The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How racial preferences feed grasping grievance groups and grow ever more absurd

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Anyone acquainted with human nature — and with government, which exists to cope with human nature — should not be surprised: When government allocates opportunities on racial grounds, dispensing lucrative preferences when awarding contracts and subsidies, this gives rise to rackets. And given contemporary academia’s susceptibility to intellectual fads and political nonsense, it is unsurprising that logical absurdities and moral contortions accompany the use of racial preferences based on almost comically arbitrary racial categories in pursuit of a “diversity” supposedly beneficial to education.

Until a few years ago, Robert Taylor, a business owner in Washington state, identified as White. Then he realized that his insurance business could benefit if it were classified as a minority enterprise. A DNA test purported to show him 4 percent sub-Saharan African. Lots of litigation later, a federal court said the state nevertheless could deny his minority status. Elsewhere, Steve Lynn had better luck in the racial lottery. His business qualified as a minority business enterprise because his ancestors were Sephardic Jews who fled Spain centuries ago, making him, in the government’s squint, Hispanic.

Your government decrees that immigrants from India are Asians but their cousins from Afghanistan are White. In America’s benighted days of yore, hearings and trials determined racial identities (octoroon, quadroon, etc.). In today’s America, such determinations are progressive because they protect the integrity, such as it is, of affirmative-action programs.

In 1970, when only 5 percent of Americans were Hispanics, they were generally considered White. Today, however, minority status is coveted because it is potentially a lucrative key to unlocking government largesse. So, European Hispanics from the Iberian Peninsula, alone among European national or ethnic groups, are a government-preferred minority, eligible to be what David E. Bernstein, George Mason University law professor, terms “identity entrepreneurs.”

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This story-beyond-satire of government is recounted in Bernstein’s slender (185 pages) “Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classifications in America,” potentially 2022’s most consequential American book. It reveals the rickety foundations of today’s identity politics. And because it is distilled in an amicus brief he filed for the Supreme Court as it considers racial preferences in college admissions. The brief demonstrates that such preferences depend on irrational classifications that mock their users’ intellectual and moral pretenses.

The post-1970s proliferation of government-preferred classifications means, Bernstein says, that they mostly benefit not African American victims of centuries-old abuses, but post-1965 immigrants and their descendants. And Cupid has added to the confusion: “As of 2017, 46 percent of Asian and 39 percent of Hispanic American newlyweds born in the United States married a spouse from a different category.”

Furthermore, those inconvenient Asian Americans keep spoiling the progressive narrative: A New York Times story reported that Google offers “a stark glance at how Silicon Valley remains a white man’s world.” A few lines later, Bernstein notes, the Times stated that a third of Google’s American employees are Asian Americans.

In 1977, to facilitate gathering racial and ethnic data, the government promulgated racial and ethnic categories, but stipulated that they should not be “determinants of eligibility for participation in any federal program.” This was promptly ignored, and has been exacerbated by the American tradition of self-identification.

Soon a scramble was on to win victim status, and to deny that status to groups which, if they clambered aboard the gravy train, would leave less gravy for the supposedly more deserving. Some classifications are racial (e.g., Black). Hispanic is cultural, and capacious enough to include South Americans of German descent and Ted Williams, whose mother was Mexican. The geographic classification “Asian” assumes that Vietnamese and Pakistanis are somehow akin.

An 1895 New York advertisement seeking workers promised Whites up to $1.50 a day, “colored” workers up to $1.40 and Italians up to $1.25. During World War II, the government deemed Joe DiMaggio’s father an enemy alien, seized his fishing boat and banned him from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. But despite said indignities, Italian Americans’ quest for affirmative action has been mostly unavailing.

The racial/cultural/geographic/whatever spoils system is now so entrenched, it is too late for what would encourage a shared national identity: complete separation of race and state. Meaning, government abstention from racial and ethnic classifications.

Today’s ever-more-arbitrary system vindicates Bernstein’s warning that such classifications are “self-fulfilling”: They encourage people to think of themselves not as individuals but as members of grasping grievance groups. Young people are taught this unattractive orthodoxy at colleges that celebrate a “diversity” that is skin-deep.

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