A novel idea about identity and affirmative action

June 3, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Well, here’s an interesting argument in Tablet from one of my colleagues, Eliot Gershon, a professor of both psychiatry and human genetics at the University of Chicago. (Gershon, who is Jewish, says he does not consider himself to be white, though he doesn’t specify which race he identifies as belonging to.) And that is one of the points of this article. The title tells it all: let people choose their gender and race, but give no group any advantage or disadvantage over another.  In other words, no affirmative action, but freely accept everyone’s identity.

Click to read (it’s free)

Gershon runs through a number of reasons why he opposes affirmative action, or any programs that favor groups based on identity (presumably he doesn’t oppose programs of aid based not on identity but on circumstance, like being poor or disabled). His arguments rest largely on those of Thomas Sowell, a conservative black scholar who laid out his views in a 1989 Commentary article, “Affirmative action: a worldwide disaster.” Gershon agrees: no privileging or disadvantaging people based on gender, race, or other identities.

On the other hand, he recognizes the difficulties of the way “race” is used as a social construct. He himself, as I said, doesn’t identify as “white” although he looks white. Gershon notes that people have only a small fraction of black ancestry can still identify as black, and reap affirmative-action benefits from it. (That reminds me of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be Native American).

Gershon’s solution: allow people to choose whatever race they identify as, and respect that choice. That would make Rachel Dolezal black, and I agree with that stand to some extent. (Others don’t, saying that Dolezal “pretended” to be black. She did dissimulate, but I do believe she really felt she had a black identity.) Even if you don’t agree with Dolezal’s claim, under Gershon’s scheme only those who really felt they were members of other races or genders would declare that, for they’d have nothing to gain by “pretending.”

Here’s Gershon’s argument for “transracialism”.

Gender identity is widely accepted as a matter of choice for everyone. But gender fluidity is a doctrine, and it generates resentments. Many parents of young children resent fluid-gender-identity education programs; they have their own understanding that children in those ages should be encouraged to integrate and solidify the gender identity of their natal sex. Gender transition has also led to widespread resentment when male-to-female transgender athletes win prizes competing against girls and women who are born female. Yet in the same political and social context where gender is held to be a matter of choice, race is considered immutable. Any person can be accused of having “white privilege” or “unconscious bias,” regardless of their actual ancestry or beliefs.

Although there is a case to be made for gender transitions, there is a stronger case to be made for racial transitions. Gender as a social construct is very closely related to biological sex, an unambiguous characteristic of the vast majority of humans. Race is also a social construct, associated with statistical differences among population groups. Race, however, does not have a rational or scientific definition unambiguously applicable to all individuals, and for many people it is impossible to determine—leading to casually racist assumptions based on skin pigmentation or “one drop” theories that lack any legal or scientific currency.

The historic Supreme Court opinion of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation in 1896, involved Homer Plessy, an “octoroon” (a person of seven-eighths white and one-eighth Black ancestry) who was found riding in a whites-only railroad car. The popular and accepted concept at the time was that any amount of Black ancestry made a person Black, and this definition persists until this day. But how is it rational to call a person with Plessy’s ancestry Black rather than white?

There is nothing pure about race. As a category, it is remarkably fluid. In a modern American urban population, we statistical geneticists frequently find people who self-classify as white or Black but whose genotypes are ambiguous. People with the same amount of “white” or “Black” ancestry may identity with either race, or with neither race. Many people who are identified as “Latinx” by Harvard would identify themselves as “white,” while many “whites” would identify themselves as something else, based on ancestry, upbringing, culture, or personal affinity. Why should the state or private elite institutions be empowered to impose these slippery and often poorly framed identities on individuals without their consent, especially when the social cost to the society of doing so is real?

One way out of our current identity conflicts is to permit individuals to freely choose their own racial and gender identities and at the same time to forbid any societal rewards or penalties based on these identities. Chief Justice John Roberts famously opined in the 2007 Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS)case, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This does not fit the current sociopolitical milieu, but it would avoid the unwarranted beneficiaries and casualties of this milieu. Pursuing race- and gender-blindness under the law is preferable to enforced alternatives that have consistently failed for more than a century.

