Nathan Glazer and the Assassination of Affirmative Action

Stephen Steinberg

[from New Politics, vol. 9, no. 3 (new series),
whole no. 35, Summer 2003]

STEPHEN STEINBERG's latest book, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy, received the Oliver Cromwell Cox award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship. An expanded second edition was published by Beacon Press in 2001.


Nathan Glazer started out as a youthful radical who wanted to change the world. He will be remembered for his perfidy in leading the assault against affirmative action policy. Though the Supreme Court's rulings in the University of Michigan cases stopped short of a total repudiation of affirmative action programs, they do further restrict both the scope and logic of affirmative action, thus driving yet another nail into the affirmative action coffin. But it was Nathan Glazer who drove in the fateful first nail with a series of articles that began as early as 1964, culminating with the1975 publication of Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy. This was the first book-length polemic against affirmative action, and it came at the time that Glazer enjoyed a reputation as a leading public intellectual with impeccable liberal credentials -- "one of Harvard's adornments," as Martin Marty wrote in his review in the Christian Century. Another reviewer commented prophetically: "Because of his influence, [the book] may well stimulate policy revision at the highest levels of our government and courts."

In 1998 Glazer announced that he had changed his mind on affirmative action, and recently he joined hands with Glenn Loury, another political repentant, to file an amicus brief in support of the University of Michigan. Both these men were prominent for decades in the assault against affirmative action, and their eleventh-hour conversion can hardly compensate for the damage inflicted by their past actions. In a previous article in New Politics (Summer 2002), I argued that Loury's disavowal of his conservative positions does not withstand critical scrutiny. The same is true of Glazer. As I argue below, his reversal on affirmative action is half-hearted and replete with reactionary innuendo. Glazer does not concede that affirmative action is a just remedy for institutionalized racism. Rather, consistent with his past writings, his support for affirmative action is based on a victim-blaming paradigm of fragmented families and disorganized communities that render individuals unable to compete "by the tests and measures that have become the coin of American meritocracy." Glazer may have changed his mind about affirmative action policy, but he has not forsaken the assumptions and worldview on which his erstwhile opposition was based.

Why, one might ask, make Nathan Glazer the focal point of analysis? It goes without saying that affirmative action was not defeated by the whims or acts of a single person. However influential, Glazer's book did not trigger the backlash against affirmative action, but rather succeeded precisely because it resonated with a backlash that was gaining momentum at the time his book was published. Even if Glazer had remained faithful to the radical politics of his youth, it was inevitable that the forces of reaction would launch a campaign against affirmative action. And given the racist and reactionary underbelly of American society, it was almost inevitable that this campaign would eventually triumph.

All the same, Glazer did play a key role in this historical drama. Indeed, he was perfectly cast for this role precisely because he enjoyed a reputation as both a liberal intellectual and a leading scholar on race and ethnicity. Through his persona, we can observe the confluence of historical events and forces that led to the gradual evisceration of affirmative action and its ultimate defeat. Focusing on Glazer also brings an unpleasant fact to light: that liberals -- and Jewish liberals in particular -- were among the earliest and most vocal opponents of affirmative action. I hasten to add that Jewish individuals and organizations figure prominently among the most ardent and steadfast supporters of affirmative action. Nevertheless, this should not detract from the fact that Jewish liberals not only played a significant role in forging anti-affirmative action discourse, but also had explicitly Jewish reasons for doing so. Eventually, of course, the political right appropriated the anti-affirmative action cause, marshalling opposition into a veritable crusade that has come dangerously close to achieving its nefarious objective. But it was Nathan Glazer who let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, by helping to put into motion forces that ultimately led to an outcome that he now disavows.

Before we get to the genie, it is crucial that we place the issue in historical context. Let us briefly examine the historical conditions that gave rise to affirmative action policy, and the emergence of the anti- affirmative action backlash that began even before the term "affirmative action" entered popular discourse. Then I shift the focus to Nathan Glazer's personal trajectory. How is it that this man, the upwardly mobile son of poor Jewish immigrants with socialist proclivities, emerged on the vanguard of the movement to gut affirmative action?

Occupational Apartheid

LIBERAL RACE THEORY IS PREDICATED on a concept of "employment discrimination" that is seriously flawed and misleading. At first blush this term seems unassailable since it implicitly identifies discrimination as a problem and incriminates the employer (read: the greedy capitalist) for wrongdoing. On closer examination, however, the term is riddled with difficulty. Conceptually, it reduces the problem of racism to one of employers intentionally engaging in acts of discrimination based on racial animus. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act proscribes such discrimination. Thus, for Glazer and other critics of affirmative action, "employment discrimination" is already unlawful, and all that is required is more vigorous enforcement of anti-discriminatory statutes. Instead of affirmative action, these critics proffer crocodile tears over the travesty of "employment discrimination," followed by hollow demands to prosecute employers who engage in discriminatory practices.

The problem is that it is almost impossible to prove willful discrimination. Employers can always claim that they are hiring the "best" people, and that their black applicants come up short: whether in terms of educational credentials, job experience, references, "hard skills, "soft skills," or a host of other factors, many of which are patently subjective, that enter into decisions regarding hiring and promotion. Indeed, it was the failure of Title VII to enact broad changes in job integration that gave rise to affirmative action policy in the first place. In effect, employers were told that it was not enough to desist from practicing discrimination, but that they must go out of their way to ensure that their work force was inclusive of minorities. It is amazing how a term with such positive connotation -- affirmative action -- came to acquire such moral and political stigma.

