Racial preference policies came on the national scene as a response to the urban riots of the late 1960s. Many influential policy planners concluded that more had to be done to address the problem of black poverty and alienation than could be achieved through the color-blind theory of justice that had done so much to inspire the earlier Civil Rights Movement. In the more than forty years that preference policies have been with us, however, they continue to provoke resentment and grievance, particularly among poor whites, Asians, and so-called “white ethnics.”
In Wounds That Will Not Heal, political theorist Russell K. Nieli surveys some of the more important social science research on racial preference policies conducted over the past two decades, much of which, he says, undermines key claims of preference policy supporters. The mere fact that preference policies must be referred to by means of euphemism and code words—”affirmative action,” “diversity,” “race sensitive admissions,” “goals and timetables”—tells us something, Nieli argues, about their widespread unpopularity, their tendency to reinforce negative racial stereotypes, and their incompatibility with core principles of American justice. Around the world, policies of racial and ethnic favoritism provoke outrage on the part of groups not favored, which Nieli explains using theories of contemporary evolutionary psychology. We are all genetically inclined to favor our own kind—and to be suspicious of outsiders—Nieli argues, so to reach greater concord in multi-ethnic societies, we are enjoined in the civic realm to give up our in-group favoritism as long as all other groups do the same. We are powerfully predisposed for genetic reasons to meet breaches of this reciprocity norm with outrage and even violence as such responses would have had indispensable survival value over the millennia of human evolution. Ethnic rage at breaches in reciprocity norms is thus built into our genome, Nieli contends, and wise public policy must adapt to this.
Nieli concludes with an impassioned plea to refocus public attention on the “truly disadvantaged”: the urban African American poor, for whom affirmative action policies were created but whose interests were quickly forgotten as the fruits of the policies were effectively hijacked by members of the black and Hispanic middle class. Few will be able to read this book without at least questioning the wisdom of our current race-based preference policies, which Nieli analyzes with a penetrating gaze and ruthlessly honest assessment.