At least since the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, observers have understood that there exists a fundamental tension in American society between the passion for freedom and the passion for equality. In recent decades, in many areas of life, the passion for equality has gained the upper hand. One sign of this is the popularity of the phrase—even more, the reality of—“affirmative action.”

There is, however, a silver lining to this story. For the fact that egalitarian imperatives clothe themselves in phrases like “affirmative action” suggests that the passion for freedom is not moribund, only that it is not sufficiently vigilant. If a college administrator or government bureaucrat advertised a big new program to enforce racial or sexual discrimination on campuses and in the workplace, he (or she) probably wouldn’t get far. But redescribe the same program in more emollient terms and she (or he) might just be able to slip it by. And so it has been with “affirmative action.” That’s the great thing about the phrase: it seems so, well, so affirmative, so positive. It produces warm, fuzzy feelings of do-goodery while at the same time exploiting, and exacerbating, the canker of liberal guilt. Considered as a rhetorical artifact—which is to say, considered as an instrument of liberal coercion—“affirmative action” is one of the most impressive inventions of our time.

Yet considered in moral terms, “affirmative action” is a disaster. For one thing, it is deeply dishonest. You can see this simply by asking, “What is the opposite of affirmative action?” It certainly isn’t “negative action.” No, the opposite of affirmative action is judging—and hence hiring and promoting—people on their merits, regardless of such attributes as race, sex, or ethnic origin. This is something that the educational establishment has done its best to conceal, with, it must be acknowledged, considerable success.

That may be changing, however. As was reported in The Chicago Sun-Times on November 11, the Bush administration has cast a cold eye on some fellowship programs for minority and female students at Southern Illinois University, alleging that they violate the provisions of the infamous Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by discriminating against whites, men, and others. According to a letter sent to the university by the Justice Department, SIU “has engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against whites, non-preferred minorities, and males.” For example, a program called “Bridge to the Doctorate,” which has a budget of almost $1 million and provides a $30,000 stipend plus $10,500 for “educational expenses,” has gone to twenty-five students since its inception: nineteen blacks, five Latinos, and one “Native American.” (We are always tempted to object, when we encounter that phrase, that anyone born in the United States should count as a native American, but we digress …) Then there is the “Proactive Recruitment and Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow” (no, we are not making this up), which provides for a tuition waiver and a monthly stipend of $1,200. There have been 78 of those plums to date, 61 to blacks, 14 to Latinos, 1 to an Asian, 2 to “Native Americans.” Et, we need hardly say, cetera.

The Justice Department wants SIU to cease and desist eftsoons and right speedily or face a lawsuit. The liberal establishment is in a tizzy. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said that the Justice Department’s threat “just doesn’t make sense.” The chancellor of SIU, one Walter V. Wendler, agrees. Chancellor Wendler publicly supports the programs and also denies that they discriminate against any students. Quoth the Chancellor: “I don’t think that [program] discriminates against whites, but that’s part of what we need to talk to them about.” We suggest that Senator Obama and Chancellor Wendler take along a copy of Through the Looking Glass. “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” Nice work if you can get it! Of course, SIU is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to academic programs that actively discriminate against whites, males, and other groups not sanctioned by the politically correct establishment. Does this new initiative by the Justice Department mark the beginning of a return to sanity, i.e., an end to the discriminatory practices enshrined in the imperatives of “affirmative action”? It is too early to say but not, perhaps, too early to hope.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 4, on page 1
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