Affirmative Action in a Multiethnic Nation

Affirmative Action in a Multiethnic Nation

Joshua Hunter
Joshua Hunter
6 min read

This last week, the California Legislature voted to hold a referendum to repeal Proposition 209 in November. Passed in 1996, Prop 209 banned affirmative action in public contracting, employment, and education. This maneuver comes on the heels of the Black Lives Matter protests and riots roiling the nation, and is of a piece with the ongoing cultural revolution which is attempting to instantiate Critical Race Theory as the hegemonic ideology in elite institutions.

As we are constantly reminded, America is becoming an ever-more diverse nation. Whites will be a minority by mid-century. Some perceive this to be an unalloyed good. But it appears that few proponents of affirmative action are prepared to consider the dangers of quotas in a multiethnic society. A survey of other nations’ experiences with this policy reveals sobering consequences. At best: social strife, inefficiency, endemic public corruption, and nepotism. At worst: tribalized violence and warfare.

In Malaysia, after the British colonial administration departed, the fledgling nation faced simmering ethnic tensions among native Malays (bumiputeras/“sons of the soil”) and overseas Chinese and Indians. After race riots and the balkanization of political parties along ethnic lines, the Malaysian government promulgated a vast quota system to boost the Malay majority. This system ranged from the customary university sinecures and public contract set-asides to reserved storefront spots in public spaces. The term “Ali Baba” there describes an arrangement wherein “Ali,” the native Malay, acts as a frontman for the actual Chinese/Indian business owner “Baba.” Despite state discrimination, the overseas Chinese and Indians remain far wealthier and better educated than native Malays.

India’s reticular caste system poses unique problems. Legions of ethnic groups seek categorization as “backwards classes.” Each locality has its own hierarchy of quotas. Despite its intricacy, government discrimination still produces tension and violence. In Maharashtra, the paramilitary Shiv Sena jealously guards ethnic spoils systems. Successful Bengalis in the state of Assam have encountered violence from aggrieved natives. Scions of the upper-castes have self-immolated protesting quotas that limit their opportunities. Many reserved spots for Dalits (“untouchables”) and other backwards classes either go unfilled—especially in high-skill occupations like engineering—or go to the “creamy layer” (i.e., the most advantaged members of putatively marginalized groups).

In Brazil, applicants for university and government jobs are boosted by Afro-Brazillian or pardo (brown) status. Inspection boards use detailed guidelines—including fine gradations of skin-tone and measurements of lip size, hair texture, skull shape, and nose width—to ferret out Europeans from those of genuine Indigenous and African descent (given the high rate of intermixing, this is a fraught endeavor). Desperate strivers blacken their skin or otherwise modify their appearance to gain an edge.

The Policy of Standardization in Sri Lanka contributed to a bloody civil war between Tamil and Sinhalese. Similarly in Nigeria, state-backed ethnic privileges propelled civil war and the short-lived state of Biafra. Now, the national constitution requires the composition of government to “reflect the federal character of Nigeria” in order to stave off future friction and ensure proportional representation. But, as one scholar puts it:

The postwar desire to prevent another secession generated a near obsessive ethnic micromanaging of national life—and created a nation that exists almost simply to share money and jobs. “Federal character” became the most controversial two words in Nigeria’s Constitution. An ethnic quota regulates almost every facet of public life: Admission to the government and the Civil Service, schools and universities, the military and the police is decided by regional origin.


Rather than working as a glue for unity, the fixation on ethnic sharing of national opportunities and resources made Nigerians more aware of their ethnic differences. Resentment rose in parts of the country badly served by the quota system. The irony is plain: To prevent the recurrence of a war fought at least partly on ethnic lines… Nigeria’s rulers solidified ethnic identities.

