Ah, generally I am always happy to read a Dahlia Lithwick piece. She’s insightful, and a clear writer. But she blew it on her recent piece on affirmative action, “The Downsides of Diversity: What Clarence Thomas might have to say about Sarah Palin” (Newsweek; Slate, 2008/8/29).
In the article, she reminds the reader, bemused by McCain’s obviously demographically-influenced selection of Palin as his VP candidate, of Clarence Thomas’ position on affirmative action. Thomas has repeatedly excoriated affirmative action as a humiliation for its intended beneficiaries, placing a permanent mark of stigma on them. He couches his opinions in the strongest language possible, deliberately echoing the stirring phrases that condemned the injustices of segregation and Jim Crow.
Lithwick then looks at Palin’s selection by the McCain campaign, and her treatment both by the campaign and the media at large. No surprise that she observes that this appeal to diversity is better called tokenism, and correctly equates tokenism with (in this instance) sexism. The irony of the Republicans’ copping to the language of diversity is not lost on her, as she observes, “[Diversity is] certainly a noble goal, but it’s one most conservatives have disparaged for decades.”
And then the conclusion:
Liberals inclined to blindly support affirmative action would do well to contemplate the lessons of Sarah Palin and Clarence Thomas. Although the former exudes unflagging self-confidence and the latter may always be crippled by self-doubt, both have become nearly frozen in a defensive crouch, casualties of an effort to create an America in which diversity is measured solely in terms of appearance.
Ah. Oh, no. Christ. This completely confuses the actual goals of affirmative action and diversity with conservative critics’ misapprehension of those goals.
The effort to measure diversity solely in terms of appearance — that’s the conservative myth about diversity. And McCain’s gambit exemplifies the conservative myth about affirmative action: substituting “diversity” concerns for good judgment and a well-rounded selection process that is merit-based. This kind of diversity is better described as an ugly tokenism. It’s certainly not affirmative action, a process of selecting qualified candidates by including considerations of past discrimination that may disguise actual abilities, experience, and potential; as well as considerations of the larger social realities of the harms and goods that flow from perpetuating or failing to remedy past discriminatory behaviors.
As my partner observed, no wonder conservatives hate affirmative action, if they think this is what it is.
But I’m disappointed to see Dahlia Lithwick accepting this strawman’s affirmative action.