Speaeking of Ricci, anybody else been following the three-sided argument between Will Saletan, John McWhorter, and Steve Sailer about the persistence of the racial gap in test performance in the face of No Child Left Behind? No? Well, check it out:
I think McWhorter gets much the best of this whole exchange, but I would put to both him and Saletan the following.
The various racial gaps in American society – in wealth, in health, in educational achievement – are facts. Are they facts that command attention and demand action? For moral reasons (because America’s legacy of slavery and segregation imposes permanent obligations on the American polity with regard to the consequences of that legacy)? For pragmatic reasons (because these kinds of gaps within a polity between communities that consider themselves to have to one or another extent distinct identities pose a persistent threat to social harmony)?
If, for whatever reason, they command attention and demand action, how is that attention to be paid and that action to be taken without racial categorization? To be clear: whatever you think of the Ricci case, or affirmative action generally, I don’t see how you can make race go away as a political category (which seems to be what Saletan wants) if its salience as such hasn’t gone away. And if such categorization is to persist, how are we to have a dialogue that excludes neither uncomfortable data nor any member of the polity from the conversation?
The last relates to the Steve Sailer “problem.” I didn’t link in the above to Sailer’s contributions to the dialogue because, upon re-reading, his contributions were overwhelmingly focused on his own place in the dialogue, or lack thereof. (And they are easy enough for anyone to find who’s interested; just go to his site.) Sailer should recognize by now that, by writing for an implied reader who is already sympathetic to him and to his view of himself, and in particular by evidencing no concern for how an African-American reader might receive his writing, Sailer has effectively excluded himself from most conversations. Given that I still think he has interesting things to say, and is worth reading for those things, this poses a peculiar burden on me, and other readers (like Saletan) who apparently feel the same way, in how we treat him. The general approach (preferred by Saletan) is to telegraph repeatedly one’s basic distaste for disrespectable characters like Sailer, which gives Sailer the opportunity to wave his hands and say, “see: even when they agree with me they exclude me because they can’t handle the truth!” I’m unsatisfied with that approach myself, which is why I don’t follow it, but I don’t know what a better approach is given that Sailer himself is, plainly, not going to change on this score.
Finally, I want to ask a question with more complex ramifications. How committed should we be, as a society, to the identification of fairness with meritocracy? “Fairness” is a bedrock principle for a healthy society; a society that abandons any pretense at treating members fairly won’t be a society at all for very long. But “meritocracy” means much more than this: it specifies how rulers are to be chosen, and how goods are to be distributed, and, in our society, says that it is right and fair for rulers to be chosen and goods to be distributed according to a scale in which talent, and particularly talent at passing tests, predominates. And there are social systems that work differently – that distribute goods and power based on seniority, or brute strength, or social position, or deeds of honor, or demonstrated piety, or, for that matter, from each according to his ability to each according to his need. I’m not arguing here for any of these alternatives, or for any other one that I haven’t mentioned. I’m merely pointing out that both McWhorter and Saletan implicitly endorse that identification of “fairness” with “meritocracy” and that, if the problems they are both concerned with prove to be as persistent and difficult as they both fear, that identification will probably need to be questioned.