There is a second, far more vexing problem with restricting "racism" to acts of intentional discrimination. Such acts are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Lurking beneath the surface is a cluster of interconnected historical and institutional factors that prevent blacks from acquiring the necessary education, skills, work experience, and access to hiring networks. In effect, so many roadblocks are placed in the way of black workers that it is unusual for them to reach the figurative hiring hall in the first place. Thus employers rarely have to dirty their hands by engaging directly in acts of discrimination. Such blatant discrimination is reserved for the rare individual who manages to circumvent these roadblocks and to arrive on the threshold of opportunity. In a racist system the discriminatory employer or admissions officer is the agent of last resort.

Thus, "employment discrimination" scarcely reflects the magnitude or depth of the problem. We are speaking not of discrete individuals who encounter racial barriers erected by discrete employers. Rather, we are talking about the categorical exclusion of an entire people from whole industries and entire job sectors for all of American history. A term that does capture the magnitude and depth of the problem is "occupational apartheid." We can put the matter simply: Title VII was designed as a remedy, though an ineffectual one, for employment discrimination. Affirmative action evolved as a remedy for occupational apartheid.

Occupational apartheid has its roots in slavery. Above all else, slavery was a system of labor, one that benefited the national economy as well as the regional economy of the South. Consider the historical irony. In the 17th and 18th centuries Southern planters went all the way to Africa to import workers for their plantations. Two centuries later government contractors are merely asked to go out of their way to recruit blacks into their work force, and we are told, in so many words, that this asking too much.

Occupational apartheid did not end with slavery. For a whole century later, a rigid "color line" relegated blacks to "Negro jobs," thus excluding them categorically from coveted jobs reserved for whites. The color line existed with nearly as much consistency in the North as in the South, effectively barring blacks from the entire manufacturing sector, with the exception of a few menial, low-paying, often dangerous and backbreaking jobs that whites spurned. In effect, a system of "racial preference" was instituted that benefited white workers for generations. Again, we confront the irony that any mention of racial preference that would benefit minorities is seen as violating a sacred principle of color blindness.

A few examples will suffice to illustrate the depth and persistence of occupational apartheid:

To repeat, we are speaking not of random acts of discrimination, but rather the categorical exclusion of an entire people from whole occupational sectors for all of American history. This is precisely the condition that affirmative action was designed to remedy, though it was never developed as coherent policy, but evolved through a series of executive orders, court decisions, and administrative policies, all buttressed by "pressures from below." The Civil Rights Movement, though generally regarded as a struggle for "rights," was equally a struggle against "the color line." Remember, A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement was centered on a demand that President Roosevelt issue an executive order lowering racial barriers in defense industries. Remember too, that the slogan for the 1963 March on Washington was "For Jobs and Freedom," rhetorically placing "jobs" even before "freedom." After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, Whitney Young and other black leaders pressed for "compensatory hiring" to drive a wedge into the system of occupational apartheid that they recognized was the greatest stumbling block to racial equality.

Finally, in 1967 and 1968 there were a number of highly publicized, grassroots protests at construction sites in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York against the exclusion of blacks from the construction trades. This provided the lever for faceless bureaucrats within President Johnson's Department of Labor to draft the Philadelphia Plan, which sought to impose "goals and timetables" upon unions and employers in the construction trades to hire blacks. After Hubert Humphrey's defeat in the 1968 election, the Plan was shelved, only to be resurrected a year later by the black Assistant Secretary of Labor, Arthur Fletcher, with indispensable backing by Secretary of Labor George Shultz and Nixon himself.

The Philadelphia Plan was the embryo of affirmative action policy. After it survived a number of legislative and court challenges, affirmative action mandates were extended to all government contractors, including those lofty institutions of higher learning that were not accustomed to thinking of themselves as "contractors" subject to labor law and policy. This was the birth of affirmative action as we know it. By 1975 affirmative action was evolving into a major policy initiative that had the promise of altering the racial division of labor that has existed since slavery. This was the moment that Nathan Glazer chose to thrust himself on the stage of history with his screed against affirmative action.

Enter Nathan Glazer

Nathan Glazer's life trajectory put him on a course that would eventually collide with affirmative action policy. First, however, he had to make a transition "From Socialism to Sociology," the dubious title that he chose for an autobiographical essay (why are these two endeavors mutually exclusive?).1 In this essay Glazer provides details about his political education, acknowledging that he was a socialist "not by conversion but by descent." His father voted faithfully for Norman Thomas, and as a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, fought against Communist control of the union. Glazer describes his upbringing as one of sage compromises: "socialist, but not too socialist; Orthodox, but not too Orthodox; friendly to Palestine, but not a Zionist; Yiddish-speaking, but not a Yiddishist." The question invites itself: was this a mindset that led him to repudiate racism, but oppose affirmative action as going "too far"?