What do you think? I still believe in implementing some affirmative action, but perhaps it could be based not on race or gender identity, but on poverty or other circumstances that disadvantage people not based on their identity. (That would, of course, still give an advantage to minorities over nonminorities, but that would be a side effect of correcting inequities). In some ways affirmative action based on need rather than identity or race does seem fairer.

But I’ll have to think about this as I must go feed my ducks.

Comments very welcome below. This is an interesting idea!

h/t: Ginger K.

33 thoughts on “A novel idea about identity and affirmative action

  1. Yeah, I don’t know what to say about this. It doesn’t seem to clean up any of the issues stemming from genders vs. sexes (bathroom, prisons, sports teams). From the racial standpoint, as a different way to approach a color-blind society, I don’t see where it will get much traction from the racialists. Might as well just say, Don’t talk about gender or race. The people who talk about it aren’t going to stop.

    1. Yes, self identification for gender would be problematic. Women’s rights have been hard fought for and I can’t see them relinquishing them. They are lower-paid on average, more likely to be sexually assaulted and discriminated against, and are about to lose their rights to bodily autonomy in the US so I’m not sure what they would gain from the proposed deal.

  2. > > ban discrimination on the basis of self-assigned identity

    I would add ‘or perceived identity’.

    There is no reason to assume that someone engaging in discrimination will necessarily agree with the person’s self-identification (whether factual or not). I’ve occasionally heard, for example, about people incorrectly perceived to be gay or Jewish who received negative treatment on that basis. The actions were undeniably homophobic or anti-semitic, even though the victim was not a member of the group in question.

    > [programs] based not on identity but on circumstance, like being poor or disabled

    Even disabilities are becoming identities now. Many non-deaf people consider themselves to be part of Deaf (capital-D) culture because they know sign language. I’m hearing of more people choosing to label themselves as autistic without an actual diagnosis.

  3. One of the few good things about the Republicans packing the Supreme Court is that (once they’re done with R v W) they’re likely to outlaw all forms of racial discrimination (including “affirmative action”). That would be a very good idea.

    Of course one could still have assistance programs based on family income, etc.

  4. Questions around self-identity are *far less* impactful overall vs. questions of equality/equity assuming race/gender. Pronouns, transgender rights, and colorism are issues that are particularly “hot.” But from a utilitarian standpoint, so much more is to be gained by addressing root causes of disparate outcomes for African Americans, women, etc. And so much of what is being tried (e.g., DEI in universities) is not actually addressing the problem.

  5. The idea of race by free choice would have to imply choosing one’s ancestry, which has two little defects. (1) It would put out of business such enterprises as ancestry.com and Henry Louis Gates’ intriguing “Finding Your Roots” TV series. (2) It is pure fiction. The word “race” may be widely misused and misunderstood, but if Gershon’s aim is to disentangle the word
    “race” altogether from Genetics, that is a mirage.

    On the other hand, Gershon’s piece has the virtue that it spotlights the
    peculiar convergence of old-fashioned racism and the new racialism that
    calls itself anti-racism: they both insist on the “one drop” theory manifested in Plessy v. Ferguson.

  6. My only child married a Mexican. Their children (1/2 Mexican) wound up marrying Latinos. Their two children (¾ Mexican) married Latinos and had children (7/8 Mexican). I have lived with them (or next door to them) their entire lives. I am great-great-Grandma (visabuela).

    One late afternoon family and a large group of friends were watching a televised boxing match between a Mexican and a white boxer. Of course, everyone was cheering for the Mexican. During round 4 or 5, someone from across the room shouted in English, “Grandma, you’re for the white guy, yeah?” To which (without thinking) I immediately retorted, “Why? I’m not white.” The entire crowd looked at me, possibly thinking “Oh dear, she’s slipped into senility.” A round of laughter ensued. Naturally, as soon as I said it out loud, I realized my error. (OMG, I am white!) Why, after more than 60 years of living with my solidly Mexican family, would I think I was different? In my most basic “me” I am Mexican. Only the color of my skin makes it not so.

  7. Regardless of the sincerity of Ms. Dolezal’s conviction that she was Black, would she have been hired as head of her state’s NAACP chapter if she had described her background fully to the hiring committee that offered her the job? Even if she didn’t take any government legally-mandated affirmative action money or advantages, what infuriated the NAACP was that she had tricked them into hiring a white woman for a job that surely ought to have been an “only CP need apply” job.

