Affirmative action as it exists today is what we get when people assume that society is built of isolated individuals and that we can overcome the legacy of segregation by helping some individuals escape that legacy. Black thinkers have often said that we need real effort to overcome the legacy of segregation and affirmative action is a way we tell ourselves we solve the problem but in reality we merely perpetuate it.
Racial Segregation as Historically Unique
The problems of affirmative action come first from a flawed understanding of segregation and past social role-enforcing legislation. The liberal narrative, based on the theory of autonomous individuals, is that segregation was a way of keeping individuals who happened to be black (or other racial minorities) down, and it thus gets compared to laws, at one time prevalent through the US, barring (pardon the pun) women from practising law or other professional careers.
This narrative misses the point of segregation at the time, and it draws a false equivalence between laws that restricted the careers of women to laws that restricted economic opportunities of blacks. The difference of course is that at the family level, men and women have always been economically interdependent. We get married, have kids, and pass what we have on to them. Thus changes in laws regarding gender and economics have relatively immediate effects. Changes to laws regarding racial restrictions on economic opportunities, however, have long shadows because intermarriage is not as common and was at the time banned in much of the country. Blacks and whites are thus not as economically interdependent as men and women are, and so capital does not get mixed up every generation.
The Effect and Legacy of Segregation: Why Affirmative Action Fails
Segregation is thus best understood not by its effects on individuals, but on families, neighborhoods, and communities. Segregation isolated families, limiting economic opportunities and providing effect to efforts by the wealthy to keep families trapped, dependent on work almost as if slavery never ended. You keep blacks separated, without opportunities, and dependent on jobs on the plantations, and they can never move up in the world. Their children will be dependent on jobs on the plantations, and the cycle will continue forever. With the end of slavery, freed slaves didn't have capital to start with. Segregation helped ensure that would never change.
Segregation thus needs to be understood as a way of ensuring that wealth and capital could not accumulate in minority communities rather than a question of animosity on a personal level. Additionally segregation was not only common in the South but at some points relatively common throughout the entire United States. It took different forms in the industrial North but if you substitute 'factory' for 'plantation' there the same overall statement holds.
In this regard "desegregation" never happened and most of the urban United States is quite segregated. The rural United States is far less segregated, mostly because of Mexican migrant workers who have worked for cash for a few years, only to buy land and tools with cash, and settle down to start new lives. To the extent that rural America is segregated (at least in the West), it is between sedentary individuals and migrants, not racially. The cities (particularly the big cosmopolitan cities) are very different and segregation in one form or another is common throughout the United States. One of the big divisions that must be understood in the affirmative action debate is between rural Republican supporters and urban Democratic Party supporters, neither of which really understand so well how the other side lives. Rural Republicans on average tend to be far more diversity-loving than urban Democrats for example, but also much more conscious of the effects if immigration.
Affirmative action was first passed when the primary urban economy was that of manufacturing. One could have a good solid career without a college education, but a college education meant a better chance at moving into management. Affirmative action should be understood in the context of desegregating a corporate workforce more than desegregating a society. What affirmative action did not do however was to directly address the flight of capital from predominantly black neighborhoods. While one might have hoped that the black manager would still live near the black floor workers, in reality what has happened is that people with money have moved to the suburbs and those without money have stayed where they are.
Thus affirmative action became a way of continuing to economically isolate predominantly black neighborhoods and communities while saying we are addressing this issue by helping a few individuals escape those neighborhoods and communities. Affirmative action thus becomes a way to tell young black students that getting an education and moving to the suburbs is a way to sell out and give up on the communities they grew up in.
Although race and poverty are historically deeply intertwined in the United States, continuing to emphasize that connection helps perpetuate programs which address the wrong problems. If we want to break the connection between race and poverty we must start by breaking the connection in our solutions and addressing urban poverty specifically, instead of trying to help individuals escape "their kind."
This idea seems outside the mainstream but it is a common thread from black thinkers from across the political spectrum. Jesse Jackson and Clarence Thomas are more on the same page here than they are with the so-called mainstream consensus, and while this view is a direct challenge to liberal theories of society, it addresses the realities on the ground.
Why Racial Solutions are the Wrong Way to Go
The typical defence of affirmative action is that it helps level the playing field. The problem however is that this presupposes that families don't matter but corporations do. People should be dependent on corporations for jobs, and family legacies are the primary problem to overcome. Racial preferences end up however dividing a society which should be unified in looking for deeper solutions to the problem of urban poverty. Racial preferences end up thus being how we say we are solving a problem even when they no longer make any sense.
