Skin Deep Guide

“Balkanization,” “Reverse Discrimination” and Individualism

contributed by Troy Duster

Sometimes the most disarmingly simple questions can produce the most penetrating insights. At UC Santa Barbara a student asked his instructor, “Why is it that when we see eight white students having lunch together in the commons, we just see students having lunch…but when we see eight African American students having lunch together in the same dining room, we call it a ‘balkanized racial enclave’?” The answer is embedded in the question, and deeply mired in the cultural practices that generated the question.

On most college campuses in the United States, white students are the overwhelming majority and, as such, are “unmarked.” The changing gender composition of American law students over the last three decades dramatically demonstrates this “marking” phenomenon. In 1965 only four percent of all law students in the entire nation were females. Being a white male student, studying law in the 1960′s was to be “unmarked”or, to put it another way, “normal!” If those few and scattered women gathered together to have lunch they would be noticed as self-segregating or “clannish,” while their male counterparts would “just be having lunch.” By 1995, just three decades later, women constituted 44 percent of the law students in the country. Now they just have lunch too. Well, not really. Because some males now experience the loss of their previous domination of law school admissions, when women gather, they still can seem like “balkanized gender enclaves” of activists mobilizing to maintain their gains.

Of course, “balkanized enclaves” are not usually perceived as such by those inside them. The closer one is to a group, the more likely one is to see internal differences. This poses an interesting paradox. Namely, while observers from the outside are likely to impute “sameness” and “self-segregation,” the group in question may be struggling with tremendous internal differentiation and with great effort attempting to forge a common identity. For example, groups such as the Asian Business Association and the Black Engineering and Science Student Association meet only a few hours a month. They have a hard time getting membership to come for just these few hours. Yet they see themselves described in the media as a coherent force that excludes others from attendance.

Citing their fears of “reverse discrimination” students often say they just want to be seen and judged as individuals. Of course we are all individuals, but we aren’t only individuals. Each of us is also a member of a group that identifies us among other individuals, and which shapes our fate. This usually includes such concentric circles as family, community, religion, nation-state, social class, gender, and race. These circles then dramatically determine our “individual” access to resources.

When it comes to a consideration of the race and ethnicity of “marked” individuals for special entitlement based upon prior exclusion, the most effective and most frequently cited argument against special consideration revolves around the idea of fairness and most particularly, around fairness to the individual. Here the rhetoric is seamlessly simple and the surface representation is flawless: We are presented with two individuals, one white male and one Latina from the same high school. The white male has a GPA of 4.0 while the Latina has a 3.5. Applying to the same university, she gets in and he does not. How can that be fair? Since he did not personally discriminate against anyone, at least one-on-one, how can he be blamed for acts of racial discrimination committed long before he was born? As long as the question of fairness to two individuals is so framed, as long as the dialogue is thusly set so that there is no other context to these two individuals save their disembodied existence as high school GPA’s, this is not a debate, but a rhetorical exercise in which individual fairness will always win out.

But are two individuals and their test scores ever the whole story of fairness in any society? At the extreme let us take the current situation in South Africa. For the last half century whites created and implemented laws that permitted themselves, as whites, to accumulate wealth and land and power, to have access to universities and corporate boardrooms, to have wages five to ten times that of Black workers doing the same labor. After 45 years of official apartheid, the white monopoly on access to good jobs and good education came to an end, but not before whites had accumulated more than ten times the wealth of Blacks. The new government has issued guidelines to redress some of these past grievances. And already critics of initiatives that would place Blacks in positions held exclusively by whites for the last half century are now dubbing such programs “neo-apartheid.” “It’s reverse discrimination” complained a spokesman for the Mine Workers Union, a union that still bars blacks from joining!

What has this to do with the United States? Even in this country we are not only individuals but also members of certain groups that shape our fate. Financially, the biggest difference between Whites and African Americans today is in their median net worth. In 1991 the median net worth of white households was more than ten times that of African-American households. This financial difference is also then reflected in the quality of education and other variables that affect academic performance. If we are to judge “fairness” only on an individual basis without taking such variables into account, the only possible outcome is the maintenance of an historically discriminatory status quo.

For further reading:

“Understand Self-Segregation on the Campus” in Brown, Efficient Reading.
Stanley Fish “How The Right Hijacked the Magic Words” New York Times, August 13, 1995 .

“Individual Fairness, Group Preferences, and the California Strategy” Representations Summer, 1996.

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