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[Abigail Thernstrom, guest-blogging, August 21, 2009 at 3:16am] Trackbacks
Looking Forward

[Starting again with some brief responses to my engaged and engaging audience. Many thanks to the reader who said, correctly, I did not mean to imply race played no part in voter preferences in the South -- or anywhere else. But, again, I would urge readers to take care in charging racism. Obama ran eleven points behind Kerry among gay voters; are we to conclude that racism is a significant presence in the gay community?

[As to the charge that "Thernstrom and her husband have long been declaring that there is no more racism towards blacks," find me a single sentence (in the thousands of pages on race that we have written) in which either of us make such a ludicrous statement.

[Last point: Preclearance is a provisions whose time has passed, I clearly believe. But of course I am not for repealing the VRA in its entirety. Most of the statute is permanent and should remain so. I wish only to see the Court revisit one of those permanent provisions -- section 2 -- and insist that it be read as originally intended. This is an argument I did not have the space to make in these posts.]

At its inception, the Voting Rights Act stood on very firm constitutional ground; it was pure antidiscrimination legislation designed to enforce basic Fifteenth Amendment rights. A clear principle justified its original enactment: Citizens should not be judged by the color of their skin when states determine eligibility to vote.

That clarity could not be sustained over time. As a result, more than four decades later, the law has become what Judge Bruce Selya has described as a "Serbonian bog." The legal land looks solid but is, in fact, a quagmire, into which "plaintiffs and defendants, pundits and policymakers, judges and justices" have sunk.

This past term, the Supreme Court had a chance to extricate itself in good measure by declaring preclearance -- intended to be very temporary -- a relic from a previous era.

It took a pass.

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder involved a tiny Texas utility district that was formed in 1987 mainly to provide water to unincorporated areas. Because the Voting Rights Act treats all Texas localities as racially suspect, the Justice Department had to "preclear" the district's decision to move a polling place out of a private garage and into a public school -- a move "calculated to increase public access to the ballot."

Preclearance, in the plaintiff's view, was an irrational and "burdensome imposition" on the district's "sovereign rights" to manage its own electoral affairs. It had no history of electoral discrimination.

Declaring section 5 unconstitutional was not the Court's only option. With an interpretive stretch, it could read a "bailout" provision to allow relief from preclearance, and did so. However, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, did explicitly say, "The Act's preclearance requirements and its coverage formula raise serious constitutional questions." And he spelled those questions out at considerable length.

Another case, another day, a different decision, he implied.

But surely, long before section 5 expires in 2031, the Court will be asked once again to review the constitutionality of preclearance, perhaps in a case that will raise the central question: the racial sorting of voters in a legislative quota system.

The picture that Congress accepted in 2006 of an America still spinning its wheels in the racist muck of its Jim Crow past is absurd, I argued in my previous post. Blacks are enfranchised. And thus the federalism concerns that Justice Black raised in 1966 (see my first post) are legitimate today.

African Americans and Hispanics have become politically powerful. In addition, an army of activists and lawyers monitor American elections closely. Most important, how many Americans would even want to return to the days of old? Today, the question is how best to arrive at the point at which politics are truly racially integrated.

By now, the Voting Rights Act arguably serves as a barrier to greater racial integration. Race-based districts have worked to keep most black legislators clustered together and on the sidelines of American political life -- precisely the opposite of what the statute intended, and precisely the opposite of what is needed now.

Majority-minority districts appear to reward political actors who consolidate the minority vote by making the sort of overt racial appeals that are the staple of invidious identity politics. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein describes a larger phenomenon that is pertinent: People across the political spectrum end up with more extreme views than they would otherwise hold when they talk only to those who are similarly minded.

Districts drawn for the sole purpose of maximizing the voting power of a racial group surely encourage voters to talk only to the similarly minded. Arguably, elected representatives are left insufficiently tutored in the skills necessary to win competitive contests in majority-white settings. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Very few black candidates risk running in majority-white constituencies; majority-minority districts thus become the settings in which blacks are most frequently elected.

In safe minority constituencies, aspiring politicians are under no pressure to run as centrists, and are most often pulled to the left. Their politics, along with a reluctance to risk elections in majority-white settings, perhaps explain why so few members of the Congressional Black Caucus have run for statewide office

As of 2006, the entire CBC was more liberal than the average white Democrat, limiting the appeal of its members to white voters, particularly in the South.

Politicians outside the mainstream can play an important role in shaping legislative debate. But when a group that has been historically marginalized as a consequence of deliberate exclusion subsequently chooses the political periphery, it risks perpetuating its outsider status. Reinforcing the sense of difference compromises the goal of the Voting Rights Act.

Not all black politicians have been trapped in safe minority districts; the point should not be overstated. President Obama's political career actually began with his successful bid for the Illinois state senate, running from a majority-black district. But Obama was a uniquely gifted political entrepreneur with the skills to reach across racial lines. Thus, he created, saw, and seized opportunity where others have not.

Other black politicians have succeeded in majority-white settings. Journalist Gwen Ifill has described a number of such candidates in her recent book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. Mike Coleman was elected in 1999 as the first black mayor of Columbus, Ohio. She describes his strategy: "Woo the white voters first . . . then come home to the base later."

Nevertheless, such candidates remain the exception. The Voting Rights Act was meant to level the political playing field, so that blacks would become a political faction with the ability to enter and exit coalitions as other citizens do -- that is, if they chose to define themselves as members of a likeminded political interest group. Its ultimate goal was full political assimilation.

Instead, the law -- with its continuing stress on the urgent need for maximizing the number of safe black constituencies -- implies that most black politicians need majority-black settings in order to win.

In other respects, as well, the law today serves as a brake on black political progress, as I discuss in more detail in my book.

Thanks for listening. Thanks for responding. And much gratitude to Eugene; I was honored to be his guest for the week.

Angus:
You've just spent five long posts (not to mention a few decades) arguing why racism is no longer important as a barrier to black political participation. Saying "find me that exact sentence" is ridiculous when a whole book, for example, is making that point instead of one sentence. Can you show me in these five posts any admission that racism is still a barrier to full black participation in politics? Do you believe it is, or not?

Most important, how many Americans would even want to return to the days of old?


Probably more than you think.
8.21.2009 4:36am
Federal Dog:
Angus, it's O.K. to admit that you overstated things. Neither Dr. Thernstrom nor her husband has ever suggested that racism no longer exists.
8.21.2009 7:34am
subpatre (mail):
Angus - your original charges were
'I read this as saying "race played no role at all."'
[Thernstrom has] "long been declaring that there is no more racism towards blacks", and then finally "In southern states ... Obama did much, much, much worse than Kerry."

According to the NY Times the last is a factual lie: according to them Obama outperformed Kerry in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

Obama's West Virginia returns were the same as Kerry's, but he gained in Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas. Obama slipped relative to Kerry in Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. The theory of 'racism!' doesn't fit.