Moreover the primary beneficiaries of the preferences still belong to family legacies. If your father was the first black man to attend Princeton, then when you attend, you get to count towards their statistics to show progress. None of your capital goes to address the problems of the poor black neighborhoods. But hey, it's progress, right?
What's missing of course in the discussion are the people left behind. We save blacks by screwing the black community.....
Five Basic Necessities of a Good Life
Our society is aggressively materialistic, and the left in my experience is even more materialistic than the right today. We are told you must have televisions, smart phones, computers, and the like. Some things (like a phone or a computer) may be functional necessities for access to services, and there may be other things which are functional necessities for living together in cities. However mere subsistence is not a good life, nor is meaningless consumption. Dorothy Day wrote significantly about this in the 1940's in the same pieces in which she critiqued social security.
The engines of "social democracy" which are at the heart of anti-poverty efforts from the New Deal on tend to assume that poverty is a function of a lack of subsistence and just not having enough immediate money to buy things with (and we dare not ask what people intend to buy with their welfare checks because that would be against their autonomy).
If that weren't bad enough, the other side to social welfare programs is exactly what Hilaire Belloc complained about. Means testing ensures that people cannot meaningfully be on public assistance and self-employed at the same time. Public assistance thus chains people to looking for a job and working a job. But hey, at least they can still buy stuff, right? In essence social welfare as we know it is disempowering, socially corrosive, and not conducive to either addressing poverty generally or to human flourishing.
What do we need to flourish beyond merely having access to food and water? I have identified five basic things: A home, a family, something to do, tools to do it with, and hope for a better future. Our current approaches to fighting poverty actively attempt to deprive people of all these five things. To the extent that poor people circumvent these rules by taking on small jobs for money under the table, they are fighting a totally corrupt and oppressive system and they should be commended.
By a home of course, I do not merely mean a place to stay. I mean a place one can call one's own. Ideally we should work to help people move into their own homes, though the practical details become more complicated especially once banks get involved. The home is the economic center of the household. It is the center of both economic production and consumption. Economic production in the household is one thing critically missing from anti-poverty efforts today.
Family comes in two important and interlocking aspects, but both form an important safety net. The first is the nuclear family. The nuclear family lives together, eats around the same table, and helps around the same house. The nuclear family forms the nucleus of the household.
As Elizabeth Warren has shown in "The Two Income Trap," family is the most essential safety net there is. Marriage forms very strong economic ties, and these are essential.
Extended family also is not to be underestimated as a safety net. Extended family provides a wide range of resources that is difficult to come by otherwise.
However the importance of family goes well beyond the safety net aspect. In addition to providing security, families provide social context and social contact, two things we need to flourish. Families must be cultivated among the poor.
The third is "something to do." We humans are economic and creative creatures as well as being social creatures. Idleness causes a great malaise in the spirit.
Of course I don't mean that merely a way to pass one's time. I mean there is a need to do something creative and productive, and ideally one which is hooked into the other four elements. This can, I suppose, be a mere hobby but it is better if it is a family business.
Such a business cannot exist without ownership of tools.
The goal of all of this is to have security in the present and a hope for a better future.
We are excessively credentialist today, far more than we ever have been. People go to school to get credentials more often than to get education, and this is particularly true in business school. If you are going there to get the piece of paper, then the fact is the education is worth less than the piece of paper the diploma is printed on.
Education has thus become a way to suck money out of the middle class and transfer control over the economy more and more to the super-wealthy.
If that wasn't bad enough, our public school system is designed to look like a great equalizer while it in fact perpetrates massive class distinctions. More and more funding gets shifted onto the communities, leaving wealthier neighborhoods with far better schools than poor neighborhoods. Our education system claims to equalize things, but in fact it just perpetuates class distinctions, many of which are closely tied to the legacy of slavery and segregation.
And yet there is hope. In the knowledge economy, open source software and other things are becoming more common, representing a real rise of a Distributist social order over a Capitalist one, often by people who have been left out of the economy. Right now this is a phenomenon of the middle class, and the challenge is to help poor families reach into this world as well.
To this end, I think it is worth noting that most of our education infrastructure is not particularly useful. It is true that learning math and reading is important to these things but only to a point. I have argued elsewhere that double entry accounting systems are largely transcriptions onto paper of accounting systems designed for illiterate and innumerate peasants. Education does not equal intelligence.
The approach forward must be one which stresses apprenticeships and self-study, along with guidance of mentors. Most of the knowledge industries can be managed in this way. However for this to work people must grow up around tools. Increasing access to tools and facilities is thus the primary work that must be done.