James Webb on Affirmative Action and Race

In his much-discussed recent Wall Street Journal op ed, Virginia Senator James Webb makes some good points about affirmative action and race, but also some key mistakes and omissions. On the plus side, Webb’s article highlights the contradictions between the “diversity” and compensatory justice rationales for affirmative action. He also correctly suggests that slavery and segregation inflicted considerable harm on southern whites as well as blacks; it is therefore a mistake to view these injustices as primarily a transfer of ill-gotten wealth from one race to another. On the negative side, Webb is very unclear as to his own position on affirmative action. He also seems to blame racism and the historic economic backwardness of the South on the machinations of a small elite. The reality was more complicated. Low-income southern whites were often much more supportive of racism and segregation than economic elites were, and Jim Crow might have been less virulent without their support.

I. Competing Rationales for Affirmative Action.

One of Webb’s best points is that affirmative action has resulted in preferences for groups that cannot claim to be victims of massive, systematic injustices inflicted in the United States:

In an odd historical twist that all Americans see but few can understand, many programs allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations. These programs have damaged racial harmony. And the more they have grown, the less they have actually helped African-Americans, the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action as it was originally conceived….

The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed. But the extrapolation of this logic to all “people of color”—especially since 1965, when new immigration laws dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the U.S.—moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites….

This state of affairs highlights the contradictions between the compensatory justice and “diversity” rationales for affirmative action, which I previously discussed here, here, and here. Under the latter, it may be permissible to give preferences to any group with a supposedly different or unique perspective. Under the former, recent immigrants and other minorities who have not been victims of massive large-scale discrimination in the US should not get preferences. Even among black beneficiaries of affirmative action at elite universities, a significant percentage are recent West Indian and African immigrants.

Like Webb, I tend to be skeptical about the “diversity” rationale and at least somewhat sympathetic to the compensatory justice argument. Unfortunately, Webb doesn’t make clear whether his position is that affirmative action preferences should be abolished entirely or limited to African-Americans. If the latter, should they be limited to descendants of victims of slavery and Jim Crow, or should recent immigrants continue to be included (as they usually are now)?

II. Jim Crow Racism as a Negative-Sum Game.

Webb’s other good point is that whites are not a “monolith,” emphasizing that the historic economic backwardness of the South greatly harmed southern whites as well as blacks. He could have made this point stronger by noting that that backwardness was in large part the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. As economic historians have documented, these institutions prevented the South from fully utilizing the abilities of some one third of its population and tended to deter economic innovation and outside investment. It’s no accident that the economic rise of the “New South” really took off only after the Jim Crow system was eliminated in the 1960s.

Slavery and Jim Crow are sometimes seen as a massive transfer of wealth from blacks to whites, a kind of zero-sum game where one group plundered the other. Advocates of reparations argue that the beneficiaries of injustice must therefore compensate the former by returning their ill-gotten gains. There is no doubt that some whites benefited from the system. Overall, however, slavery and Jim Crow were negative-sum games that harmed both groups (albeit blacks suffered much more). The net impact of slavery and segregation on southern white wealth was almost certainly negative, once we take into account the harm caused by the resulting economic backwardness, the expenses associated with repressing blacks, and the massive destruction wrought by the Civil War.

III. Webb and the Role of Poor Whites.

Unfortunately, Webb seems to treat poorer whites as passive victims “dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power.” In reality, poorer southern whites tended to be strong supporters of slavery and segregation. In the Jim Crow era, they often supported the system much more strongly than wealthier whites and business interests did. For as far back as we have survey data, support for racism and segregation among whites was inversely correlated with income and education. When Jim Crow laws were first established in the late 19th century, elite business interests often opposed the system because they feared it might damage their economic interests. Populist political pressure overcame that opposition. Populist racism often led political elites to take more segregationist positions than they personally preferred. For example, George Wallace’s biographer Dan Carter documents how Wallace started out his career as a relative racial moderate, but switched to a hard-line segregationist position after he got “outniggered” (as Wallace put it) by a more segregationist opponent in his first campaign for governor.

The racism of low-income whites was in part the result of indoctrination by elites and state governments. It was also partly the result of rational political ignorance and irrationality. Still, the fact remains that that racism, Jim Crow, and southern economic backwardness were not just the result of manipulation by evil elites. The masses had a hand too.