Nobody here claimed —or is claiming— that "no more" racism exists; the statements are uniformly that racism sufficent to require preclearance is long gone. Racism does still exist (it will always exist) but there is no pattern of racial difference between southern states and other states.

There is no discernable pattern of voter fraud, intimidation, obstruction, or denial of franchise in states that are required to preclear versus states not required to do that. Southern states are no different in voting and race from western or northern states.
8.21.2009 8:11am
FelixW:
Obama did worse among whites in the south (including Oklahoma), except for the mid-Atlantic. This is most clearly shown in the counties running from Appalachia to Oklahoma, where whites are concentrated. Interstingly, those states, from WV to OK, are also not covered by the VRA, preclearance provisions.

Since DOJ has, overtime, objected less and less, under the VRA, and since, whole districts can and have been "bailedout" from having to comply with the VRA, why not let it go that way?
8.21.2009 9:13am
Ryan Waxx (mail):
Since DOJ has, overtime, objected less and less, under the VRA, and since, whole districts can and have been "bailedout" from having to comply with the VRA, why not let it go that way?


Ask that gay couple from Texas about the dangers of leaving bad law on the books and hoping no one is fool enough to enforce it.

Eventually, you get a fool.
8.21.2009 9:50am
subpatre (mail):
FelixW writes: "Obama did worse among whites in the south (including Oklahoma), except for the mid-Atlantic."

So the theory goes, but simple math shows that extrapolated theories based on exit polls are simply and completely wrong. There aren't enough non-whites in several of those states to make up the gains Obama obtained.

Though Alabama (+4) and Mississippi (+6) aren't spectacular gains over Kerry's run, they are more than Massachusetts; South Carolina's +8 was a bigger increase than Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or New York. Obama gained +11 in Texas and +12 in Georgia, huge shifts.

First the statement was "in the south", but then adds "including Oklahoma", and finally qualifies "except the mid-Atlantic" Any theory using Obama as a proxy for 'race' is flawed when it must be massaged and conditioned to exclude the rest of the country.
8.21.2009 10:05am
Steve:
The conservative movement is conspicuously silent on providing a justification as to why the courts, rather than the elected branches, are the appropriate body to monitor evolving conditions and declare "okay, today is the day when changes in society have rendered Section 5 of the VRA no longer necessary."

If it were Justice Kennedy declaring that society has "evolved" on some social issue he favors the same people would be screaming bloody murder. Judicial activism for me, but not for thee.
8.21.2009 10:52am
MarkField (mail):
Color me unimpressed with this series of posts. Long on rhetoric, nearly devoid of any factual support. The commenters in these threads have provided more useful information than the poster.

Nobody disputes that the country has made major advances since the 1950s. That progress is the glory of our times. The ONLY issue is whether those jurisdictions which once practiced de jure discrimination have reached the point where they can be trusted to proceed on their own. That's partly a factual question and partly a judgment call (which, as Steve notes, seems best left to the legislature). Sadly, the posts have shown neither.
8.21.2009 10:55am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Most important, how many Americans would even want to return to the days of old?

Probably more than you think.
Hard to argue with that rigorous analysis!
8.21.2009 11:11am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Color me unimpressed with this series of posts. Long on rhetoric, nearly devoid of any factual support.
Seems rather difficult to prove that white people aren't racist when the counterargument is that no matter how little racism we can see, it's either omnipresent but "subtle," or omnipresent but suppressed by civil rights laws.
8.21.2009 11:14am
FelixW:
In Alabama, 80% of whites voted for Bush in 2004; 88% of them voted for McCain. In Mississippi, the Republican's share of the white vote went from 85% to 88%. In Louisiana, Bush got 75% of the white vote, but McCain upped that number to 84%. McCain won 68% of the white vote in Arkansas, when Bush had gotten 63%.

Compare that to where Obama received highest share of the white vote:
1. Hawaii 70%

2. Vermont 68%

3. Oregon 59%

4. Maine 58%

-. Rhode Island 58%

6. Washington 57%

-. Massachusetts 57%

8. Wisconsin 54%

-. New Hampshire 54%

10. Minnesota 53%

-. Delaware 53%
8.21.2009 12:00pm
Constantin:
I thought all this stuff was supposed to go away once Barack got elected? "Race doesn't matter" was the chant, I recall.

Fail. And it is his fault.
8.21.2009 12:01pm
MarkField (mail):

Seems rather difficult to prove that white people aren't racist when the counterargument is that no matter how little racism we can see, it's either omnipresent but "subtle," or omnipresent but suppressed by civil rights laws.


I didn't ask that she prove it, only that she introduce some evidence and not rely on rhetoric. We can get into the arguments once she comes forward with some evidence.
8.21.2009 12:21pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Felix:

How much do you think McCain and Kerry, as Veterans got votes the other couldn't get for not being a veteran?

What are your criteria for determining that racism is no longer a factor, when race and politics often intersect?

Would either Mark or Felix object to the idea of putting preclearance on hold for 25 years and see how thing work?
8.21.2009 12:34pm
Floridan:
What I find somewhat suspect about this argument is that the creation of minority-dominated districts has a less malignant impact on our political system than does the creation of disticts based on political orientation.

That state legislatures do not even bother to disguise their political gerrymandering efforts, makes me wonder why one would assume that the political rights of minorities should be left to the tender mercies of state politicians in, say, Florida, Texas or Mississippi.

Moreover, on the scale of relative burdens placed on loal governments, preclearnce is probably a lot less odious than such tasks as a site plan review, a land use change or getting FAA clearance to build next to an airport.

Finally, I think Thernstroms have a myopic view of race relations in the southern United States, especially given the backtracking and resistance to full political rights for blacks and other minorities that have taken place in the past. For many readers, this may seem like the distant past, but there are plenty of people (myself included) who graduated from a segregated school system or remember restaurants that only served blacks from a window in the back, or municipal efforts to thwart black politicians by creating multi-member at-large districts.
8.21.2009 12:42pm
Crunchy Frog:
Evidence of what? Didn't we just have a series of posts describing the impossibilities of proving a counterfactual?

When is it okay to stop punishing people for the sins of their grandparents?
8.21.2009 12:48pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):

When is it okay to stop punishing people for the sins of their grandparents?


When there is no longer political profit to be had from doing so.
8.21.2009 12:57pm
PeteP:
"When is it okay to stop punishing people for the sins of their grandparents?"

My grandparents were strictly working class immigrants. I fail to see what 'sins' of 'slavery' they committed. Not that I would feel responsible now for anything they did 100 + years ago anyway.

The VRA, while well intentioned, fails in it's very fundamental premises, that A )Black people will vote for black people, B )White people will vote for white people, C ) That it is somehow OK for blacks to do this, but not for whites, and D ) That somehow the government should manipulate elections based on A, B, and C to acheive some objective the government considers 'good'.

