Immigrants & Racial Preferences

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

March 27, 2002



(Oxford, 246 pages, $30)
By Hugh Davis Graham

INDONESIAN-AMERICANS were living the American dream in the 1980s — they were better educated and making more money than most people in the U.S. — but something was missing: They weren’t a federally certified victim group.

That changed in 1989, when a California woman complained to the Small Business Administration. “My color is yellow like other Indonesians,” she wrote. “Good jobs are scarce regardless of talent.”

She wanted to become eligible for minority set-aside contracts, and SBA bureaucrats decided to oblige. Indonesian-Americans were declared to be “Asian Pacific Americans” and thus fit for preferential treatment from the government, even though they were economic high performers untouched by a legacy of slavery and segregation.

In “Collision Course,” Hugh Davis Graham takes a close look at what made this bizarre state of affairs possible. Affirmative action and immigration “have been closely studied by American scholars, although customarily in isolation from one another,” he writes. Mr. Graham is the author, previously, of “The Civil Rights Era,” an excellent work of legislative history. In his probing new book, he pulls the two topics together and concludes that immigration poses a mortal threat to existing civil-rights policy.

That’s because so many of today’s immigrants qualify for preferential treatment they don’t deserve in contracting, employment and college admissions. Mr. Graham estimates that of the 35 million immigrants arriving in the U.S. between 1965 and 2000, 26 million of them — or 74% — “could claim affirmative action preferences on the basis of historic discrimination they had never experienced.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way, of course. Indeed, the whole idea of group preferences was alien to the first civil-rights laws, which aimed at achieving equal opportunity for individuals. These laws soon mutated, famously, into a set of regulations dedicated to equal results for groups. Mr. Graham retells the story of this distortion, paying particular attention to the Nixon administration’s key role in abetting it.

Immigration reform was not a major theme of the original civil-rights idea, but it was a minor goal. The sponsors of the 1965 immigration law, which made possible the current influx of newcomers, believed that by wiping out racial and ethnic quotas from the 1920s they were making a small adjustment to admissions policy and bringing it in line with the ideals of the civil-rights movement.

The civil-rights and immigration laws of the 1960s satisfied their main objectives of smashing the South’s racial caste system and ditching a method of immigrant admissions with roots in what Mr. Graham calls “spurious racial theories, religious bigotry, rural parochialism, and xenophobia.” Yet they also became case studies in unintended consequences.

When critics of the 1964 Civil Rights Act said the bill would force employers to adopt hiring quotas, Hubert Humphrey took to the Senate floor. If anybody can find such a mandate in the actual language of the legislation, he said, “I will start eating the pages of [the bill] one after another.” Humphrey may have been technically correct, but his foes just as correctly foresaw the quota system that came to pass through regulation.

The 1965 immigration law also features a famous broken promise. “Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same,” proclaimed a youthful Ted Kennedy. “The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.” Mr. Kennedy was not trying to deceive, but he was wrong on both counts.

Despite these similarities, civil-rights and immigration reform were fundamentally different in one respect. Whereas the civil-rights laws of the 1960s were part of a broad social movement, immigration reform was, Mr. Graham writes, “primarily an inside-the-beltway effort, engineered by policy elites largely in the absence of public demand or controversy.”

Perhaps with more scrutiny, lawmakers in 1965 would have seen what is obvious today: a family-reunification policy that has made possible the chain migration fueling high numbers of new arrivals ever since. One doesn’t have to be a restrictionist to agree with Mr. Graham when he writes that today’s politicians would be unlikely to “build such a system anew and defend it before voters.”

The politicians would also have a hard time defending the mass immigration they brought about to the old civil-rights coalition, because blacks — the moral epicenter of the civil-rights movement — are no longer the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action. In 1995, for instance, they owned only three of the top 25 firms receiving federal set-aside contracts.

Immigration effectively turned the rules of affirmative action into a muddle. Indonesians qualify for set-asides, and so do people from Nepal and Pakistan, but not those from Afghanistan or Turkey. It’s almost a cliche to point out that Asian-Americans don’t need preferences today, although they’re often entitled to them. Mr. Graham shows that “Orientals,” as they were then called, didn’t need them in the 1960s either.

Mr. Graham believes the explosive growth in affirmative-action eligibility, thanks to immigration, now threatens the future of a program designed originally to empower blacks. This saddens him, because he wants to give race-conscious policy substantial credit for the rise of the black middle class.

He may be on the mark in this analysis, but he might have also considered whether affirmative action, in turn, has had baleful effects — on immigrants. The persistence of racial preferences undermines support for legal immigration by making people think that the foreign-born are a huddled mass of misfits who can’t succeed without government intervention, rather than upwardly mobile achievers whose accomplishments can inspire the rest of us.

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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