An instantly controversial Victor Davis Hanson column recounts a piece of advice handed down through three generations in his family: Watch out if you see young black men on the street or approaching your house or vehicle -- they commit "an inordinate amount of violent crime." A fair number of commenters at National Review agree with that counsel. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates retorts that it is "stupid advice" that betrays "a rote, incurious and addled intellect."
What do I think?
The significance of Hanson's column and its embrace by some conservatives can't be fully appreciated without looking back at his larger body of work on race in America. His attitudes are common, though far from universal, in movement conservatism.
At their core is a glaring contradiction.
VDH wrote last year that "until the election of Barack Obama, 'white' was an increasingly rare designation." Intermarriage, integration, and assimilation "were making race itself an irrelevant consideration." But then Obama engaged in "race-baiting" and "staged anger" at alleged white racism.
Hanson sees liberals as race-obsessed, which he regards as anti-American. The "new emphasis on tribe"* ignores human individuality "and assumes that friendships, marriages, and alliances will not dare trump racial and ethnic solidarity," he argues. "Ours is now instead a Galadriel's mirror of the Balkans, of India's castes, of Rwanda, but no longer of a multiracial melting-pot America, where our allegiances were to be political, economic, and cultural and not necessarily synonymous with how we looked." Hanson dismisses prevailing racial categories. "Only in the hyper-racialist America can we take quite distinct Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Chinese third-generation citizens and create from them the artificial rubric 'Asian' in their shared antithesis to 'white,'" he writes, "or take disparate Cubans and Mexicans and likewise reinvent them as identical Latinos, or take Jamaicans, Ethiopians, and American blacks and call them all 'African-Americans' on the similar logic of not being something equally artificial like white -- which I guess covers Americans who used to be Greeks, Irish, Armenians, Jews, Poles, and Danes."
And in a multiracial America, he rejects affirmative action:
Aside from the increasing difficulty of determining the ancestry of multiracial, multiethnic, and intermarried Americans, what exactly is the justification for affirmative action's ethnic preferences in hiring or admissions -- historical grievance, current under-representation due to discrimination, or both? Are the children of President Barack Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder more in need of help than the offspring of immigrants from the Punjab or Cambodia? If non-white ancestry is no longer an accurate indicator of ongoing discrimination, can affirmative action be justified by a legacy of historical bias or current ethnic under-representation?
These views would be tolerable (if unfair to Obama and liberals) if Hanson was a consistent, principled individualist who encouraged colorblindness as an ideal and treated race as a construct. That may well be the best way forward.
On one hand, he grounds his opposition to affirmative action in those values. See, Hanson doesn't deny that black Americans are disproportionately likely (a) to be raised in poor, single parent households; (b) to have a parent or sibling in jail; (c) to reside in failing school districts; (d) to witness or be victimized by violent crime; and (e) to lack access to family wealth due in part to decades of discrimination. It's just that, even knowing that blacks as a group are disproportionately disadvantaged, he believes it's wrong for colleges or employers to grant special treatment to black applicants, rather than assessing them as individuals. Colorblindness is his sacred ideal, group statistics be damned. In the United States, everyone deserves equal treatment. Blacks are to be treated fairly as individuals with no consideration of group traits.
But there's an exception!
For Hanson, the fact that blacks as a group commit more violent crimes, per capita, than whites justifies treating particular black people with heightened suspicion. Seeing them on the street, it is permissible to react based on their skin color, rather than treating them as distinct individuals. Suddenly, his ideal of colorblindness gives way to the logic of group statistics. Suddenly, Obama's alleged actions aren't the only thing stopping race from being "an irrelevant consideration" in the U.S. There's also the Hanson family advice to consider. Emphasis on tribe is suddenly common sense. It no longer matters that the term "African American" conflates people from staggeringly different backgrounds. Nor is the complexity of mixed-race individuals cited as an insurmountable obstacle. A given black male is very unlikely to rob, rape, or murder anyone. But Hanson still warns his kid to be wary of all young blacks on the street. He knows the vast majority of blacks who perceive that wariness will be innocent.
Yet he advises racial profiling anyway. Like the college-admissions officer of his nightmares, he just finds race too useful as shorthand to refrain from giving "special treatment" based on skin color.
But only when the "special treatment" unfairly disadvantages blacks -- never when it advantages them.
In a recent post, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of racial profiling, "The unspoken premise here is chilling -- the annihilation of the black individual." I share his assessment. Reihan Salam replied, "It's worth noting that other measures, like racial preferences, also efface individuality, so one assumes that the effacement of individuality per se isn't the central problem with racial profiling." Personally, I oppose both racial profiling and race-based affirmative action, and I do think the effacement of individuality is one of several problems with both.
So naturally, I don't fault Hanson for opposing affirmative action (though I reject large chunks of his rhetoric on race). I nevertheless find it perverse that he insists on the scrupulous treatment of young black males as individuals anytime they would benefit from group preferences, and then, when they'd most benefit from being treated as individuals rather than dark-skinned objects of suspicion, he prejudges all young black males based on statistics about the racial group to which they belong. For Hanson, it is a miscarriage of justice worth lamenting if an Asian-American applicant to UC Berkeley loses a spot to a black applicant due to racial preferences. And perhaps that is an injustice. Maybe the Asian American is the child of an impoverished family of Hmong refugees and the black applicant is the president's daughter. What is the likely result of that injustice? The Asian-American applicant must attend UCLA or UCI.
What are the consequences of racial-profiling, the form of individuality-effacement Hanson defends? Countless innocent black men -- that is to say, the vast majority who will never rob or assault anyone -- walking around under constant, unjust suspicion from fellow citizens and law enforcement; heightened racial tension across America; prejudice passed down across generations; and some innocent blacks killed while under wrongful suspicion. Opining on affirmative action, Hanson wrote, "It is well past time to move on and to see people as just people."
He should take his own advice.
(Some prominent Democrats are also comfortable with racial and ethnic profiling, even though it threatens a long-term Democratic priority. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly defended racial profiling, without calling it that in a recent op-ed. Alex Pareene brutally and persuasively rebutted every point.)
*In what sense are tribal attitudes "new"? Hanson surveys American history for racial Balkanization and picks now as a high-point of ethnic solidarity. Absurd.