I still don't understand how, in this day and age, an official government-funded organization is allowed to say, right out loud in public, 'We limit membership based solely on skin color'. Yes, that is what the CBC does. They are government funded ( all Congressional caucuses get millions of dollars of federal funding as caucuses ), they have no requirement that their members 'represent black majority districts', and they refuse membership to any white CongressCritters, on the explicit basis of skin color, regardless of the composition of the district represented.
8.21.2009 1:01pm
Steve:
I know, right? Also, we had a Black Law Students' Union, but not a White Law Students' Union. I noticed that really got the Federalist Society's goat.
8.21.2009 1:12pm
David Drake:
Floridan:


What I find somewhat suspect about this argument is that the creation of minority-dominated districts has a less malignant impact on our political system than does the creation of disticts based on political orientation.


I'm not sure there is any major difference between the two. Isn't the creation of minority-dominated districts a means of creation of Democratic-dominated districts, with "black" being a proxy for "Democrat?" I think that was the point of Ms. Thernstrom's post about the Bush I DOJ collaborating with ACLU and blacks in the Georgia legislature--with the GOP seeing the flip side (fewer Democrats in other districts) as a positive for that party?

I do agree with you that politically gerrymandered legislative districts are bad. The practice has led to the current House being polarized between the right and the left wings of the respective parties.
8.21.2009 1:24pm
MarkField (mail):

Would either Mark or Felix object to the idea of putting preclearance on hold for 25 years and see how thing work?


Yes, but only because Congress just renewed it.* Instead, I'd like to see (as I said on the other thread) individual districts exempted so that we can conduct experiments.

*If someone developed a legitimate regression analysis which showed that whites in these areas no longer discriminated against black candidates, I'd probably even support putting it on hold for some reasonable period of time. I'm not opposed to lifting pre-clearance, I'm opposed to content-free arguments.


Evidence of what? Didn't we just have a series of posts describing the impossibilities of proving a counterfactual?


This case does not involve proving a negative. If whites are voting for blacks, that's a positive result which would show up on the studies Ms. Thernstrom fails to provide us.


When is it okay to stop punishing people for the sins of their grandparents?


When you give back all the benefits you got from their wrongful conduct and give them to those who should have received them.

Less snarkily, I'd add this. First, maintaining pre-clearance depends on current practices (or concerns about them, anyway). That's a legislative judgment Congress made when it renewed the requirements. Second, when people commit grievous wrongs for 350 years, it takes a lot of chutzpah to demand that everyone just get over it after 1/10 that time has passed.
8.21.2009 1:45pm
PeteP:
MarkField - "When is it okay to stop punishing people for the sins of their grandparents? "

First, you must define what 'sins' my grandparents were guilty of. Kindly do not insult my intelligence by saying 'Well, they were white, in a country and at a time when 100 years prior to their birth slavery was allowed'.

"When you give back all the benefits you got from their wrongful conduct and give them to those who should have received them. "

Define my grandparents 'wrongful conduct' that you condemn them for. Tell me what they did wrong. Hint - they were poor working-class folks, never owned slaves, etc. Hint # 2 - being white is not a crime, and you can not convict them of it.

"Second, when people commit grievous wrongs for 350 years, it takes a lot of chutzpah to demand that everyone just get over it after 1/10 that time has passed."

As above.
8.21.2009 2:04pm
FelixW:

"How much do you think McCain and Kerry, as Veterans got votes the other couldn't get for not being a veteran?"



I don't know what this has to do with it. Veterans are of many races. Moreover, veterans, as a percentage of populations is even across all the states. (Finally, wasn't Bush a former service member, if not a VFW?)


"Could either Mark or Felix object to the idea of putting preclearance on hold for 25 years and see how thing work?"



Things are working out (everyone seems to agree on that.) So, since VRA has helped, I see no reason to end it, especially, given that DOJ preclearence objections are flexible and declining; and the law allows for counties, districts, states to be released forever from VRA, and several districts have been released.

Your proposal to take it all down and then reimpose the VRA, if things don't workout is, putting it politely, not a good idea.
8.21.2009 2:04pm
FelixW:

'Well, they [your grandparents] were white, in a country and at a time when 100 years prior to their birth slavery was allowed'.



OMG. I am older than I thought, having been born in 1965, I could be your grandparent!
8.21.2009 2:17pm
EMG:
If the South doesn't want the Feds all over their business, maybe they should have thought of that before enslaving an entire race of people for 250 years. Any "undue burden" they now have to assume qualifies for the world's tiniest violin.

I just don't buy Thernstrom's concern-trolling over the idea that allowing them to consolidate their voting power is actually really, really bad for blacks (which they themselves are incapable of realizing, the poor things!) because..... ummm.... let's see... something about the GOP? (Pretending to think that the GOP getting something out of it is actually a problem indicates a near-Straussian level of chutzpah. Sorry, not buying.) Lots of handwaving....

Between this one and Heather MacDonald the Manhattan Institute seems to have a real cottage industry going in this kind of thing. Simply believing the propositions is one thing; but what motivates someone to spend a whole career arguing that minority interests have gone too far, independent of how far they have objectively gone at any point in history?

What was that Atwater quote, again?
8.21.2009 2:21pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Felix:


I don't know what this has to do with it. Veterans are of many races. Moreover, veterans, as a percentage of populations is even across all the states. (Finally, wasn't Bush a former service member, if not a VFW?)


Veterans voting for veterans, maybe? I am just saying you can't just look at one factor like race and attribute all changes to that.

This might have hurt both Bush and Obama in a measurable way because Kerry and McCain were veterans.


Things are working out (everyone seems to agree on that.) So, since VRA has helped, I see no reason to end it, especially, given that DOJ preclearence objections are flexible and declining; and the law allows for counties, districts, states to be released forever from VRA, and several districts have been released.


So do we permanently punish the South for its legacy? Just asking....
8.21.2009 2:23pm
John Doe (mail):
That's partly a factual question and partly a judgment call (which, as Steve notes, seems best left to the legislature). Sadly, the posts have shown neither.

It must be frustrating for a distinguished scholar to have written a book full of detailed factual explanations, but then to try to explain the book on a blog. This unfortunately means being confronted with a bunch of whiny blog commenters who are too dense to realize that a blog post is a very highly condensed overview that necessarily lacks the factual support found in the book, and who in addition prefer sitting at a keyboard and jabbering away rather than ever trying to read something longer than 200 words for themselves.
8.21.2009 2:36pm
karrde (mail) (www):
I, myself, am thankful for this history. Since I grew up after the VRA went into effect, I never thought about it from a Constitutional perspective.

(I do wonder if majority-black cities like Detroit would, under the VRA, justify a minority-white redistricting scheme...according to the Census Bureau, the City of Detroit is 80% or more black. The metropolitan region contains many suburbs which are less than 10% black, and several which are 15% to 20% black.)

I will note that at least once, when asked for details, the response was Read the Book, or something along those lines. While statistics can be argued, it is hard to devolve all voting variances to race.

