Ad Hominem

My post yesterday on colorblindness inspired a collection of very interesting comments, and sparked a debate about (among other things) whether I was giving conservatives too much credit in treating their commitment to government colorblindness as more than a convenient tool to oppose affirmative action and other race-based ameliorative policies. This is not an idle suggestion. Many of the very people who supported massive resistance to Brown moved effortlessly to the argument that the law shouldn't forbid private race discrimination when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was on offer, and a decade and a half later embraced Brown and the Act as inviolate, but now claimed that these landmarks stood for formal equality, thus barring race-based affirmative action. That argument has now been made, successfully, to forbid voluntary race-based measures to foster integration.

Nonetheless, I'm willing to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, the term "conservatives" is sufficiently encompassing to include people with a wide variety of policy preferences, even on matters of race. For another, it's possible for people actually to change their attitudes. Much of the evolution we see in social attitudes (about all sorts of issues) comes from generational change: Old attitudes die off with the people who hold them and are replaced by new attitudes among the young. This dynamic explains much of the evolution we're currently witnessing in attitudes towards gay rights and probably explains some of the change we have seen in attitudes with respect to race over the last half century. But some people actually change their minds, and so when movement conservatives who opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 later talk about the importance of color-blindness, I'm willing to take them at their word.

One reason to take people at their word is that regardless of their motives, their arguments could be right. There is at least SOMETHING to the conservative argument that the right lesson to draw from our history of racial subordination of African Americans is that any race-conscious decisions are suspect, not just those that disfavor African Americans or other subordinated groups. That, after all, is why even Thurgood Marshall wanted to apply intermediate scrutiny, rather than rational basis scrutiny, to race-based affirmative action programs. And that's why, at the end of the day, the differences between the arguments of current liberals and conservatives on affirmative action are large but ultimately a matter of what to emphasize in interpreting the same commitment to equality---regardless of what the motives (on all sides) for those arguments may be.