All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1995

Justice and Cultural Diversity

Preferential Benefits Breed Disrespect

Professor Perlmutter is author of Divided We Fall: A History of Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Prejudice in America (Iowa State University Press).

Diversity and multiculturalism are increasingly heralded as desirable goals for society. It is argued that government should translate them into everyday realities—and in proportion to a group’s percentage of either the local or national population, whichever is higher. For example, if a group such as women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, or gays are “x” percent of the national population, then that’s the percentage of jobs they should have.

How government relates to individuals and groups–and vice versa–are not new problems. The framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights grappled with them. And while none of the Founding Fathers foresaw the evolution of today’s enormous and multivaried population, they knew of the dangers of a divided people, and of a government that gives special privileges to some groups, whether royal, religious, or political.

George Washington visualized an America that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and that “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” With equal simplicity, John Quincy Adams wrote that America “is a land, not of privileges, but of equal rights” and that “privileges granted to one denomination of people, can very seldom be discriminated from erosions of the rights of others.”

Such views, plus the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, formed the basis of the American ideal, though all too often not of its reality. It is the contrast between the ideal and the reality that leads to the question: what kind of governmental system best insures the greatest freedoms for individuals and groups, as well as the greatest possibilities of undoing wrongs among and between them, and with the least injury to any, and to the nation’s unity?

There is ample evidence that insuring individual equal rights, with unrestricted opportunities for redressing individual and group wrongs, is more desirable than insuring group preferential rights, where redress is limited or prioritized by the victim’s group affiliation and percentage of the population. Governments and elections by majorities, pluralities, or coalitions, whatever their shortcomings, are still more salutary for most people and less injurious to some than governments of proportionalized minorities.

The latter model seems theoretically fairer and more attractive because it seems to offer immediate representation and redress to some minorities. But in reality it also generates, multiplies, and perpetuates tensions and conflicts among many minorities, eventually overshadowing whatever initial progress was made, delaying solutions to existing problems, and endangering the well-being of society itself.

Also, by providing benefits to some groups on a preferential basis, a disrespect, if not contempt, for the recipients, the providers, and the law is created or reinforced. And why not? Why should all members of a group be eligible for benefits that no members of other groups are? Why must there be lower standards for some groups and higher ones for others–for the same job, promotion, or entrance to college? Is there, as various racists and sexists have long claimed, something biologically, intellectually, and/or socially amiss with some groups? Or is there, as a few contemporary minority extremists claim, something biologically, intellectually, and/or socially superior in their group?

If all people are equally entitled to certain inalienable rights and opportunities, why do some insist on differential treatment in obtaining them—whether it be via quotas, goals and timetables, and set-asides, or exemptions from standard procedures? Is it not hypocritical to deplore being denied equal opportunities and treatment, and then to defend the denial of the same to other individuals or groups? Is it no less hypocritical to denounce the misbehavior of others and defend the very same behavior by members of one’s own group?

Who can respect the beneficiaries of favoritism? Who can respect those who gain something denied others? And how can the recipients respect themselves? And what is one to say about legislators who validate such behavior?

There is no evidence that governmental policies based on racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual preferences or proportional representation can assure or generate more freedom, self-respect, cooperation, well-being, or security, than can governmental policies based on individual rights, liberties, and blindfolded justice.