Black & Tan Fantasy

By Mark Krikorian on May 6, 2002

National Review, May 6, 2002

Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America, by Hugh Davis Graham (Oxford, 256 pp., $30)

In June 1965, President Johnson gave a speech at Howard University that laid the theoretical groundwork for the transformation of civil rights into affirmative action: "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You're free to compete with all the others,' and justly believe that you have been completely fair."

A few years later, President Nixon turned the theory of minority preference into reality through the Philadelphia Plan, which - for the first time - imposed racial "goals and timetables" on government contractors, in an effort both to foster "black capitalism" and to split the Democrats' civil rights/labor coalition.

The unspoken assumption underlying the birth of affirmative action was that it would be focused almost exclusively on black Americans. After all, the other minority groups listed among the "protected classes" covered by affirmative action - people of Latin American and Asian origin - were added by bureaucrats almost as afterthoughts; they were very few in number, nor were their numbers expected to grow.

What a difference an immigration wave makes.

The interaction of racial preferences and the immigration boom is the subject of this new book by Hugh Davis Graham, a Vanderbilt historian who died in March, shortly after completing it. Graham, whose previous books include The Civil Rights Era and Civil Rights and the Presidency, here concisely traces the separate paths of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Act of 1965 - and examines the wreck when their progeny collided in the 1980s.

Both pieces of legislation were outgrowths of the civil rights movement's appeal to the better angels of America's nature: They argued for colorblindness in public policy. The Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination in employment and public accommodations (followed by the Voting Rights Act a year later), while the Immigration Act eliminated ethnic distinctions we had been making among prospective newcomers since 1921. Both acts promised a better, colorblind America that would heal the wounds of the past; the promise of neither was fulfilled.

Contrary to the repeated assurances of civil rights champions, the ideology of colorblindness morphed into the explicitly racialist policies of what Graham calls "hard" affirmative action. Meanwhile, the immigration changes of 1965, which were supposed simply to remove the embarrassing national-origin quotas without increasing immigration, instead sparked the greatest immigration wave in American history - made up overwhelmingly of people who would in turn be covered by the new affirmative-action policies.

Collision Course is the first book to address this topic, and is long overdue. I hope I'm not boasting (okay, I'm boasting) when I point out that a piece I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in 1989 was perhaps the first time anyone pointed out in print the conflict between affirmative action and immigration. The only reporter to explore the issue was the underappreciated Jonathan Tilove of the Newhouse News Service in 1993, and the only previous extended examination was a 1995 paper by James S. Robb (which he summarized in a National Review article in November of that year). Other than that, though, no one has touched this issue with a ten-foot pole: The collision between affirmative action and immigration seems to have given rise to cognitive dissonance in the media and the professoriate, which instinctively support both policies. Graham points out that neither President Clinton's 1995 review of affirmative-action policies nor his National Dialogue on Race discussed the issue; nor did the National Academy of Sciences' magisterial examination of immigration; nor did the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform's final report in 1997.

But the most contemptible silence of all comes from the black leadership. Leaving aside the question of whether hard affirmative action actually helps blacks (the civil rights groups obviously answer "yes"), there's no question that America's black leadership has known for more than 20 years that affirmative action's black-centered rationale - as compensation for slavery and Jim Crow - is undermined by mass immigration. And yet they've kept supporting high levels of immigration anyway, in order to maintain a people-of-color coalition with the Hispanic Caucus and groups like the National Council of La Raza.

In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - then chaired by Eleanor Holmes Norton - filed a lawsuit against a Chicago manufacturing firm specifically to prevent blacks from being crowded out by immigrants. It was clear, at that point, that the affirmative-action apparatus recognized the threat immigration posed to the perceived interests of blacks. The EEOC lost the lawsuit, and a subsequent one along the same lines; this ended what Graham calls a "campaign to protect black workers from the surging tides of immigrant competition." Since then, black leaders seem to have given up on their ostensible constituents.

And if the black leadership wanted to abandon its constituents, business wasn't going to stand in it's way. One of Graham's most important insights is that business at first acceded to affirmative action as a way to avoid litigation with government, but eventually came to embrace it as a way to avoid hiring blacks: If minority status is fungible - any kind of minority counts toward the "goals and timetables" - then business could avoid government and activist-group attention and avoid hiring blacks simply by hiring immigrants instead. The law, Graham says, "opened a window of opportunity for business, under the banner of diversity, to hire Hispanic and Asian immigrants in preference to native-born black workers."