    If you false-signal your way into a tribe, retribution will be harsh. Motorcycle gangs use cheese graters to remove gang tattoos from wannabes who aren’t entitled to them. Yet for some reason, women are expected to embrace false-signallers. Sounds like the tribal culture of women needs a little stiffening. A tribe is supposed to set its own membership rules—“you can’t be in our tribe if you have a dick”—not have them imposed by other tribes.

  8. > He himself […] doesn’t identify as “white” although he looks white.

    A few arguments: I don’t agree with them all, but want to bring them to the table.

    There is the idea that descendants of voluntary migrants, people who know their heritage, focus more on national background than broadly defined race. Many Black Americans aren’t privileged to know their national backgrounds. Arguably, their treatment for centuries had been about race first, so both from within and outside the group, they were Black, rather than Nigerien or Congolese. Due to his privilege, Gershon does not have to consider himself white. I expect that to be the explicit reason the New Left uses to reject Gershon’s proposal.

    From what I hear, a lot of White people don’t consider themselves to be White — or white. Today, some White people feel more shame/guilt about their race, and do not acknowledge their heritage, but decades ago, the reason was because they identified more with national heritage (German, French. Similarly, a century ago, most Christians did not consider themselves ‘Christian’, but ‘Baptist’, ‘Episcopalian’, etc.), or ethnic groups narrower than actual races (Slavic, Latin, etc.) – and there are White ethnic groups which some people have historically not considered White.

  9. Is this his argument?

    1.) When “gender identity” is considered more significant than sex, it makes little sense and serious problems result.
    2.) Yet it’s becoming legal & acceptable for people to choose their gender identity.
    3.) If “racial identity” is considered more significant than race, it would make more sense and result in fewer problems than with “gender identity.”
    4.) Therefore, let’s legalize & accept BOTH “gender identity” & “racial identity.”

    If so, even if he’s right about 3, I’ve a problem with step 4.

  10. I agree withy the suggestion that affirmative action, if any, should be based on objective facts (e.g., parents’ education or income), not perceived membership in any group or racial category.

  11. If you can get all racists to promise to only hate those who identify as black, then maybe he’s on to something. Is there anywhere that race is even used these days outside of affirmative action type discussions or actions?

    1. Transspeciesism isn’t limited to real animals, either. I have known people who stated that they were actually various mythological creatures, everything from elves to werewolves to human-cat chimerae (Don’t get me started on furries, plushies, and otherkin.). Sometimes admitting they were born into the wrong body – whoops, I guess now we say ‘misassigned ‘human’ at birth‘.

    2. Well, the animal kingdom is a spectrum after all…we share a common ancestor with modern dogs such as collies so you know, why not identify as one? It’s, er, science right?

    3. “But others praised his bravery and courage to follow a life-long dream.”

      Okay, but… betting he’s not giving up the human “perks” either. Is he also his own master/owner, or is her a feral street dog? Is he a “dog” only when it’s convenient for the human. Photo ops? Conventions? Kids parties?

      And… does he have any real doggie friends?

  12. I’d rather see us do as Sam Harris argues and move away from this “social construct” of race and reduce it to the same importance as one places on hair color.

    And the more I think about this suggestion by Gershon, the more problematic it seems. For instance, are white people who now want to identify as black going to undergo augmentation to “look more black”? Gee, I can’t see any issues with that….

    When people change races, will they start adopting mannerisms and speech patterns that are stereotypical to that race (which of course would be ridiculous and offensive)?

    Further, a person from a more “privileged race” who starts identifying as a less privileged one will more likely offend member of the less privileged race, who will no doubt feel that this person never experienced the prejudice that they did.

    Seems like a disaster of an idea.

    1. A person from a less- privileged race who starts identifying as the more privileged one is just as likely, if not more likely, to offend the less-privileged race. As you point out, any reasons they offer reinforce stereotypes.

    2. Black and Indigenous people are more than welcome to adopt mannerisms and speech patterns, and other behaviours, that are stereotypical of the many settler races who run the economy and generate wealth. We call that integration and assimilation. It’s the only way forward. Trouble is, they call it cultural genocide. And so here we remain, stalemated.

  13. “Gershon’s solution: allow people to choose whatever race they identify as, and respect that choice.”