Although Glazer emerged as the chief exponent of the theory that Jewish success in America derived from a uniquely Jewish reverence for learning, he discloses that he and his five siblings "were not expected to go to college." As the youngest, however, he was under less pressure to contribute to family earnings, and he enrolled in City College in 1940. There he gravitated to Avukah, a student Zionist organization, which Glazer describes as a group of "intellectual socialist Zionists" -- just the right mix of religion, politics, and intellectuality. And as we know from Joseph Dorman's documentary Arguing the World, Glazer became a denizen of famed Alcove 1, the political hotbed that produced the four acolytes featured in Dorman's film: Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer. Other denizens included Seymour Martin Lipset and Philip Selznick, who lured Glazer into sociology.

These biographical details bear closer scrutiny. Glazer's ascent from immigrant poverty to the heights of academe hinged on the access he enjoyed to City College when it was tuition-free. Moreover, at CCNY Glazer forged friendships that were crucial to his later success. According to Glazer's own account, it was Daniel Bell who helped him get his first job as a research assistant at the American Jewish Committee in 1944, which in turn led to a job at the Contemporary Jewish Record, which later morphed into Commentary magazine. This was the "break" that put our unemployed neophyte on the road to success. Furthermore, whatever his own ethnic and religious proclivities, Glazer's professional career was tied to Jewish organizations and the Jewish community, and he oscillated for years between his job at Commentary and his doctoral studies at Columbia. His first book, American Judaism, was based on lectures he gave at the University of Chicago in 1955 at the invitation of Daniel Boorstin, though Glazer decided, in what he describes as "a fit of bravado," not to use this for his dissertation. In 1957 another old school tie came into play. Seymour Martin Lipset, Glazer's companion on the subway to CCNY, resigned from the staff of a research project on Communism in American Life, and tapped Glazer for the job. This provided Glazer with a topic for his dissertation, which was published as a book in 1961 under the title The Social Basis of American Communism.

Glazer received his Ph.D. in 1962, at the ripe age of 39. After an unproductive year in Japan, he took a position, with the help of Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- whom he met through Irving Kristol -- at the Housing and Home Finance Agency in Washington. By all appearances his career had no clear direction. Though Glazer had collaborated with David Reisman on The Lonely Crowd, and had done some stints as a visiting professor at Berkeley, Bennington, and Smith, at the age of 40 he still had no regular academic position. In Glazer's own words: "From an academic journeyman spending a year teaching at one institution after another I had become a wandering semiacademic grantsman, collecting small grants to write one book after another." Another crony from Alcove 1 came to the rescue. Through Irving Kristol, Glazer met Lewis Feuer who helped him secure a position at Berkeley, where two others of his CCNY cronies, Lipset and Selznick, were on the sociology faculty. This was 1963, the same year that Beyond the Melting Pot was published. Decades later Glazer succeeded Kristol as co-editor, with Daniel Bell, of The Public Interest. Needless to say, none of this calls into question Glazer's "merit" as a scholar. It is only to say that the old boys network proved indispensable as Glazer negotiated his way from an unemployed college graduate through a series of career steps culminating in his designation as "one of Harvard's adornments."

Why make this point? Because access to college and the networks that ensue is what affirmative action in higher education is about. Where would Glazer be today if he, like his older siblings, had to forgo college to contribute to family earnings? Or if CCNY had not been tuition-free? Or if he came up 100 points short on his SATs, reflecting family poverty, inferior schooling, or an inability to acquire the coaching that today jacks up the scores of the children of affluent families? How many young men and women with Glazer's talents have languished on the margins or never fulfilled their promise?

Thus the question: how is it that Glazer emerged as a leading opponent of affirmative action? Why did this man place himself in the door of opportunity -- a George Wallace in liberal garb -- piously invoking high-minded principle to deny access to the victims of America's racial oppression? Was he a reluctant conservative all along, espousing positions that conformed to Commentary's "line"? Did he have pangs of liberal conscience that led him ultimately to "change his mind" on affirmative action?

Commentary: Ethnicity and Reaction

In an article entitled "Breaking Faith," published in Dissent (Spring 1981), Bernard Avishai offers a trenchant analysis of Commentary's "turn" away from liberalism to an increasingly strident and retrograde neoconservatism. Avishai errs, however, in assuming that this rightward turn occurred from 1969 on. Granted, this was the period that Commentary stopped publishing the "radicals" whom Podhoretz renounced in Breaking Ranks, and it was not until the 1970s that Commentary shifted ground on Vietnam and a host of domestic issues. The latter was heralded by Glazer's 1971 article on "The Limits of Social Policy" in which Glazer maintained that liberal social policies could not compensate for deficiencies among the reprobate poor. However, to claim as Avishai does, that Commentary "succeeded brilliantly as a force for American Jewish life, especially from 1963 to 1968," requires turning a blind eye to issues of race. In point of fact, Commentary's "turn" began in 1964 when Podhoretz and his minion detected a "radical" change in the direction of the black protest movement, as calls were issued for "compensatory treatment" in education and jobs. The alarm bell sounded in the editorial offices at Commentary, and this marked the beginning of Commentary's fateful shift away from liberalism.

