argue that diversity is necessary not just to overcome the "legacy of slavery," but to ensure that minority viewpoints are expressed and minority perspectives aired. Racial preferences, they say, liberate the black voices that racism has stifled. Diversity brings to an institution black sensitivities and attitudes that would otherwise go unrepresented.
The planted axiom, of course, is that all whites speak one way and all blacks speak another -- that there is "white" thinking and "black" thinking, "white" viewpoints and "black" viewpoints. However you slice it, the premise of affirmative action is that above all else, we are black or we are white. Know a man's color, and you know how he thinks, how he acts, what he wants, what he is. Achieving diversity is simply a matter of getting the racial numbers right.
But the tide is slowly beginning to shift. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in the Adarand case that "all racial classifications" imposed by government are subject to the strictest level of scrutiny. Last month, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit struck down the University of Texas Law School's race-based admissions system. Racial preferences are going on the California ballot this fall, and Massachusetts' Racial Imbalance Law is being challenged by a civil-rights scholar who sits on the state Board of Education.
Still, a vast infrastructure of affirmative action remains intact. In hundreds of thousands of settings, counting by race is now routine. And everywhere it is practiced, the message is reinforced: Individuals don't matter, racial categories do.
Next month marks the centennial not only of the 8-1 decision in Plessy but of Justice John Harlan's great dissent. "Our Constitution is colorblind," he wrote angrily, "and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. . . . The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color." One hundred years, it's a lesson still unlearned.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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