Affirmative action

Just & unjust at the same time

President Bill Clinton’s initiative on race is already running into the classic problem of American ventures in brotherhood and sisterhood: We can be nice or we can be honest, but we rarely manage both.

This is not a cynical statement. Nice means we try to get along, respect each other, and not pick fights. Honest means we’re upfront about our differences, not only between blacks and whites, but also among blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos. Each group has a very complex relationship with the others—and, if we’re being really honest, each is itself highly diverse.

The largest problem facing Clinton’s Commission on Race Relations is deciding on its goal. If it is seeking universal understanding, it will almost certainly fail. Sure, whites should understand that African-Americans confront a legacy of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and racism. This can make even the most successful African- Americans feel separate from a society they see as hostile.

Sure, nonwhites (and, for that matter, non-Protestants) should appreciate that for all their flaws, our Anglo-Saxon founders created a regime and nurtured an idea that provided unparalleled freedom for outsiders and dissidents. Slavery and segregation could not survive in the climate they created. The American paradox is that we began with a Constitution that permitted slavery and a Declaration of Independence whose core idea subverted slavery.

But a presidential commission won’t make us all think along certain lines. It needs to find practical goals-and practical ways of encouraging us to meet them. To that end, every member of the commission should read On Toleration (Yale University Press) a book by Michael Walzer, my favorite contemporary political philosopher.

Toleration sounds minimalist-you “tolerate” what you can’t stand. That is its strength. Historically, it’s extraordinary to achieve-as Walzer puts it-“the peaceful coexistence of groups of people with different histories, cultures, and identities.” We forget what a big deal this is. Toleration, Walzer writes, “sustains life itself because persecution is often to the death.” It “also sustains common lives, the different communities in which we live.” Walzer then offers this brilliant aphorism: “Toleration makes difference possible; difference makes toleration necessary.”

The genius of Walzer’s little book-at 112 pages, it is shorter than the reports commission members will be required to read-is how realistic it is about the contradictions confronting those who would create an open society. He is especially good at dissecting our strange time when individuals have very weak attachments to their communities. This only makes them long for stronger identities and shout louder in claiming how important those identities are. “American society is a collection of individuals with multiple, partial identities.” How many of us are honest enough to admit that?

Walzer’s book should not be oversimplified, so I’ll deal with only two of the challenges he poses. One is the core difficulty of affirmative action. On the one hand, it is obvious that America owes recompense for its past deeds against African-Americans. Failing to open opportunities reinforces black feelings of isolation and encourages the very sort of black separatism that whites condemn. “Intolerance,” Walzer notes, has “group-sustaining effects.”

Yet affirmative action is not truly egalitarian. It aims only to “produce similar hierarchies” among groups “by supplying the missing upper, professional, or middle class to the most subordinate groups.” Affirmative action “causes real injustice to particular individuals” who are “usually members of the next-most-subordinate groups’’ and thus “breeds politically dangerous resentments.” Can the Clinton commission-and the president himself-grapple with the fact that affirmative action may be simultaneously just and unjust? Can it come up with alternatives?

Walzer is also wise on the dual-and contradictory-obligations of a free society: We seek the possibility of both “individual assimilation and group recognition.” We think, rightly, that people, whatever their race, ethnicity, or religion, enjoy their rights as individuals. Yet we also acknowledge that individuals live in groups and that each group, especially minorities, has a right to “a voice, a place, and a politics of its own.” How can we square these two goals?

Walzer’s conclusion is that toleration is easier in societies where economic inequalities are not vast, where individuals have opportunities for advancement, where intermediate associations-family, ethnic, union, political-are strong. A fair conclusion is that to deal with race, we need to think beyond race. Without social justice, there will be no racial justice. Can the president’s commission help us think that through?

© 1997, Washington Post Writers Group

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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