Friday, June 08, 2007

Better To Keep Your Mouth Shut And....

David Bernstein blesses us with words of wisdom on affirmative action and India's caste system. Referencing a news story in which the Gujjars (a farming caste) protested that they should receive the same type of set-asides and proferences as the dalits (a/k/a the "untouchables"), Bernstein comments,
Affirmative action has its good points and bad points, but I think it's undeniable that when government distributes benefits based on particular characteristics, lots of people will want to be identified as having those characteristics, there will be lobbying to ensure that the relevant characteristics become legally immutable at a minimum ,or broadened, and people will organize and lobby around their common claim to the relevant characteristic. This all makes it a lot less likely that the relevant societal distinctions that led to the need for the affirmative action policies to begin with will wither away.
It is difficult to imagine a more obtuse statement about India's caste system. If "doing nothing" were going to to a whit of good for the lower castes, you would think that after this many centuries we wouldn't still be reading this:
Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells their story: "Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers"; "Dalit tortured by cops for three days"; "Dalit 'witch' paraded naked in Bihar"; "Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool"; "7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash"; "5 Dalits lynched in Haryana"; "Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked"; "Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits"....

India's Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offense.

Nearly 90 percent of all the poor Indians and 95 percent of all the illiterate Indians are Dalits, according to figures presented at the International Dalit Conference that took place May 16 to 18 in Vancouver, Canada.
And so it goes. Bernstein's answer to this is to do nothing, because the caste system will magically vanish on its own if nothing is done for a few more... centuries?

Really, though, we shouldn't expect that his argument would be sensible within its contrived context. Bernstein's not writing about India. He's writing about the United States. He elaborates,
Query: If the Irish, Scandinavians, and Italians in the United States--all groups that were once suffered a great deal of discrimination and were relatively disadvantaged compared to the Anglo-Saxon/German majority (plurality?)--had been offered government benefits based on their ancestry one hundred years ago, would these groups be as integrated into American life as they are today? If not, then this is a cost to such policies that must be weighed against the benefits.
The obvious inference is that we are to compare the experience of Irish, Scandinavians and Italians over the past century to other groups of Americans who have been beneficiaries of affirmative action.

Now, Bernstein did not have to say "Anglo-Saxon/German majority" - he could have said "white" or "European". That would diminish his argument, as once various "disadvantaged" European groups shed their ethnic garb, learn the language and lose their accents, they blend in pretty well with other Americans of European extraction. But note that the most obvious implicit "other" group - beneficiaries of affirmative action whose name Bernstein apparently dares not speak - are "African Americans". If we're going to speak of Africa as a unit, it seems reasonable to speak of Europe as a unit. This would change the argument to, "Europeans assimilate with other Europeans without affirmative action, so what's different about Africans?" I'll assume at this juncture that Professor Bernstein is a proponent of the "color-blind Constitution".

1 comment:

  1. Incredible.

    So if Thomas doesn't attribute his getting into Yale to racial preferences, as the review contends (I'm not sure this is true), you can't blame him. ANY sensible admissions policy would have admitted someone of his background who had achieved the successes he had achieved, regardless of race.

    Is Bernstein saying that, even though he apparently believes otherwise, Thomas would be justified in pretending that Yale's racial preferences played no role in his admission because non-existent affirmative action policies should have considered non-racial aspects of Thomas's background ("born to a teenage mother, abandoned by the father, grew up in desolate rural and urban environments, grew up speaking creole dialect instead of standard English, raised by an illiterate grandfather") and given him an advantage regardless of his race?

    Bernstein complains that race-based affirmative action is a "fig leaf", but other than requiring an exceptionally intrusive school application form (tell us about each of your grandfathers' education level, literacy, income, living circumstances, and dialect...), wouldn't Bernstein's model enable more or less the same outcome? How do you prove which school applicant in fact was raised speaking a non-standard English dialect (like this one)?

    As for Bernstein's rhetorical question, "does anyone seriously doubt that such an individual should be given a break on, say, LSAT scores, in admission relative to the typical Yale Law student," it would appear that Bernstein himself would say Yes" if the goal is increased diversity. And if he starts reading his own blog he will probably find some evidence that others would likely answer "yes" as well.

    But perhaps it is to Bernstein's credit that, recognizing the immense benefit that can come simply from having the word "Yale" on a diploma, he rejects his co-bloggers' notion that students should not be admitted into schools which are presumptively beyond their intellectual acumen as suggested by grades and standardized test scores. (A philosophy that I have yet to see his co-bloggers direct at legacies.)