Unless the arguer believes that race is not only more important than military service, executive experience, policy history, stated goals, political allies, speechmaking ability, etc., but that race is more important by at least one order of magnitude.

For the time being, I'll let Thernstrom's arguments and comments sit in the category labelled posibly right, with a sub-tag of hard to prove wrong.
8.21.2009 2:37pm
New Pseudonym (mail):

How much do you think McCain and Kerry, as Veterans got votes the other couldn't get for not being a veteran?


This has been asked before, or just stated that Kerry and McCain attracted votes because they were veterans. I have seen no data indicating this is so, merely an assertion.

I would counter this by saying that I feel quite comfortable saying Kerry lost votes among veterans due to his military service, while McCain gained votes among veterans due to his military service.
8.21.2009 2:39pm
EMG:

So do we permanently punish the South for its legacy?


No, not permanently. But given the gravity and longevity of the crimes that took place, the Union is well within its rights to leave a big margin for error before we'll feel comfortable about the risk of backsliding. Wars have consequences.

Besides, having bureaucrats and lawyers check over election plans ain't exactly waterboarding. Manipulating people into guiltily rushing to say, "oh no no, we wouldn't dream of punishing your 'legacy' of denying human rights to millions and systematically expropriating their labor for hundreds of years!" is just an emotional distraction from the fact that the remedy being applied is actually quite light. Or would you prefer to pay their ancestors' back wages instead?
8.21.2009 2:40pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
EMG:

American slavery was quite a horrible thing. Nobody denies that. However the VRA wasn't designed to address that so much as the Jim Crow era. The concern specifically was that there were attempts to use a large number of means to prevent blacks from having a meaningful role in American politics. Bringing up the era of slavery isn't really relevant to the discussion because we can argue forever whether or not slavery was the cause of Jim Crow laws.

However, the more I find out about laws of that era, the more I am convinced that we have come so far beyond this that the states shouldn't be punished for those acts in that era in the current time.

The fact is I watched segregation and HORRIBLE racism in Michigan in 1980. We are talking about racially motivated murders not too different from lynchings except that the perpetrators were tried and convicted, and death threats against blacks for interfering in the affairs of whites.

I have since learned that many cities in Washington State had racially specific curfews (no blacks allowed within the Kennewick city limits after 7pm for example) as late as the 1970's. The idea that the North was somehow not a part of the Jim Crow era is quite frankly wrong. Problems might have been different, but the idea that the North was excluded from that stain on our history is wrong.

However, we don't generally argue that states like Washington and Michigan can't be trusted with their voting affairs, nor do we require federal oversight on every zoning change because it might have an effect of undermining integration. I don't see why we need to presume problems.
8.21.2009 2:44pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
EMG:
What do you think of the recent case limiting section 5?
8.21.2009 2:47pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Mark Field. Why should there be any requirement that white voters not discriminate agains black candidates in their choices? That they not discriminate against them in law, or in allowing them to run, I can see. But people can be as bigoted or stupid as they please with their vote.

Putting this together with the idea that "people" discriminated against blacks for 350 years - very few of us are that old, actually - I must conclude that your view is "until you are good, as I define it, we will punish you." You are assigning a value to past discrimination that is emotive rather than logical. That's either childish or fascistic - your choice.

General: 9 of the 10 most ridiculously gerrymandered districts in the country are represented by Democrats. Is not this in itself evidence of discrimination according to other measures? Does that count for nothing? As for Thernstrom not providing evidence, I think the number of non-whites elected to office alone is a great deal of evidence. What other sort of evidence, other than the pudding, are we asking for? Has someone got a race-o-meter that the country has to score low on?
8.21.2009 2:50pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
The legal issues in the VRA and arguably related issues of, say, affirmative action are difficult and reasonable, good-faith minds can certainly differ.

Having said that, I am always puzzled by the argument, "hey, my grandparents weren't racists and neither am I, nobody in my family owned slaves, so I'm not morally culpable, so any sort of race-conscious remedy is immoral."

My grandparents on one side were working class immigrants; on the other side, my grandparents were working class immigrants. Nobody in our family ever owned slaves; we didn't get here until the 20th century. As far as I know, nobody in my family ever directly discriminated against black people.

But that doesn't mean that my family, historically, did not benefit from being white: among other things, educational opportunities, jobs, and mortgages/neighborhoods to live in were open to my grandparents and even parents that were not open to blacks. That allowed my family to accumulate middle-class wealth over generations, as well as income, in ways that black families often could not.

Again, nobody in my family created this system, nor did anyone in my family go out of their way to benefit from it by trying to keep black folks down. But my family certainly did benefit from it. So, I don't walk around feeling personally guilty, or collectively guilty for the sake of my family about it. But I'm not going to pretend that I wasn't a better position than most of the grandchildren of folks who were black sharecroppers in the early 20th century.

None of this solves the "what do we do now about the law?" question, or even the "how much racism still exists today?" But let's not pretend that just because you or I, or our relatives, didn't create or actively support a discriminatory system that we haven't benefitted from it.
8.21.2009 2:50pm
EMG:
Denial of economic opportunity was a huge part of Jim Crow, and not by accident either. (I'm surprised that that aspect of it doesn't merit more consideration in a supposedly libertarian venue.) That's on a continuum with slavery (which was only discontinued by brute force, after all); whites getting something from blacks for nothing, one way or another. That anyone could "argue" the relationship, historical and ideological, between the two is a risible suggestion.
8.21.2009 2:55pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
*If someone developed a legitimate regression analysis which showed that whites in these areas no longer discriminated against black candidates, I'd probably even support putting it on hold for some reasonable period of time. I'm not opposed to lifting pre-clearance, I'm opposed to content-free arguments.
You're basically setting an impossible standard. Because of racial gerrymandering, the opportunities to gather the data you demand just aren't there.

And, in any case, this is the same misinterpretation I previously noted. The VRA was put in place to protect black citizens' ability to vote, not to protect black candidates' ability to get white votes. Not only is the latter intellectually incoherent, but it's unmoored from any constitutional power of Congress.
8.21.2009 2:59pm
EMG:
Putting this together with the idea that "people" discriminated against blacks for 350 years - very few of us are that old, actually

You benefit from your ancestors' having lived in a system where they got to keep what they worked for, while blacks didn't.

Besides, unless your ancestors were actually still in Europe (as mine were, incidentally) you have no real way of knowing what they were doing, more than 3 or 4 generations back.
8.21.2009 3:00pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
But that doesn't mean that my family, historically, did not benefit from being white: among other things, educational opportunities, jobs, and mortgages/neighborhoods to live in were open to my grandparents and even parents that were not open to blacks. That allowed my family to accumulate middle-class wealth over generations, as well as income, in ways that black families often could not.
Not-being-discriminated-against is not generally considered a "benefit," but just the norm. Your family didn't get something for being white; it just didn't have something taken away from it.
8.21.2009 3:02pm
EMG:

Because of racial gerrymandering, the opportunities to gather the data you demand just aren't there.


