Diversity, Identity, Politics, Social Policy, Top Stories

Affirmative Action in a Multiethnic Nation

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.


Max Hyams is a student at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter at @Maxjhyams1.


  1. Shirley Weber, an African American Democrat from San Diego, sponsored this. Specifically she has asked that a phrase from the California Constitution Declaration of Rights that: prohibites the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, and public contracting: To be removed. In other words, it would be legal to start being racist, bigoted and divide our state based on skin color alone, or by gender, or by national origin! That means government contracts can exclude white owned businesses. Universities can go back to skin color based quotas, and god knows what other forms of descrimination. In a state, California, where whites are a minority. How insane is this?

  2. I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you. Nothing in the recent history of the country would have led me to imagine such a thing possible. Nothing, I tell you. I mean, did not St. Martin tell us that the content of character is what matters, not the color of skin? (Oh, stop with your snide remarks about our haloed saint’s character, okay? Cut it out with that! It’s rude.)

    I have decided not to drop black pills so often. I am not going to say, it’s checkmate, America. I’m not. You can repeal the Civil Rights Act, revise the “disparate impact” opinion, dismantle the DIE syndicate’s hate industry, and restore the constitutional order. That’s all there is to it, America. No need for black pills. :slight_smile:

  3. If you think about it the progressive left are finding success where the KKK found failure in that they are successfully affixing a citizens value to race or perceived race. Nothing else matters. BLM’s litany of demands are in essence a call for a reverse Jim-crow type society. In the long run, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in the USA, will be the largest obstacle of achieving their desires. That should tell you something about where BLM stands. I predict that after a sweep in Nov., the Dems will flirt with a new Civil Rights Act that will ape much of California has done with their moves to sanction racial discrimination.

  4. Years ago, I had a heated discussion with a colleague who was a supporter of affirmative action programs.
    “It’s just like sailing,” he argued. “If you steer a course in the wrong direction, you have to steer on the other tac to balance things out.”

    I pointed out to him that there is no moral component to correcting your course in sailing, but that, in contrast, human beings cannot be made victims just to fulfill someone’s notion of equality. Depriving one person of his/her rights is unethical, regardless of what good you are wishing to achieve.

    “Ah,” he responded, “That’s where you’re wrong. Human rights are not individual rights. They are group rights conferred by society.”

    And this is the core philosophy of the extreme left- the idea that rights are conferred by the larger social body, not inherent in individual existence. Based on that logic, rights are merely another technology to be employed by social engineers to construct a more harmonious social order. Individual rights are an anachronism.

    This philosophy is based on a utilitarian ethical framework, the greatest good for the greatest number, and if a few individuals are sacrificed along the way to that greater good, then so be it. This explains why the left become immersed in identity politics, judging people on the basis of gender, or race, or sexuality, because only by treating people as members of a group rather than individuals, can social engineering programs operate efficiently. And in utilitarian philosophy, efficiency is the ultimate virtue.

    And so we will achieve the “greater good” of equality of outcome at the expense of the rights of the individual, all justified by the hidden assumption that people are in possession of “privilege” because of the relative standing of groups to which they belong, and are guilty of the historical wrongs committed by that group, a kind of original sin passed down from father to son, a position that betrays the religious underpinning of social justice philosophy.

  5. Years ago I got into a debate with a fellow grad student over quota hiring. He was a father who’d been in the workforce as a professional for years, so he was articulate and wasn’t about to break down and lose his cool. In earnest he explained the ins and outs and the absolute necessity of affirmative action to right the wrongs of the past. I listened patiently for the most part.

    When I asked about standards and pointed out that a selection system couldn’t serve two masters—the best candidate and the quota candidate—he had the “reasonable liberal” answer ready to go: He admitted there could be some problems but that the net good of rectifying racial injustice outweighed the possible negative outcomes.

    That’s when I asked whether he was okay with his kid’s surgeon being selected under this system and whether he was okay driving his family over a bridge built by such an engineer. In all his rehearsals of these arguments, no one had ever raised this obvious objection before and, for whatever reason, the full implications of his preferred system had never dawned on him until this moment—until the abstract became concrete. He stared at me with his mouth open as the ramifications seemed to finally playing out in his head.

    What happened is simple. Advocates for quota hiring are great at using low-cost, abstract examples like government bureaucrats, university professors, and front-line staff. But your doctor, your surgeon, your lawyer, and your engineer is something completely different. Much like the immigration debate—“I’m okay with filling your neighbourhood with unassimilated foreigners from a warzone.”

  6. @quillette: In Brazil, (…) 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 (…). Desperate strivers blacken their skin or otherwise modify their appearance to gain an edge.

    Just wow. Isn’t this exactly the world we’ve always dreamed of?

    The antiracist Left’s vision would require authoritarian micromanaging of society, lowering of standards, and leveling of outcomes.

    And to monitor and micromanage all this would create so many job opportunities for dedicated aspiring left-wing activists!

    Few ordinary people want to live in a society rife with ethnic tension and mediocrity.

    Well, obviously enough people do not consider this a problem. And that’s why the journey is going exactly there. And anyone who complains must be an evil, cis-heteronormative, toxic-masculine, physically non-disabled, mentally non-challenged, old white supremacist.

  7. The Left is congenitally incapable of recognising the single greatest feeder of disparate outcomes. Children raised in stable two parent homes, in communities full of fathers enjoy a huge comparative advantage. And where public primary and secondary education could act as a leveller, it only serves to further accumulate comparative advantage for the lucky.

    The huge disadvantage of learning to read through Whole Word, can be corrected by parents listening to their children read each night at bedtime. Wealthier parents can insulate their children from those of the poor, with their endemic social problems, by educating their children in private schools or finding exclusive communities where the public schools are still good.