It is unclear how closely the social and political fallout of affirmative action in a diverse America will mirror the experiences of these countries. But schisms among the Left’s gossamer “person of color” coalition already abound. The anti-Asian discrimination case against Harvard is now wending through the federal courts. Additionally, the presumed black-Hispanic alliance might not be as sturdy as expected. A $100 million dollar discrimination lawsuit against Houston Community College for favoring Hispanics over blacks reveals that nepotism and old-country animosities might wreak havoc on our social fabric.

Furthermore, as the share of eligible recipients increases claims that quotas do not materially harm whites (and perhaps “white-adjacents” like East Asians) will become increasingly implausible. When the Nixon Administration first implemented affirmative action programs for blacks and American Indians, whites comprised the vast majority of the US population. At that time, one could reasonably claim the program had minimal impact. This is not true anymore. As the white share of the population declines, the “racial ratio”—that is, the number of whites bearing the costs of quotas compared to the number of minorities benefiting—becomes increasingly skewed. If the ratio is allowed to become too unbalanced, it will do violence to the Court’s promise that “Under the Constitution there can be no such thing as either a creditor or a debtor race.”

Compounding the problem, the Supreme Court’s decision in University of California v. Bakke—later affirmed in Grutter v. Bollinger—ruled that university affirmative action programs are legal provided they advance the “educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body.” In his plurality opinion, Justice Powell recognized that reparative rationales (typically reserved for American Indians and descendants of slaves) are necessarily selective and have no end point. Never mind that there is little evidence that diversity actually yields educational benefits (and that courts do not require universities to prove that they do), Justice Powell failed to foresee demographic transformations already afoot.

Some argue—usually in bad faith—that affirmative action won’t pose these problems as only “plus factors” are legal, whereas rigid numerical quotas are not. In Bakke, Justice Powell, modeling Harvard’s “holistic” admissions process, urged that diversity “encompasses a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element.” Therefore, under any legal affirmative action regime, “the race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor just as geographic origin or a life spent on a farm [or a unique talent, a compelling story of hardship, etc.] may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases.”

Alas, the “plus-factor vs. quota” distinction has always been farcical. Universities’ student demographics remain remarkably stable year-to-year, suggestive of quotas applied with slight fluctuations. Moreover, universities are not required to offer statistical proof that any applicants possessing Justice Powell’s race-neutral holistic characteristic are provided with a “plus-factor” at any rate approaching that of “underrepresented minorities.” In fact, being a “farm boy from Idaho” might function as a demerit to many admissions departments.

Affirmative action’s early proponents promised that the regime would function as a temporary stopgap rather than a permanent dispensation. But today’s supporters don’t deign to offer any such assurances. In their view, affirmative action will remain justifiable until representation in every sector of society is near proportional to share of population. The Manichean view of Ibram X. Kendi, as articulated in his ideological guidebook How to be an Antiracist is instructive:

The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist… The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.

Many have pointed out that this political platform is “openly totalitarian.” Kendi’s proposal for a Department of Antiracism tasked with preclearing all state, local, and federal policies for any hint of racism—defined as any racial disparities—makes this abundantly clear. Kendi’s formulation is necessarily selective (it only considers the historical struggles of certain groups, naturally those whose present struggles are conspicuous) and presumes that past inequities are determinative of outcomes today. Due to accidents of history, culture, and more, never in history have different ethnic groups experienced equal outcomes. And while discrimination does have an impact, and should be rectified where possible, it is often not dispositive. Victims of discrimination frequently outpace perpetrators (e.g., Chinese and bumiputeras in Malaysia).

The antiracist Left’s vision would require authoritarian micromanaging of society, lowering of standards, and leveling of outcomes. Meritocracy and excellence would fall by the wayside. The individual ambitions of those who possess the wrong racial traits would be squashed and their opportunities limited. Affirmative Action Now, Affirmative Action Forever. Few ordinary people want to live in a society rife with ethnic tension and mediocrity. California voters, and the American public at large, should reject the antiracists’ racism by subterfuge.

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Joshua Hunter

Joshua Hunter is a student at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law.