In February 1964 -- a critical moment in the black liberation struggle before the legislative victories were assured -- Commentary sponsored a symposium at Town Hall in New York City, on "Liberalism and the Negro." Norman Podhoretz introduced the discussion as follows:

I think it may be fair to say that American liberals are by now divided into two schools of thought on what is often called the Negro Problem . . . On the one side, we have those liberals whose ultimate perspective on race relations . . . envisages the gradual absorption of deserving Negroes one by one into white society . . . Over the past two or three years, however, a new school of liberal (or perhaps it should be called radical) thought has been developing which is based on the premise . . . that ‘the rights and privileges of an individual rest upon the status attained by the group to which he belongs.' From this premise certain points follow that are apparently proving repugnant to the traditional liberal mentality.

Here was a battle cry and warning that the black protest movement was shifting in a "radical" direction that would no longer enjoy the support of the Commentary liberals. At the Town Hall symposium Sidney Hook, Gunnar Myrdal, and guess who? -- Nathan Glazer -- all argued forcefully against the idea of compensatory treatment. Podhoretz had drawn a clear line in the political sands. Traditional liberals envisaged the gradual absorption of "deserving Negroes one by one," whereas "radicals" opted for strategies that would achieve more rapid results by introducing -- reader: be prepared for the "p" word -- preferences for blacks to compensate for the cumulative disadvantages associated with past and present racism. The fourth panelist -- James Baldwin -- stood alone, parrying the arguments thrust at him with his usual eloquence and resolve. To the optimistic view that the nation was making progress, Baldwin had this to say: "I'm delighted to know that there've been many fewer lynchings in the year 1963 than there were in the year 1933, but I also have to bear in mind -- I have to bear it in mind because my life depends on it -- that there are a great many ways to lynch a man."

Here in the spring of 1964 was an early sign of a crisis in liberalism that would ultimately spawn the neoconservative movement. Given the prominence of Jews in liberal circles, it becomes difficult to sort out how much of this breach was a matter of ideology and how much boiled down to raw ethnic interests. Jews recoiled at any suggestion of "proportionate representation," which conjured up memories of the numerus clausus in Russia that restricted Jewish access to universities, not to speak of discriminatory quotas imposed in the 1920s at such elite colleges as Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. However, there was barely a hint of raw ethnic interests in the rarefied discourse at Town Hall, though by1972 Podhoretz was willing to dispense with intellectual façade in an article entitled "Is It Good for the Jews?" Without mincing words, Podhoretz asserted that Jews had a right to aggressively defend their group interest. Specifically, he was exercised about affirmative action in university admissions and hiring practices, which he construed as "hurting the Jews." Since they constituted a mere three percent of the population, Podhoretz reasoned, "the Jews must inevitably be harmed by any move in the direction of a system of proportional representation according to group."

Commentary featured the text of the Town Hall symposium in its March 1964 issue under the title "Liberalism and the Negro: A Round-Table Discussion." However, the wheels of change in the magazine's disposition toward the black protest movement were already in motion. The January issue had included an article by David Danzig, an associate director of the American Jewish Committee, on "The Meaning of Negro Strategy." According to Danzig, the recent "outcropping of violence and intransigence" was obscuring "the less dramatic but more significant development of a new stage in Negro-white relations." A few paragraphs later he laid his cards on the table: "The solitary Negro seeking admission into the white world through unusual achievement has been replaced by the organized Negro insisting upon a legitimate share for his group of the goods of American society." Then in language that was echoed by Podhoretz in his remarks at Town Hall: "The white liberal who . . . has generally conceived of progress in race relations as the one-by-one assimilation of deserving Negroes into the larger society, finds himself confused and threatened by suddenly having to come to terms with an aggressive Negro community that wishes to enter it en masse." The subtext was unmistakable: CLOSE THE FLOODGATES: THE NEGROES ARE COMING. EN MASSE!

As with the lofty discussion at Town Hall, there was nothing in Danzig's article to suggest that his concerns about the "new strategy" were motivated by ethnic self-interest. Indeed, his article had only a single passing reference to Jews, crediting them with "raising virtually an entire immigrant population into the middle class within the span of two generations," with the hopeful implication that blacks might do so as well. Without "quotas" or "reverse discrimination" alluded to elsewhere in his article. The delicate job of linking the specter of "quotas" to Jewish interests was left for Nathan Glazer who published an article in the December 1964 issue of Commentary under the equivocal title "Negroes and Jews: The New Challenge to Pluralism."

What was this putative "challenge to pluralism"? According to Glazer:

. . . there is another and more subtle side to the shift of Negro demands from abstract equality to group consideration, from color-blind to color-conscious. The Negroes press these new demands because they see that color-blind policies do not lead rapidly enough to the entry of large numbers of Negroes into good jobs, good neighborhoods, good schools. It is, in other words, a group interest they wish to further. Paradoxically, however, the ultimate basis of the resistance to their demands, I am convinced -- certainly among Jews, but not Jews alone -- is that they pose a serious threat to the ability of other groups to maintain their communities.

Let me get this straight. Blacks are faulted for pursuing "a group interest," thus violating a cherished principle of liberalism, but it is permissible for Jews to defend "their" jobs, neighborhoods, and schools from the "challenge" posed by blacks. In other words, this is a case of pluralism for me but not for thee. Paragraphs later, Glazer alludes to "the true seats of Jewish exclusiveness -- the Jewish business, for example, the Jewish union, or the Jewish (or largely Jewish) neighborhood and school." But there is a world of difference between asserting that a business, union, neighborhood, or school is largely populated by people who "happen to be Jewish," and making a proprietary claim that these are Jewish institutions.2 Glazer is invoking "pluralism" as a justification for racism, much as ideological defenders of apartheid (which literally means "separate development") did in South Africa. Such was Nathan Glazer's contribution to American race relations in December 1964, a time when blacks were still struggling to end second-class citizenship. In this context it is breathtaking for Glazer to attack blacks as violating the hallowed principle of color-blindness, an allegation that would emerge as central to anti- affirmative action discourse.