Why not? The whites didn't get sucked into a void - they're just in a different district. Let them vote for black candidates there, if they're so willing. You just disproved your own point.
8.21.2009 3:05pm
EMG:

Your family didn't get something for being white; it just didn't have something taken away from it.


White people in general got more than they otherwise would have been able to afford without the arbitrary and unjust discount on black labor.
8.21.2009 3:07pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I just don't buy Thernstrom's concern-trolling over the idea that allowing them to consolidate their voting power is actually really, really bad for blacks (which they themselves are incapable of realizing, the poor things!) because..... ummm.... let's see... something about the GOP?
They're incapable of realizing it for the same reason Ilya always explains: political ignorance. But the bottom line is that it doesn't matter whether they "realize" it, because the VRA prevents them from doing anything about it. The people who would have to do something about it -- that is, members of Congress -- are the same people who benefited from the arrangement in the first place. It's like expecting campaign finance reform to hurt incumbents: utterly naive.



Oh: and here's some helpful advice: using phrases like "concern trolling" makes you look like you're a college freshman who has never heard anybody express different views before and can't comprehend intellectual disagreement.
8.21.2009 3:09pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Why not? The whites didn't get sucked into a void - they're just in a different district. Let them vote for black candidates there, if they're so willing. You just disproved your own point.
The black candidates don't run in those districts, because they don't live in those districts.
8.21.2009 3:11pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
EMG:

I don't think Jim Crow is SIMPLY a continuation of slavery in the sense you mean it though. In some places in the South it had an element to this effect, including forcing blacks to be sharecroppers. However, the fact that a lot of these structures persisted viciously in the North suggests one can't reduce it to a continuation of slavery. I suppose you could argue that the difficulties in moving from blue collar to white collar work in the manufacturing plants in the North was a continuation of slavery too, but that doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

BTW, I oppose continuing affirmative action in education on the above basis as well. When affirmative action was first enacted we were primarily an agrarian and manufacturing economy. Affirmative action provisions were necessary at the time to help break down the barrier between careers on the assembly line or in the field, and careers in the office. Few Americans needed a college education, but that brought with it substantial opportunities that were generally denied to blacks.

However, today, large segments of our economy have moved to research and development, and the assembly line has become more and more relegated to robots or foreign factories. Thus rationing education on the basis of race is fundamentally counterproductive-- we should be focusing on ensuring universal opportunity whether or not folks decide to take advantage of it, but rising tuition rates are putting a lot of this at risk. Hence the question shouldn't be whether some folks are denied an opportunity to an education due to race but whether they are denied an opportunity to an education due to any factor besides their own industriousness and abilities (and only considering abilities if there are appropriate programs to bridge the gap). In short everyone should have a meaningful opportunity to an education, and at this point, I think the rest will take care of itself.
8.21.2009 3:12pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
EMG


You benefit from your ancestors' having lived in a system where they got to keep what they worked for, while blacks didn't.


I would like to carry this a little further, if you don't mind.

Barak Obama wasn't hurt in the same way by these patterns either, nor were his ancestors or his family. In fact, one could argue that because he was raised by a white family, he too was on the receiving end of these benefits.

Does that make his election meaningless in terms of race and racism in this country?
8.21.2009 3:16pm
EMG:
David Nieporent,

I called it concern-trolling only because (I believe) that's what it is; I don't believe her concern for blacks is genuine. If conservative champions have to rely on a fallacy so common among "college freshmen" that it's earned its own generationally distinctive label, don't blame the messenger.
8.21.2009 3:20pm
EMG:

Does that make his election meaningless in terms of race and racism in this country?


No, precisely because this isn't just about individuals.

You guys make this almost too easy.
8.21.2009 3:22pm
FelixW:

This might have hurt both Bush and Obama in a measurable way because Kerry and McCain were veterans.


Can you give me the measurements?


So do we permanently punish the South for its legacy?


Huh? The VRA provides for them to be released.

"The fact is I watched segregation and HORRIBLE racism in Michigan in 1980."

But do you realize that there are townships in Michigan covered under the VRA preclearance provisions.
8.21.2009 3:38pm
Careless:

I don't know what this has to do with it. Veterans are of many races. Moreover, veterans, as a percentage of populations is even across all the states.

Nowhere close to true. Some states have more than three times as many than others (per capita) (a nice, if slow, map site)

The conservative movement is conspicuously silent on providing a justification as to why the courts, rather than the elected branches, are the appropriate body to monitor evolving conditions and declare "okay, today is the day when changes in society have rendered Section 5 of the VRA no longer necessary."

A good point
8.21.2009 3:39pm
Careless:
Oh, and if someone wanted to compare this map (congressional districts by percentage of veterans) to election results, that might be interesting
8.21.2009 3:43pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
EMG:

The fact that some townships in the North are under section 5 is also a good indication that this isn't just legacy of slavery stuff either.

And you didn't give me an answer about the recent section 5 Supreme Court decision and your opinion of it.

My opinion is that the court was right to discuss exemption provisions in that case and settle the matter as a statutory matter rather than a Constitutional matter as Thomas would have preferred. However, it also seems to me that it is also a fairly clear attempt to frame the legal conversation over whether section 5 should be struck down in its entirity.
8.21.2009 3:47pm
MarkField (mail):

First, you must define what 'sins' my grandparents were guilty of.


What sins were blacks guilty of that made them slaves? And see Joseph Slater's post.


So do we permanently punish the South for its legacy? Just asking....


How about as long as they abused blacks? Otherwise, cry me a river.


It must be frustrating for a distinguished scholar to have written a book full of detailed factual explanations, but then to try to explain the book on a blog. This unfortunately means being confronted with a bunch of whiny blog commenters who are too dense to realize that a blog post is a very highly condensed overview that necessarily lacks the factual support found in the book, and who in addition prefer sitting at a keyboard and jabbering away rather than ever trying to read something longer than 200 words for themselves.


This is absurd. If she wants us to read her book, then the post can be very simple: read my book. If she wants to make an argument here, nobody expects a treatise. Here's what she would say:

"My book contains a number of studies. One involved [description of study]. The study concluded X." Even commenters upon commenters (like nash's "littler fleas that bite 'em", I suppose) might be able to read that.


Why should there be any requirement that white voters not discriminate agains black candidates in their choices? That they not discriminate against them in law, or in allowing them to run, I can see. But people can be as bigoted or stupid as they please with their vote.


The Supreme Court has already decided this issue. After the VRA was enacted, whites in the South tried to shift from district elections to at-large. In the larger districts, majority whites could prevent blacks from ever being elected. The Court struck this down. It's just a way of prohibiting black people from participating in the political process.


Putting this together with the idea that "people" discriminated against blacks for 350 years - very few of us are that old, actually - I must conclude that your view is "until you are good, as I define it, we will punish you."