    Meanwhile, unless Black parents are lucky enough to receive a place in one of those few miraculous schools which insists on parents taking an active role in their child’s education, strict low-level discipline and structured knowledge-rich learning, then Black parents are left with no choice but to dump their children in the local substandard public school, and watch helplessly as they often lose 2 years of education to disrupted classrooms by the end of K-12.

    It’s not about funding. Often failing schools receive substantially more funding than another non-charter public school on the next block, serving exactly the same demographic communities. It’s not that liberals don’t recognise that there will always be children who fall on the ASPD spectrum who need special schools, or that some parents neglect and substance use disorders prevent meaningful enforcement of a schools standards- it’s just that they are unwilling to grapple with the sheer scale of the problem in neighbourhoods where the despair of intergenerational welfare and sheer hopelessness have combined to create a sinkhole of bad outcomes.

    These neighbourhoods contain kids who desperately want to do well, and parents who are prepared to do the work- otherwise why would they be oversubscribing to high performing charter schools in such massive numbers, hopeful of a place through the lottery? The true inequity lies in the fact that wealthy parents are able to exercise agency by segregating their kids by class, whilst the poorer parents of smart Black kids have their agency stolen by Teachers Unions who only want to maintain the status quo. Comparative advantage, only amplified by social station and a political system that only cares about appearances.

    And it’s unlikely to change. It’s getting worse. Because Maths is racist:

    “California’s latest K–12 test scores were released earlier this month. Despite spending 26 percent more per pupil after inflation since 2011, test scores remain low, and improvement is proceeding at a glacial pace. Just 40 percent of California schoolchildren are proficient at math. What should be done? Seattle’s idea is to teach their students that US math education is racist, is used to oppress people of color and the disadvantaged, and has been used to exploit natural resources.”

    Although, if you really want to create a generation of super numerate kids, teach them to do Maths with an abacus…

  8. My good friend, Mr. Remington, says rights can be claimed too.

  9. And yet there are hard science faculty members who still pretend that social justice is a silly humanities phenomenon that won’t touch them. As I’ve been wont to say for years, the humanities was never the natural home of the madness, but the bridgehead for the invasion.

  10. Rights conferred by society can then be taken away by society. Are you sure you have thought about the real-world ramifications of your philosophy?

    False. A fetus has the right to live, and a woman who does not take responsibility for it violates that right.

  11. “Society” is an abstraction. Abstractions don’t do anything. Individual humans violate rights. Sometimes groups of individuals.

  12. I think you miss the point.

    Human rights must be individual, because the purpose of rights is to protect individual human beings from harm. Only individuals can experience harm. Groups cannot experience harm because a group is an abstraction, a way of referencing many people using a single categorical definition. I can remove a right from a group by targeting them all based on some criteria such as race or gender. But it is every individual who experiences that loss, not the group, which does not exist as a concrete reality. The logical fallacy upon which your argument ultimately rests is known as “reification”, treating an abstraction as if were physically real, a debate that goes back to Aristotle’s rejection of Platonic forms.

    Your point about all of us being born with feelings etc. is correct, but you don’t derive the obvious conclusion, which is that we form societies for the purpose of ensuring our rights as individuals. This is what creates the obligation to ensure that each of us, as an individual, is guaranteed rights by the entire society. Such rights are recognized as an essential part of the social contract.

    That’s why the notion that rights can be withdrawn by society is so inherently self contradictory. If my rights as an individual are removed by social fiat, then I am no longer under any obligation to fulfill my part of the social contract. I therefore have no obligation to respect anyone else’s rights. The result is either anarchy or totalitarianism. Think of O’Brien’s response to Winston Smith in 1984 when he exclaims “I exist!”, to which O’Brien says “You do not exist.” This is the end point of the notion of group rights, when the individual as a rights-bearing entity is erased in the name of some vague notion of the “greater good.”

    My friend was wrong, because, like you, he didn’t really understand the nature of the social contract. I am not a supplicant upon whom rights can be bestowed or withdrawn, but an individual with the right to be treated as an end, not as a means for someone else’s social engineering project.

    And that too is why racism and sexism are wrong- because they treat people primarily as members of a group whose rights depend on social attitudes, rather than as individuals, whose rights are a necessary component of a civilized society.

  13. An interesting word choice. Is this some kind of war between those who want to reproduce without responsibility and those who want to protect life? You certainly moved the goalposts a bit from “a fetus has the right to live” to “a person may be coerced into caring for someone else’s child.”

    Replace the word “fetus” in your assertions with “infant” and the semantics don’t change. The gods of hedonism, libertinism, and materialism demand their human sacrifice, so it might as well be the most helpless and unwanted among us, right?

  14. My family and I immigrated from Eastern Europe to Canada in the early 90s, we believed that the US/Canada were the best countries in the world. However this view has changed everything, all this affirmative-action/cancel-culture is reminiscent of the life under communism in Eastern Europe. Now I will live through what my parents went through.

    Western-society was based on the notion that society is on the same page on everything, however with this political division (for which the right is guilty as well), I feel that the great western society is sadly coming to an end unless there is profound resistance. I fear for the future, I am almost done University, and I was optimistic about finding a job and so on, but now I fear that if I commit one mishap, my life is ruined.

  15. Hold on. Are you certain about this? My right to speech does not impose an obligation on others. No one is required to listen. They may hear the words I’m speaking as they walk by, much like they hear the birds chirping, the motors idling, the wind blowing, etc.

    I think you may want to explore the natural rights. These are different from legal rights.

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