Thus, in 1964 Glazer was in league with other Jewish liberals who were among the first to go on record as opposing compensatory programs for blacks. What is remarkable about this is that affirmative action was years away from evolving as a concept or a policy. These men deserve grudging credit for their political acumen: they anticipated the next stage in the black protest movement, and they were determined to nip the flower in the bud.

Nevertheless, the worst fears of the Commentary liberals slowly materialized. Much to their consternation, the Nixon Administration championed the Philadelphia Plan over the active opposition of labor unions and Jewish leaders and without notable support of civil rights leaders. Though the Plan was initially targeted for trade unions -- not elite colleges or the professions -- once it survived court challenges, "goals and timetables" were extended all large government contractors. White liberals also took up the cause for compensatory hiring. In August 1971, John Kenneth Galbraith, together with MIT economists Edwin Kuh and Lester Thurow, published an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled "The Galbraith Plan to Promote The Minorities" (which Podhoretz rails against in "Is It Good for the Jews?"). The article began as follows: "One of the plain lessons of the last 20 years is that where equality for blacks . . . is concerned, good intentions are not enough." Citing statistics showing that white males had 96 percent of high-paying jobs, the Galbraith Plan envisioned the establishment of a Minorities Advancement Commission that would require employers with more than 5000 people "to submit a plan for bringing the distribution of women, blacks, and Spanish-speaking workers in its salary hierarchy into conformity with the representation of these groups in the working force of the community or communities in which it operates." The authors sidestepped the issue of racism in unions with the demurral that "no reform can accomplish everything." With this noteworthy exception, the Galbraith Plan envisioned a broad attack against occupational apartheid ("the present monopoly of good jobs by white males indefensible").

This was the political context in which Nathan Glazer devoted his talents to writing the first book-length polemic against affirmative action. Published in 1975, Affirmative Discrimination was a compilation of articles that Glazer had written in the early 1970s for Commentary and The Public Interest, together with lectures that he had presented in 1974 at the University of Michigan entitled "The American Ethnic Pattern: A New Phase?" Glazer's core argument was that ethnic groups in America were free to maintain themselves on a voluntary basis without any constraints imposed by the state. This policy of "salutary neglect," however, was contradicted by the emergence of "a new ethnic pattern," where the state became implicated in recording the ethnic affiliation of its citizens, and ensuring that each group is fairly represented in jobs, housing, schools, and other institutional settings. For Glazer, this constituted an ominous breach of the social contract. "We have not yet reached the degraded condition of the Nuremberg laws," he wrote, "but undoubtedly we will have to create a new law of personal ethnic and racial status to define just who is eligible for these benefits, to replace the laws we have banned to determine who should be subject to discrimination."

Now, the mere mention of the Nuremberg Laws by this Commentary intellectual is enough to raise a red flag warning Jews that affirmative action was fraught with danger. Glazer forgets that the Nuremberg Laws were themselves modeled after laws and practices in the Jim Crow South. Still worse, he betrays the memory of the victims of Nazi persecution by using their unfathomable tragedy to defeat proposals designed, not to impose a regime of racist persecution, but on the contrary, to counter the effects of America's version of Nuremberg.

Of course, Glazer is not totally oblivious to racism. Indeed, he writes that, unlike the case of other ethnic groups where class differences could be attributed to individual deprivations, "there was one great group whose degree of deprivation was so severe that it was clearly to be ascribed to the group's, not the individual's status. This was the Negro group." By acknowledging the unique situation of blacks, Glazer is a logical step away from conceding the need for "special efforts" (to use Whitney Young's term) to deal with the problem. But he does not like where this thread leads, and so he veers off in the next sentence, lamenting that "what began as an effort to redress the inequality of the Negro turned into an effort to redress the inequality of all deprived groups."

Glazer has backed himself into a corner. Logically, he could have argued that affirmative action is justifiable for blacks alone (which he now argues). Instead, he avoided these nettlesome realities by taking refuge behind abstractions: color-consciousness is proscribed by the Constitution, and the whole purpose of the civil rights movement was to institute the ideal of a color-blind society. How then deal with the fact that blacks have suffered "a group deprivation" in patent violation of hallowed Constitutional norms, and as a consequence, still languish at the bottom of the class system? For Glazer, the way out of this conundrum is to shift the blame away from racist structures (the target of affirmative action policy) to blacks themselves. Here Glazer reiterates a position that he first enunciated in Beyond the Melting Pot: that because of the terrible ravages of the past, blacks are incapacitated to follow in the footsteps of other ethnic groups who were able to overcome barriers of prejudice and discrimination in a successful pursuit of the American Dream. In other words, it is the damaged and defective culture of blacks that needs to be repaired, and this, regrettably, is "beyond the limits of social policy." Instead of social action, we get moral exhortation about what blacks need to do to raise themselves from the depths.