    How about allowing people to choose whatever race/gender they identify as, and NOT respect that choice? I’ve never understood why my choice to not respect someone’s self-identification doesn’t deserve as much respect as that person’s choice to self-identify. What is it that makes their choice sacrosanct and my choice just rude?

  14. The only reasonable view for a humane just society. Impoverished minorities can be included by establishing a Universal Basic Income. Voila – problem solved (?).

  15. The discussion suggests that self-identification allows individuals to “cheat” the affirmative action programs of colleges. How often does that happen? (Note that claiming an affirmative action consideration can involve more than checking a box: often the college demands a statement about personal history.)

    A quick Google doesn’t directly answer the question, but here’s some data:

    We find that after a state bans affirmative action, multiracial individuals who face an incentive to identify under affirmative action are about 30 percent less likely to identify with their minority groups. In contrast, multiracial individuals who face a disincentive to identify under affirmative action are roughly 20 percent more likely to identify with their minority groups once affirmative action policies are banned.

    I suspect that rates of switching among non-multiracial individuals would be lower, but my quick search didn’t provide actual data for that.

  16. We are trying to construct a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy. It is difficult to see how dividing people by race and ethnicity will get us there. Far better to help the disadvantaged people of all races.

  17. There is no such thing as gender. What does it mean to be a woman, a man, and so on? Has anyone ever met a woman, a man, etc? I have only met Jane, Jessica, Jason etc. Gender is reductive and abstract, which is why it makes it weird and in a sense delusional when people say they feel like women, or like men etc. like these things actually exist.

    How is a woman or a man supposed to feel or be? Are two or more self-proclaimed women, men or anyone else ever feel the same, let alone because of their gender identification? No.

  18. When it comes to sex, there is a fact of the matter for all but a tiny fraction of people. If someone wants to present themselves as a member of the opposite sex, I will happily treat them as though they are a member of the sex they pretend to be and use the pronouns they prefer. That does not change the fact of the matter.

    Race, on the other hand, is indeed a spectrum. My wife has English, Spanish and Jamaican ancestors and the term “race” is close to meaningless. The problem arises through programs that are designed to benefit subgroups of people based on ancestry. By codifying the concept of race, and fetishizing it in intersectional theory, we undermine the common humanity of all people.

  19. let people choose their gender and race, but give no group any advantage or disadvantage over another.

    The flaw is in the second part. I’m sure everybody here agrees that it is the right thing to do but it doesn’t rely on allowing people to identify as they please. Identifying the way you please doesn’t stop the people who want to discriminate from discriminating. They don’t car how you identify, only how they identify you.

    Take a solid example: Barack Obama famously found it hard to hail a taxi in Chicago because he’s black. But actually, he’s half white and he was brought up by his white parent. He could easily identify as white but would that help him hail a taxi in Chicago? No. Because he looks black.

  20. Real scientists trying to understand the different kinds of transsexualism say that, in some cases, there could be a biological cause – something happened in the uterus, or during puberty. “Transracialism” cannot have a biological cause, it’s purely cultural.

  21. What I think is the main problem with race-based affirmative action is very well explained by Thomas Sowel in the referenced article, from which I quote:

    “If one-fifth of the honors received by preferred groups are awarded under double standards, the other four-fifths are almost certain to fall under a cloud of suspicion as well […] To jeopardize the respect and recognition of individuals from preferred groups by rewarding “honors” tainted with double standards is not only to downgrade their own achievements but also to downgrade their chances of accomplishing those achievements in the first place. For example, minority faculty members have often complained about a lack of intellectual and research interaction with their colleagues, and of being thought of as “affirmative-action” professors. After the media revealed that black students were admitted to the Harvard Medical School with lower qualifications, white patients began to refuse to be examined by such students. The negative effects of tainted honors are by no means limited to academia.”

  22. Professor Rebecca Tuvel made the same argument as Gershon several years ago, very persuasively: https://philpapers.org/rec/TUVIDO

    The position is difficult to argue with, for all the reasons stated in Gershon’s piece. I agree with another comment here that these categories are ultimately meaningless and, at the end of the day, people should be judged as individuals.

    Does affirmative action still make sense? Yes, across certain dimensions> E.g., It seems reasonable that higher education should be able to discriminate in favor of economic and geographic factors, giving preference to those who come from poorer means or parts of the country/world where there’s less representation.

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