Without mass immigration, this would not have been possible, since in 1965 there weren't enough of the other minorities to make a difference. But after the admission of more than 26 million new immigrants eligible for affirmative action, there are now more Hispanics than blacks, and one-third as many Asians as blacks. And business has shown a clear preference for immigrant workers - as confirmed by, for instance, William Julius Wilson's surveys of Chicago-area employers in the late 1980s.

Graham provides a good summary of the evolution of immigration policy and politics, and his analysis of the political and bureaucratic logic behind the Nixon administration's creation of hard affirmative action makes for enlightening reading. But perhaps most interesting is his description of the ways various agencies decided who would fit the definition of "minority." Anti-discrimination law began to develop in the 1940s, at first not mentioning any particular groups at all, merely prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The singling out of individual groups began with the need to put human faces on the real abuses taking place, in order to mobilize opposition to them: "Discrimination 'on account of' race and national origin was an abstract sin. Segregating black Americans, denying them the vote, and murdering civil-rights workers were palpable offenses that stirred the emotions and fueled reform."

Thus, starting in the 1950's, government contractors had to show they weren't discriminating - by reporting how their employees were distributed by various categories. Someone, therefore, had to come up with the categories. But "since the concept of group rights was alien to the civil-rights bureaucracy until the end of the 1960s," Graham writes, "the career civil servants designing survey forms...had no notion that their rather amateurish efforts would have such far-reaching consequences." In one early survey "Negro" was the only category contractors were obliged to report, but the other possible groups included "Spanish-Americans, Orientals, Indians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, etc." (Puerto Ricans apparently were not "Spanish-Americans.")

Graham recounts that "once minority groups started getting named on the government's civil-rights compliance forms, the ethnic organizations, kicked into play." The rest, as they say, is history. Hispanic lobbying got JFK to add "Spanish-Americans" to the obligatory-reporting category. Then a campaign led by the Japanese American Citizens League got "Orientals" added to the obligatory list. Without lobbying, American Indians were added, and Jews were dropped.

So the four "official" minority designations we now take for granted were essentially made up by civil servants preparing questionnaires for government contractors. This then led to an almost comical procession of groups trying to get on the gravy train. Hasidic Jews petitioned the Small Business Administration for participation in minority set-asides, but were rejected as a religious group. Then Asian Indians petitioned, and were accepted, bringing the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in their wake. Later, an Indonesian woman, initially rejected, finally mastered the lingo and argued in her appeal that Indonesian Americans "have suffered economic deprivation" and the "chronic effects of discriminatory practices for a very long time" -- this despite the fact that there were only a handful of Indonesian immigrants in the U.S., and they were wealthier and better educated than native-born Americans. Iranians, however, were rejected, apparently because "the chronic effects of discriminatory practices" stopped at the Pakistani border; Graham wryly remarks that "the SBA's ethnocultural line-drawing at the Khyber Pass, coming from an agency not noted for this expertise, made no sense in terms either of Middle Eastern cultural anthropology or of American history and law."

And there's plenty more -- like the brothers who immigrated from Portugal (Portugal!) and were able to get themselves certified as minorities in order to dominate Washington, D.C.'s road and sewer contracts; and the notorious Fanjul family, multimillionaire Cuban immigrants with Spanish passports, who made use of set-aside programs to build a minority business enterprise in securities underwriting.

So what has been the result of this collision? Graham believes that "immigration emerged greatly strengthened and affirmative action significantly, perhaps even mortally, weakened." He quotes R. Gaull Silberman, then vice chairman of the EEOC, saying in 1993 that immigrant participation is "the ultimate nightmare of affirmative action. It is its Achilles heel." Many on the right might applaud this, especially those who think immigration is a boon anyway: We get immigrants, and destroy affirmative action to boot!

But I think Graham is wrong on this point. The colorblind ideal of civil rights was probably going to turn into racialized affirmative action no matter what; it was immigration, by providing non-black "minorities" to hire, that persuaded business to embrace affirmative action in a way that would not have happened otherwise (and thus removed any urgency Republican politicians might have felt to oppose racial quotas). Rather than weaken affirmative action, immigration has helped transform it from the original idea of temporary compensation for the lingering consequences of slavery to a vehicle for generalized and permanent diversity management. Immigration has thus helped promote a thoroughgoing racialization of every workplace, every school, every church, every civic club, every institution of American life.

"Collision course," indeed.


Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.