Glazer's position is barely distinguishable from the one enunciated, though without liberal gloss, by Dinesh D'Souza in The End of Racism: that the crux of the problem of race is the cultural pathology that riddles the black community, and the responsibility for repairing the problem rests with blacks themselves. According to Glazer's rendering of history, during the 1960s discrimination was declining and blacks were making progress in terms of jobs and incomes. Mysteriously, "there was simultaneously a great increase in female-headed families among blacks, of youth unemployment, and of crime among blacks. No one has given a very convincing explanation of this tangle of pathology in the ghetto, but it is hard to believe it is anything as simple as lack of jobs or discrimination in available jobs." Like D'Souza, Glazer blames "family breakup and social disorder among blacks" for white resistance to integration in jobs, schools, and housing. The remedy: blacks need to do what white ethnic groups did -- namely, establish a social order consisting of "stable neighborhoods, with children succeeding parents in the same area, strong organizations centered around the church, formal ethnic associations or patterns of informal ethnic association, the local political organization, the trade union, the local small businesses of members of the group, which serve as much for socialization as for ordinary business." In effect, blacks need to morph themselves into Jews -- or Italians, or Poles, or whatever other group represents "the old ethnic pattern." This is rather like trying to pound a rectangle into a slot shaped like a circle. To accomplish this, Glazer has to mutilate race history and twist concepts to make blacks fit into a paradigm that does not represent their experience.

Glazer knows better: he concedes that "blacks were brought in chains as slaves and the whites came as free men," and "blacks have continually dealt with the most severe and unbending prejudice, whereas that met by immigrants was mild and scarcely to be found after the second generation." But he flicks away these caveats on the grounds that "compensation for the past is a dangerous principle." In the final sentences of his book, Glazer invokes the principle of color-blindness to conceal his contradictions and bad faith:

It is now our task to work with the intellectual, judicial, and political institutions of the country to reestablish the simple and clear understanding that rights attach to the individual, not the group, and that public policy must be exercised without distinction of race, color, or national origin.

Tragically, history was on Glazer's side. Although affirmative action persisted as national policy in such diverse areas as employment, higher education, government contracting, and the military, it also has been subject to unrelenting attack from intellectual, judicial, and political elites, along the very lines that were prefigured in Glazer's writing. Though the earliest attacks on affirmative action came from the ranks of liberals -- labor unions as well as liberal intellectuals and academicians who bridled at being subject to affirmative action mandates -- in time the anti-affirmative action movement was appropriated by the political right, organized and funded by conservative foundations (as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic document in No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda). Ironically, even as the crusade against affirmative action gathered steam, the benefits of affirmative action policy were becoming plainly visible. For the first time in American history, there was a large black middle class that was not anchored in the ghetto economy, but in occupational spheres that had been subject to affirmative action mandates: the professions, white-collar corporations, major blue-collar industries, and in government (where over a quarter of all blacks are employed). The crowning irony is that critics of affirmative action cite the progress of this black middle class as proof that affirmative action is unnecessary.

Glazer's Second Thoughts

During the 1980s and 1990s there was an outpouring of books by scholars attacking affirmative action. The intellectual groundwork was laid for a series of Supreme Court decisions that have eviscerated affirmative action policy. Although defenders of affirmative action breathed a sigh of relief at the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School, there is little to cheer about. Gone forever are affirmative action mandates directed at all large government contractors, and subject to governmental oversight. Not only are affirmative action programs entirely a voluntary affair, but the nebulous concept of "diversity" is also a poor substitute for the imperative of remedying past racism. At least for the time being, colleges that wish to increase minority enrollment will find ways of doing so without running afoul of Court rulings. However, one thing is certain: the curtain is slowly descending on affirmative action policy as we know it. The inevitable result will be a gradual erosion of many of the hard-won gains of the past several decades.

This prospect has led Nathan Glazer to have second thoughts. As mentioned earlier, he even co-sponsored (with Glenn Loury) an amicus brief in support of the University of Michigan. One might think that Glazer's belated flip-flop would be greeted with bitterness and cynicism among supporters of affirmative action. No such thing. Instead Glazer receives encomiums for being "open minded" and rallying to the cause. Certainly, his support is welcome, even at this late date. However, before we toss laurels at the man who did more than any other single person to torpedo affirmative action, it behooves us to scrutinize his current position. It is well and good that Glazer now has declared his support for affirmative action. But what about the bevy of suppositions and premises that undergirded Glazer's initial opposition? Has Glazer had an intellectual lobotomy, or is he merely having pangs of conscience?

Glazer has had no intellectual lobotomy. He has not engaged in an honest reexamination of the premises on which his initial opposition to affirmative action was based. His belated endorsement of affirmative action policy is at best tentative and qualified, and it is based on false assumptions. I have encountered numerous colleagues who say with approval that Glazer has "changed his mind." But I have yet to meet one who has actually examined the substance of Glazer's supposed conversion.