First of all, as I've said repeatedly, I think great progress has been made in civil rights. I'm not wedded to pre-clearance; it may very well be that we can eliminate it. But Congress made a different decision. Unless you think the courts should be in the business of overruling that on policy grounds, you have the burden of coming up with facts which would justify doing so. That's why the posts are so disappointing -- they fail to meet the issue.


You're basically setting an impossible standard. Because of racial gerrymandering, the opportunities to gather the data you demand just aren't there.


This makes no sense. If nothing else, primary elections are the best way to gather this evidence. In any case, if your point were true, perhaps you could suggest to Ms. Thernstrom that she make it.
8.21.2009 4:08pm
Constantin:

EMG:

I just don't buy Thernstrom's concern-trolling over the idea that allowing them to consolidate their voting power is actually really, really bad for blacks (which they themselves are incapable of realizing, the poor things!)


Wait. So you're going to play the paternalism card, while at the same time arguing in about ten posts for a law that presumes blacks are too impotent to fend for themselves, in a country with a black president and black attorney general?

That takes some guts.
8.21.2009 4:19pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
MarkField:


How about as long as they abused blacks? Otherwise, cry me a river.



Define the following terms in your statement:
"they"
"abused" that is past tense, right? So you are saying one should extend it for another 100 years and then terminate it?

40 years ago, section 5 of the VRA was upheld because extraordinary problems existed at that time which allowed for remedies that would have been unquestionably Unconstitutional in other cases. Are the problems so extraordinary today as to render section 5 Constitutional? Fortunately for you, perhaps, the court was properly able to avoid that question this year.
8.21.2009 4:21pm
MarkField (mail):

Are the problems so extraordinary today as to render section 5 Constitutional?


I'm quite willing to believe they are not (despite the Congressional finding that they were). What I am NOT willing to do is reach that conclusion in the absence of evidence.
8.21.2009 4:29pm
FelixW:
You are right, Carless. I took an article which said that they are consistant across states, without realizing that they meant 6-16%. There are more up to date figures at the VA website but no handy percentages. In the south, in states, at least partially covered by the VRA, according to your map, they are higher in Fla (which went for Obama), SC (which went for McCain), and Va. (which went for Obama.)
8.21.2009 4:31pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
MarkFlield:

First of all, as I've said repeatedly, I think great progress has been made in civil rights. I'm not wedded to pre-clearance; it may very well be that we can eliminate it. But Congress made a different decision. Unless you think the courts should be in the business of overruling that on policy grounds, you have the burden of coming up with facts which would justify doing so. That's why the posts are so disappointing -- they fail to meet the issue.


I think there are some important elements to consider here. First is that the court has CONSISTENTLY held that section 5 of the VRA tests the boundaries of the 15th Amendment, and further that, were it not for extraordinary problems with black disenfranchisement, that the act would be clearly Unconstitutional.

I agree that the court shouldn't overrule on mere policy grounds, which is why I think the court did not err in its ruling this year and avoid the Constitutional issue for now. However, I think that:

1) In another case, the court SHOULD be asked, on the basis of a developed evidentiary record, to decide the Constitutional issue, namely whether the conditions are still so extraordinary that the act remains Constitutional. This decision should be based both on the Congressional and court records entered in the case and in line with past precedent. Such a developed record wasn't presented in this case, and so the court did the correct thing in pushing it off to another one. Such a challenge will probably need to be brought by a covered state.

2) Congress should strongly reconsider the matter when it is up for renewal.
8.21.2009 4:32pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
MarkField:


I'm quite willing to believe they are not (despite the Congressional finding that they were). What I am NOT willing to do is reach that conclusion in the absence of evidence.


Then we agree that in the near future it would be productive for a state to sue for declaratory judgement on this an develop an appropriate evidentiary record to assist the court in looking at this issue.
8.21.2009 4:34pm
MarkField (mail):
I have no problem with 1 or 2. My only concern would be the opportunity to develop a full factual record, something which might best be done (but probably wouldn't be) by Congress. As long as both sides have that opportunity, go for it.
8.21.2009 4:46pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I called it concern-trolling only because (I believe) that's what it is; I don't believe her concern for blacks is genuine.
Because conservatives are evil, I know. See what I mean about being a college freshman?
8.21.2009 4:50pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
First of all, as I've said repeatedly, I think great progress has been made in civil rights. I'm not wedded to pre-clearance; it may very well be that we can eliminate it. But Congress made a different decision. Unless you think the courts should be in the business of overruling that on policy grounds, you have the burden of coming up with facts which would justify doing so. That's why the posts are so disappointing -- they fail to meet the issue.
I guess I don't see how the issue of the constitutional authority of Congress is a "policy" question for Congress.
8.21.2009 4:53pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Mark Field:

I have no problem with 1 or 2. My only concern would be the opportunity to develop a full factual record, something which might best be done (but probably wouldn't be) by Congress. As long as both sides have that opportunity, go for it.


Then we substantially agree. BTW one issue that Congress has is the issue of opposing such renewals might be seen as racist and might be politically damaging. So my prediction is that the courts will strike this down long before Congress decides not to renew. Whether or not we are at this point however is, as you rightly point out, a matter for a developed evidentiary record.
8.21.2009 4:59pm
richard1 (mail):
David M. Nieporent (www):
I just don't buy Thernstrom's concern-trolling over the idea that allowing them to consolidate their voting power is actually really, really bad for blacks (which they themselves are incapable of realizing, the poor things!) because..... ummm.... let's see... something about the GOP?
They're incapable of realizing it for the same reason Ilya always explains: political ignorance.

Yassuh, boss. If those blacks weren't so politically ignorant they would realize that the VRA is bad for them. Same vile argument was made by Faubus and Thurmond in the 50's - blacks should just realize that Jim Crow laws are actually in their best interst
8.21.2009 5:20pm
FelixW:

So my prediction is that the courts will strike this down long before Congress decides not to renew.


Perhaps, but the covered jurisdictions could also be released under the terms of the VRA.
8.21.2009 5:24pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):

What sins were blacks guilty of that made them slaves?


They did not organize into social groups capable of defending themselves against superior forces. Thus it has been since the rise of civilization. It will not surprise me at all if the current Western ideal is soon forgotten in order to revert to the mean.

Much the same can be said about the current condition of Amerindian groups.
8.21.2009 5:30pm
BGates:
So do we permanently punish the South for its legacy? Just asking....

How about as long as they abused blacks?


The progressives on this board seem to be under the impression that people aren't allowed to move from one state to another. I live in Florida, but I grew up in Pennsylvania. It would make perfect sense for a state like PA (which hasn't had slavery since the far-distant past of 1780) to sit in judgement of FL (which tolerated slavery as recently as 1865) if only the populations of both states were as static as progressive prejudice, but that's just not the case.
8.21.2009 5:45pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
They're incapable of realizing it for the same reason Ilya always explains: political ignorance.

