Necessary, not good

Affirmative action is important. It’s also based on a lie.

When some Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, he tells them that Moses allowed the practice on account of the people’s hard hearts (Matt. 19:3–9). He seems to be saying that divorce is not good, but it’s allowed because sometimes it’s necessary. If your main takeaway is the allowance, you’ve missed something. The point is instead to develop every possible virtue and capacity to stay married and to consider divorce only when all those have for whatever reason come to an end. Divorce here is an escape hatch, not an invitation.

Perhaps we should think similarly about race-based affirmative action, a hard-hearted proposition if there ever was one. Race, after all, is a lie invented to grant moral legitimacy, even nobility, to societies founded on imperialism, colonization, enslavement, theft, rape, murder, and so on. The noble lie of race gaslights victims by claiming that their race is the reason for their suffering. It harmonizes unjust political orders by assigning particular roles (like ruler and ruled) to particular races (like White and Black).

Race ranks people. That’s not all it does, but when it comes to affirmative action, it does at least that. Organizing society around the noble lie’s zero-sum logic necessarily pits people against each other, a fact that rears its ugly head each time Americans debate affirmative action by bandying about “racial preferences,” which takes as given the absurd business of shoehorning everyone into a handful of discrete races in the first place. Race-based affirmative action asks us to forget the noble lie’s backstory, its origins as a founding myth, and to just go with it.