In 1987 Glazer published a second edition of Affirmative Discrimination. In the opening paragraph he writes, "Remarkably little has changed to affect the contours of the issue as it was laid out here in 1975." Yet he concedes "one fear and one hope failed to be realized in the dozen years" intervening. The fear was that "affirmative action would spread beyond the initial groups targeted for government concern to include others." In other words, that affirmative action would evolve into a system of "proportionate representation." An honest reckoning with this supposition, vitiated by subsequent events, would have forced Glazer to confront the fact that he, along with the other progenitors of anti-affirmative action discourse at Commentary, were driven by an unrealistic and unrealized fear that "goals and timetables" for blacks would usher in a system of proportionate representation that would inflict great harm on Jews. We can thank Podhoretz for at least laying his cards on the table and asserting that Jews have a right to aggressively defend their group interests, and even to use the elbow when necessary. Jewish anxieties about "quotas" are not hard to understand given the bitter experience with discriminatory quotas alluded to earlier. Unfortunately, the kluge mentchn at Commentary chose not to acknowledge the difference between quotas designed to keep Jews out, and those whose purpose was to increase the representation of the victims of racial oppression. Perhaps they grasped this (how could they not?), but feared that it would be Jews -- certainly not the patricians who were already recipients of preference -- who would pay the price for increased black enrollment at the elite colleges. But this was a knee-jerk reaction that had more to do with fighting demons from the past than dealing with the urgent realities of the moment. Now that Glazer concedes that this "fear" was unwarranted -- which is to say, that affirmative action is not bad for Jews -- he is free to give it his grudging endorsement.

Ironically, Jewish defense groups had long employed a similar logic, citing statistics indicating a pattern of underrepresentation of Jews in the boardrooms of major corporations and partnerships of prestigious law firms. No one accused Jews of proposing a system of "proportionate representation." Rather, it was understood that these statistics were indicative of a pattern of discrimination that was fundamentally unfair and undemocratic. To compare affirmative action to the Nuremberg laws, fudging the fact that a classification system was being used for the purposes of inclusion and not exclusion, was a cynical misuse of history for self-serving ends.3

The "hope" that failed to materialize, according to Glazer, was that "the progress of blacks would continue and would make evident the lack of necessity of such measures." Glazer's sin, according to Glazer, was that he was too optimistic. But again, an honest reckoning would require that Glazer examine the intellectual and political girders on which this optimism was based. Why did he fail to see what was evident to black leaders in 1964 -- that passing a law proscribing discrimination in employment was not enough -- both because blacks suffered handicaps associated with past racism and because discrimination was embedded in occupational structures in ways that were beyond the reach of Title VII? If this truth was not transparent to Glazer in 1964, certainly it had to be clear when he published Affirmative Discrimination in 1975, eleven years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, when whole industries and job sectors were practically devoid of black presence. Or by 1986, the year that Glazer published the second edition of Affirmative Discrimination, it had to be obvious that affirmative action had been immensely successful as policy, integrating blacks into occupational structures from which they had been excluded since slavery. So, for Glazer to claim that his error was that he had optimistically expected that blacks would continue their progress without affirmative action is patent nonsense. The truth is that this optimism was a sunny cover for opposing a policy that was anathema for other reasons.

There is a substantive point to be made about racial optimism as well. A staple of anti-affirmative-action discourse, from Glazer to Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, is that blacks were making rapid strides before the implementation of affirmative action. This claim is based on a gross misuse of statistics. As these scholars must know, the figures indicating improving incomes in the 1950s and 1960s reflected the migration of millions of blacks from the South, largely prompted by the mechanization of Southern agriculture. These migrants gravitated to ghettos in the North where they encountered massive discrimination in jobs, but even the worst jobs were better than the "slave wages" they received in the South. This is the "progress" that Glazer and others choose to crow about. They have had to don blinders to deny the fact that affirmative action opened up massive opportunities to blacks in job sectors where they were previously excluded, including major blue-collar industries.

Finally, in 1998 a proclamation went out to all the people in the land: "Nathan Glazer Changes His Mind, Again." The venue was the New York Times Magazine. The author, James Traub, was responding to an article that Glazer published two months earlier in The New Republic under the title "In Defense of Preference." Glazer began by piously portraying the conflict as one between hallowed principle ("merit") and "reality" ("strict adherence to merit would result in few African Americans getting jobs, admissions, and contracts"). Both elements in this equation warrant close scrutiny. Glazer chooses to disregard the tomes that have been written debunking the idea of "merit," especially as it pertains to college admissions, and the manifold ways in which "merit" perpetuates racial and class advantage. He only bemoans "how far behind African Americans are when judged by the tests and measures that have become the common coin of American meritocracy." He is saying, in so many words, that blacks cannot make it any other way, and therefore we must lower the bar.

Furthermore, Glazer's assumptions about the "reality" that requires us to compromise with principle is replete with racist innuendo. What are the "painful facts" that make affirmative action necessary? Not that blacks still encounter massive discrimination in job markets. Not that subtle forms of racism are so embedded in employment structures that "good faith" efforts alone are ineffectual. Not that the virtual absence of blacks in entire job sectors or in higher education amounts to prima facie racism, no matter what reasons are cited for black exclusion. Not that the government is implicated in the perpetuation of racial exclusion and disadvantage by awarding contracts to employers where there is a clear pattern of discrimination. Not that it is unfair to disqualify black students who have been able to overcome numerous racist obstacles to even reach the gates of elite colleges solely on the basis of a numerical deficit on the SATs. Not that the legitimacy and value of affirmative action policy have been validated by the beneficial results, not only for the recipients of affirmative action, but for the businesses and universities that have become more inclusive, and for the nation as a whole.