Yassuh, boss. If those blacks weren't so politically ignorant they would realize that the VRA is bad for them. Same vile argument was made by Faubus and Thurmond in the 50's - blacks should just realize that Jim Crow laws are actually in their best interst
Apparently you're new here. Political ignorance is not an assessment of black people. It's an assessment of the populace.
8.21.2009 6:03pm
FelixW:
"I live in Florida"

Where in Fla? Most of it is not covered by VRA preclerance
8.21.2009 6:08pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
FelixW:

Perhaps, but the covered jurisdictions could also be released under the terms of the VRA.


I think your answer in why it will be struck down in court first is in the following question:

What does Texas have to do in order to be released under the terms of the VRA?

Is that so burdensome that it will be far easier to challenge the Constitutionality of the law instead?
8.21.2009 6:24pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
EMG - Fair point, and fair points further on as well. But I am not sure if you mean to carry it through to the end. My ancestor who fought in the Civil War lost two brothers in that conflict, and put his own life on the line in simply generosity to others. That must certainly weigh against any benefit he received by being a poor white farmer in MA.

The advantage that white people had in this country was real, because the black advantage was zero, and thus there is a "discount." If one tries to quantify that, however, I don't think it amounts to much. The advantage of one's ancestors does not usually go back more than a generation. (Think about your brother-in-law here.) Even granting it as two generations, there just isn't that strong a statistical correlation. It is far less of a correlation than the inheritance of IQ, I suspect, which I don't expect the government to rectify.
8.21.2009 6:33pm
FelixW:



I think your answer in why it will be struck down in court first is in the following question:

What does Texas have to do in order to be released under the terms of the VRA?

Is that so burdensome that it will be far easier to challenge the Constitutionality of the law instead?



I think you have to first ask when Texas will find the political will to do so? I think the support for the VRA by its congressional delegation suggests that that will is not there.
8.21.2009 6:49pm
MarkField (mail):

I guess I don't see how the issue of the constitutional authority of Congress is a "policy" question for Congress.


Because here, as in other cases, Congressional authority depends on the factual basis for its actions. For example, it can suspend the writ of habeas corpus only upon certain factual conditions being met.


Because conservatives are evil, I know.


Well, we could develop the factual record on this....
8.21.2009 7:07pm
Angus:
It would make perfect sense for a state like PA (which hasn't had slavery since the far-distant past of 1780) to sit in judgement of FL (which tolerated slavery as recently as 1865) if only the populations of both states were as static as progressive prejudice, but that's just not the case.
How about Mississippi, then, which only agreed to end slavery in 1995 when it finally approved the 13th Amendment?
8.21.2009 7:08pm
John Moore (www):

You benefit from your ancestors' having lived in a system where they got to keep what they worked for, while blacks didn't.

Besides, unless your ancestors were actually still in Europe (as mine were, incidentally) you have no real way of knowing what they were doing, more than 3 or 4 generations back.

This is but one example of the utter absurdity of generational guilt.

Let's see... on one side of my family were people who fought for the Union in the Civil War. On the other side were folks who held slaves. Oh, and there were other ancestors who immigrated after the civil war, and some who were here before any Europeans at all.

So shall we have a government commission (let's call it "NICE") to determine my racial guilt?

Tne ONLY possible justification for DOJ enforced racial gerrymandering is current harm, not past. Furthermore, there should be an extremely high bar for that, rather than the opposite which we have now: pre-clearance. It's just one more example of the faith of the left in central government micromanagement.
8.21.2009 7:51pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
FelixW:


I think you have to first ask when Texas will find the political will to do so? I think the support for the VRA by its congressional delegation suggests that that will is not there.


I think the question is whether Texas or another state will find the political will to do so before Congress finds the political will to decline to renew the provision.
8.21.2009 7:55pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):

FelixW:

More to the point: Would you object to a state bringing an all-out Constitutional challenge to this section now in order to ensure the courts could decide the matter via a developed record of evidence?
8.21.2009 7:59pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
John Moore:

Tne ONLY possible justification for DOJ enforced racial gerrymandering is current harm, not past. Furthermore, there should be an extremely high bar for that, rather than the opposite which we have now: pre-clearance. It's just one more example of the faith of the left in central government micromanagement.


I am opposed to the continuation of section 5 on a number of basic grounds. However, I am willing to accept that:

1) The court rightly found that extraordinary conditions made the justification for the otherwise Unconstitutional measures necessary and Constitutional when they were passed. This includes preclearance.

2) The court this year rightly set out Constitutional problems with the act but declined to rule whether it was Constitutional as renewed.

3) There is no political will to change the act in Congress. Therefore the court will probably eventually need to decide this issue.

4) The only basis they should use is current harm (as you point out) based on a record of evidence presented during trial.
8.21.2009 8:03pm
Constantin:
Yassuh, boss.

Said in defense of the VRA. In 2009. When the President is black.

So basically, you're okay with the Yassuhs, you just want to make sure they're pointed in the right direction.
8.21.2009 8:38pm
FelixW:
Ein:

I am reluctant to have courts decide constitutional issue. My bias is that these things be thrashed out in the political realm.

At any rate, Courts don't decide constitutional issues without a case. So, I suppose, a State could refuse to submit for preclearance and sue but they have not done that and I can't speculate on why they would or would not (political reasons, no doubt).

My sense is this would only arise for a State, every ten years, when they are redisticting (unless they are trying to reinstitute a poll tax or literacy test mid census - not likely). If, in the redistricting case, the chances are good that they would be precleared, they would probabely just go that route and work it out - that's been the history. If they are not precleared and a case is brought, they would likely argue that they complied with the VRA or, alternatively,the VRA is unconstitutional. At any rate, throughout, this long process your dealing with allot of political actors (State, DOJ, state interest groups, etc.) whose interests are constantly being recalibrated. Assuming, this case then would ever make it to the USSC and not be settled otherwise (most likely) then the State would have to have presented all its evidence for how much facts have changed. At any rate, this is a long and unpredictable road and we may by then be debateing the next extension.
8.21.2009 8:48pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
FelixW:



At any rate, Courts don't decide constitutional issues without a case. So, I suppose, a State could refuse to submit for preclearance and sue but they have not done that and I can't speculate on why they would or would not (political reasons, no doubt).


More likely they could sue for declaratory judgement that they don't HAVE to send it in for preclearance. Thus far most of the cases have been over rejected plans too.

Suing over a rejected plan is problematic because the court is FAR more likely to simply say the DOJ is wrong than to rule on the Constitutional provision. For them to reach the Constitutional provision they would have to either conclude that the DOJ was right in their assessment of the effects as discriminatory, or they would have to conclude the rule was unworkable.

More likely a state would, in advance of redistricting, sue for declaratory judgement. This would represent an actual controversy that a court could rule on. It would be more likely to succeed because the court wouldn't be looking at a plan that had been rejected by the DOJ that could have a more narrow basis for the decision.
8.21.2009 9:59pm
FelixW:
That's one of the ways they could "refuse to submit for preclearance and sue," like I said.

They could sue for declaratory relief and sue to be released under the statutory provisions of the VRA.

