All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1991

Book Review: Invisible Victims: White Males And The Crisis Of Affirmative Action by Frederick R. Lynch

Greenwood Press, 88 Post Road West, Box 5007, Westport, CT 06881 • 1989 • 237 pages • $37.95 cloth

Has “affirmative action” brought us closer to an equal opportunity society? Or has it limited opportunities for younger white males by reverse discrimination? Is it compatible with the principles of a free society—or does it run counter to them?

For a key part of this new study, sociologist Frederick R. Lynch interviewed 34 white males who blamed reverse discrimination for having lost out on jobs or promotions. Their politics crossed the spectrum from conservative Republican to liberal Democrat (though some found their views shifting rightward as a result of their experiences). Their backgrounds ranged from middle to working class. Many taught Or were administrators in colleges and universities—unsurprisingly, since the schools have long been hotbeds of affirmative action. Others included Federal and state employees, corporate analysts, correctional officers, fire fighters, cameramen, and so on.

Their reactions to reverse discrimination ranged from confused acquiescence and cognitive dissonance, to resigned acceptance, to anger and hostility—and in a few cases, emotional devastation. Many quit their jobs or even changed careers out of frustration, though a few were clever enough to circumvent the system through various ruses. Several filed reverse discrimination lawsuits, some still pending. None, so far, has been successful. White males, they discovered to their surprise and dismay, have little in the way of legal recourse in discrimination cases.

Whatever the original intent of calls for “affirmative action,” obviously something went badly wrong. Lynch spells out perhaps more clearly than anyone before him just what.

First, affirmative action has generally been imposed from the upper echelons of government downward, usually through the courts. Private corporations have often “voluntarily” implemented affirmative action plans to avoid discrimination investigations at the hands of bureaucrats and Federal judges. Second, these plans have been carried out mostly by word of mouth—word “comes down but does not go out,” as Lynch describes it. Third, institutions implementing such plans were on shaky legal ground from the start—after all, the Cavil Rights Act of 1964 openly repudiated preferential treatment. Fear of lawsuits further explains the secrecy. Fourth, this secretive aspect of affirmative action has often kept its victims in the dark, and indeed has made it difficult to determine the extent of reverse discrimination. In those cases where white males knew they were victims, there was little in the way of “paper trails” or other evidence that would hold up in court. Fifth, and perhaps most important, a taboo on all open discussion of the subject—a New McCarthyism, Lynch calls it—has created a climate of deception and intimidation and led to a “spiral of silence.” The deception is that affirmative action has public support, when in fact over 80 percent of the public opposes quotas. The victims, though, have hesitated to say anything for fear of being labeled racists.

An important tenet of the New McCarthyism is that white males should “bite the bullet”—they are a numerical majority in a society with a racist and sexist past, so by definition they can’t be victims. They must be covering up for their own failures. Because of such ideologically rooted but widely promoted doctrines, would-be critics, too, have found themselves under pressure to keep silent; Lynch himself reports reluctance to discuss his research when it was in progress.

He singles out both the mass media and academic sociology for special criticism. Until the Bakke case, affirmative action was blacked out by the media; even afterward, public discussion was fraught with tension and evasion. Conservatives who have long accused the media of a left-liberal bias will find their views vindicated, on this issue at least. Lynch tells of an even worse bias deeply rooted in academic sociology, and, indeed, throughout academe, where collectivism has long flourished and bred intense pressures to conform to an official party line. Tenure has been almost a must for vocal critics; those who speak out often find themselves facing open hostility.

What emerges from Invisible Victims is a disturbing portrait of left-liberal social engineering run amok, carried out in open disdain for the public and for merit-oriented values, and surrounded by a campaign of distortion, intimidation, and silence. Lynch, if he is reviewed at all in academic journals, will be accused of generalizing from too small a sample. He may, of course, be accused of far worse, e.g., of being a “racist” himself (or in league with the “racist status quo”).

This, though, would be unacceptably ad hominem. Independent evidence confirms widespread reverse discrimination; polls cited by Lynch such as that of Gordon Black Associations (1984) indicate that at least one white male in ten has had at least one such experience. From the years 1980-83, over 1,500 complaints against public institutions alone were filed with the EEOC. Lynch’s discovery of the reluctance of white males to speak out suggests that the problem is in fact much worse than what direct statistical evidence reflects.

Invisible Victims belongs in the library of everyone concerned about the impact of affirmative action on American society. It should be read by Federal bureaucrats, university administrators, and media moguls. Despite the left’s belligerent denials, the suspicion is unavoidable that runaway preferential treatment is a major cause of racial unrest on college campuses and elsewhere. Young white males, after all, in general have committed no offenses against blacks and women, and realize instinctively that justice is not being served when they are routinely sacrificed in the name of ill-defined social goals instead of treated as individuals and judged on their own merits. Lynch’s research suggests a growing body of “underground” resentment against affirmative action, and I predict a real donnybrook somewhere down the road if the problems it has created are not faced.

Dr. Yates teaches philosophy at Auburn University.

  • Steven Yates, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer and consultant living in Columbia, S.C. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994).