None of these suppositions enters into Glazer's "defense of preference." Instead Glazer resorts to the blaming- of-the-victim paradigm that he did so much to pioneer in Beyond the Melting Pot. As he writes:

What was unforeseen and unexpected was that the gap between the educational performance of blacks and whites would persist and, in some respects, deepen despite the civil rights revolution and hugely expanded social and educational programs, that inner-city schools would continue to decline, and that the black family would unravel to a remarkable degree, contributing to social conditions for large numbers of black children to do far worse than those in the 1960s [italics are mine].

Thus, with echoes of the Moynihan Report, Glazer cites the unraveling black family as a major factor explaining the widening racial gap in educational performance. This, from a professor who hangs his hat at Harvard's School of Education!

"In the presence of those conditions," Glazer argues, "an insistence on color-blindness means the effective exclusion today of African Americans from positions of influence, wealth, and power." But it is not blacks from "unraveled" black families and inner-city schools who are applying to Harvard! First of all, there is no "black family," only black families from disparate class circumstances (the reason that Glazer's older siblings never went to college). Moreover, Glazer is strangely riveted on affirmative action as it pertains to "positions of influence, wealth, and power." He says nothing at all about affirmative action in the workplace, which can and does provide channels of escape for inner-city families still mired in poverty.

Let me be clear: I do not ask for a mea culpa from Nathan Glazer, which would only be a gratuitous and hollow gesture. If anything, I am asking that he acknowledge where he went wrong as a scholar. In his unwillingness to do more than pay lip service to the wrongs visited upon blacks throughout American history. In his failure to arrive at a conceptualization of racism that encompasses the systemic nature of racism and requires a corresponding remedy. In his adoption of the language of pathology in order to shift attention away from racist institutions onto the very individuals who are the victims of institutionalized racism. And finally, in putting personal ethnic allegiances ahead of a search for either truth or justice.

Through his influential writings, Glazer succeeded in his mission: to foment opposition to affirmative action, both in terms of discourse and political action. Precisely because of his stature as a liberal intellectual, Glazer's dissent on affirmative action had two important consequences: first, it eroded support from the two groups -- liberals and Jews -- who represented a crucial constituency for affirmative action policy; and second, it paved the way for a frontal assault against affirmative action by conservatives who could deny that their opposition was motivated by ideology or racism.

It bears repeating, however, that Glazer did not act alone. One would have to go back to the discourse on slavery to find such an outpouring of misguided erudition: philosophical treatises by learned scholars that elide elemental truths, or that obscure these truths behind a smokescreen of sophistry and obfuscation. The triumphant anti-affirmative action crusaders who sanctimoniously waged battle against an abstraction will have to bear moral responsibility for the real-life consequences. America will not be the more democratic nation that they imagine, but rather a nation ever more riven by racial divisions that are a persistent blot on American democracy. Perhaps this is what tugs at Nathan Glazer's liberal conscience.



  1. Nathan Glazer, "From Socialism to Sociology," in Bennett M. Berger, ed., Authors of Their Own Lives (University of California Press, 1990), pp. 190-209. return

  2. Herbert Hill makes this point forcefully in his critique of Glazer's 1964 article. As Hill also points out: "Ironically, the goals and methods of the black struggle to which Glazer pointed with disapproval characterized the history of many Jewish organizations in their earlier efforts to realize Jewish aspirations." "Black Labor and Affirmative Action: A Historical Perspective," in Steven Shulman and William Darity, eds., The Question of Discrimination (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), p. 230. return

  3. In the interest of full disclosure, I should report a personal encounter with Commentary and its battle against "quotas." Between 1962 and 1971 I was enrolled as a student at UC, Berkeley. I should add parenthetically that my path never crossed with Glazer's, either inside or outside the classroom. I did my dissertation on "The Religious Factor in American Higher Education," based on large surveys of faculty and students sponsored by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. In my reading I encountered fleeting references to the imposition of quotas to limit Jewish enrollment at Harvard and other elite colleges in the 1920s. This aroused deep curiosity, borne out of naiveté: how did these venerable institutions of higher learning, I asked myself, possibly justify such blatant discrimination? I proceeded to write a chapter on "The Jewish Problem in American Higher Education," which I submitted for publication to Commentary. This was another act of naiveté since, as an editor told me, virtually all of the magazine's articles were commissioned. In any event, my article was accepted for publication. However, when it appeared in the September 1971 issue, I was appalled by the title that the editors inserted: "How Jewish Quotas Began." The clear subtext was: Today, as we again confront the specter of quotas in elite colleges, let us examine "how Jewish quotas began." I jumped at the opportunity to set the record straight when Commentary asked me to respond to a letter written by Harold Wechsler, a doctoral student in history at Columbia, accusing me of propagating "a generalized fear of a quota system." As I wrote: "Mr. Wechsler seems to think that one has to be either for or against quotas, and therefore is uncomfortable about accepting the facts concerning Jewish quotas. But this stems from a failure to recognize the difference between a quota predicated on bigotry and one whose purpose is to counteract bigotry." Thus, despite my unwitting complicity in Commentary's war against affirmative action, at least I was able to inject a subversive note, albeit in the Letter's column. return


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