I don't know how you know what is more likely, especially since no one has brought that suit.
8.21.2009 10:38pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
As the OP points out section 2 has its own set of problems and is the actual basis of the racial gerrymandering. You could get rid of section 5 entirely and without some other change the section 2 requirements would still exist and you would get activists groups forcing the same bug splat districts. Have all of the districting suits steming from the 2000 census been resolved yet? That would seem like a major reason to go for declaratory relief, simply to avoid six plus years of litigation.
8.21.2009 11:09pm
ArthurKirkland:
I am watching "Mississipi Burning" on Turner Classic Movies.

Far more instructive than a week's worth of blogging, or three decades of result-driven scholarship.
8.22.2009 1:29am
Joseph Slater (mail):
David M. Nieporent writes: Not-being-discriminated-against is not generally considered a "benefit," but just the norm. Your family didn't get something for being white; it just didn't have something taken away from it.

That's not a meaningful distinction. My family benefitted from systemic discrimination against blacks in that we have had access to jobs, houses, schools, etc. that a chunk of the population didn't. Competition was artificially reduced, and that benefitted white folks.

Having said that (@ John Moore), again, I don't feel personally guilty about this, in the sense that this represents some moral failing on my part. But on the other hand, it would be absurd to think that going back several generations, the average black family in the U.S. had as many opportunities to, e.g., accumulate wealth, as the average white family.

Again, this does not tell us what to do about the VRA, affirmative action, etc. My only point is to note that it is entirely possible -- and in this case, clearly true -- that some people can gain an advantage from an unfair, discriminatory system even if those particular people did not create, work to perpetuate, or even endorse the system.
8.22.2009 12:10pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
That's not a meaningful distinction. My family benefitted from systemic discrimination against blacks in that we have had access to jobs, houses, schools, etc. that a chunk of the population didn't. Competition was artificially reduced, and that benefitted white folks.
But it's not as if you were given these jobs, houses, etc.; you still had to earn them. Plus, there just weren't very many blacks as a percentage of the population, so the vast majority of whites would have had those jobs, houses, etc., anyway.

(Besides, if you benefited because you didn't have to compete with blacks to get a house, then you were harmed later on when you moved because the person you were selling to didn't have to compete with blacks for that house.)
8.22.2009 1:41pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
David Nieropant:

I think that at this point, we have to start really looking carefully and soberly at questions like the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws. I think at this point in history, there needs to be mutual soul-searching and mutual acknowledgement that the economic disparity today regarding blacks and whites is not simply something that we can blame someone for, get remedial help, and be on with things. Some folk think the problem doesn't exist, and others think we can just pay off the damage and be done with it. Both are wrong. The problem is real but reparatory policies at this point will do nothing but reinforce the current problems.

Before we are done, however, this soul searching will touch everything from the VRA and Affirmative Action to the rightful place of AAVE (aka "Ebonics") in our public schools. If we are supremely lucky, not only will we be able to finally close the door on a very divisive and, for many, painful time in our history, but also we will all be enriched by the result.

BTW, my viewpoint is that the Ebonics dispute is only an issue because we are intellectually dishonest about what we expect our English classes to teach. I think the goal we have for those classes is noble enough, but it is framed in the wrong way. We want our kids to be taught a certain communication style, not a descriptive tour of the English language. Hence if we get away from "good English"vs "bad English" as linguists have done for more than a hundred years, we can focus on "professional communication styles" instead and then help AAVE-speakers to understand the differences.
8.22.2009 9:10pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
David M. Nieporent:

The fact that my family still had to succeed at opportunities available to them that were not available to blacks obviously doesn't negate the fact that having those opportunities in the first place is a benefit, compared to not having those opportunities.

Your argument is revealing in that it again goes to the "but I personally didn't do anything morally blameworthy" response that I'm critiquing. Because yeah, my family (and other white families) did morally positive things in succeeding at schools, jobs, and home ownership. They worked hard. But it is simultaneously true that they also benefitted from having more opportunities and less competition because of systemic discrimination. Again, this wasn't their fault, personally; there's no reason for them to feel personally guilty about it; and indeed, I think my family members should all feel quite proud of how they lived their lives. But again, given the opportunities they had and that blacks didn't, statistically folks like me had a much better chance to wind up with more accumulated family wealth (among other things) than the grandsons of black sharecroppers. And it's appropriate to recognize that in determining modern law and policy.

As to your point that blacks were only, say, 10% of the population, so gosh, how much difference could disadvantaging them really make, two responses. One, we are talking about policies that might help folks specifically in the group that was disadvantaged.

Second, relatedly, given that blacks are such a small part of the population, I could ask you, how much of a big deal is affirmative action? How many whites will really be hurt by it? In more than one context, I've heard many whites complaining they can't get a job in a certain firm or industry because of affirmative action -- way more whites complaining than there are blacks employed in that firm or industry.
8.22.2009 9:46pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Joseph Slater:

I think affirmative action is something hurts black and white together. It is a distraction which prevents us from looking forward to ensuring that we have sufficient opportunities for everyone to feed our economy as we move further into this century. The fact is that our economy is at least partially constrained by a lack of competent knowledge workers. Worrying about whether enough blacks can achieve white-collar status is beside the point. At the same time, it was a well-thought-out approach when it was first implemented.
8.22.2009 10:38pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
einhverfr:

I/ve repeatedly avoided giving my opinion about affirmative action on this thread because (i) as I said above, it's a complicated issue on which reasonable minds can differ, and (ii) I wanted to focus on one particular objection to affirmative action that I think lacks merit (the "me and my family didn't personally do anything morally wrong so why are we being punished?" objection).

There are, of course, other objections to AA. Your objection that AA is something that hurts black and white together is one. I note that the objection that AA hurts blacks is made far more often by whites than blacks. That doesn't mean the objection is invalid, but I would be careful about claiming you are changing a law/social policy to benefit X group, when an overwhelming majority of X group actually favors the law/social policy in question.

Again, though, I never wanted to hijack the thread into a general discussion of AA.
8.23.2009 1:23pm

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If you have a comment about spelling, typos, or format errors, please e-mail the poster directly rather than posting a comment.

Comment Policy: We reserve the right to edit or delete comments, and in extreme cases to ban commenters, at our discretion. Comments must be relevant and civil (and, especially, free of name-calling). We think of comment threads like dinner parties at our homes. If you make the party unpleasant for us or for others, we'd rather you went elsewhere. We're happy to see a wide range of viewpoints, but we want all of them to be expressed as politely as possible.

We realize that such a comment policy can never be evenly enforced, because we can't possibly monitor every comment equally well. Hundreds of comments are posted every day here, and we don't read them all. Those we read, we read with different degrees of attention, and in different moods. We try to be fair, but we make no promises.

And remember, it's a big Internet. If you think we were mistaken in removing your post (or, in extreme cases, in removing you) -- or if you prefer a more free-for-all approach -- there are surely plenty of ways you can still get your views out.