The Economist brands racism as “America’s constant curse,” and the question of race unnerves almost everybody, as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 airily outlaws discrimination in government, commerce, and schooling on grounds of race, gender, age, religion, or national origin, and the new, openly politicized White House policy on affirmative action (“mend it, don’t end it”) puts on hold the past 35 years of racial strife—strife that has compounded, not caused, the racial problem.

But what is race? How is it defined? And, as an official policy tool, is race lending itself to the law of unintended consequences, spawning racial disharmony rather than harmony?

In my view, the concept of “race” is fatally flawed, both in and out of law. As the Census Bureau gets set to take the 2000 census, check out its oblique definition (which can be found in the 1998 World Almanac):

The concept of race as used by the Census Bureau does not reflect any clear-cut scientific definition of biological stock. The data for race represent self-classification by respondents. Persons could identify their race by classifying themselves in one of the categories listed on the census form—that is, white, black, American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, Chinese . . .

. . . and so on through a long list of racial boxes ending with an exception for Hispanic. The Census Bureau concedes that no specific race can be inferred from the category “Hispanic”; a person of “Hispanic origin may be of any race.” Of course, the Bureau supplies an “other race” category that “includes persons not included in the race categories described above.” But doesn’t this catch-all phrase marginalize those who check off this box, relegating them to outsider status? Indeed, doesn’t the whole race-by-race approach of the Census Bureau make for a race-by-race undercount, overcount, or—certainly—miscount? Doesn’t this approach yield doubtful quota formulas for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and its army of allied lawyers who “prove” racial under representation in employee staffs, college admissions, bank lending patterns, etc.?

The Census Bureau says that the diversify of America’s population will continue to increase; by 2050, based on current trends, the non-Hispanic white share of the population is projected to fall from the current 73 percent to 53, the African- American share to increase from 13 to 15 percent, and the Hispanic share to more than double, from 11 to 24 percent. The implications of increasing population diversity for American employers, lenders, universities, and others operating under the federalized affirmative-action program are portentous. Civil-rights advocates and their lawyers should find their business booming.

Yet consider Ward Connerly, business entrepreneur, vice chairman of the University of California board of regents, and chief advocate of California’s Proposition 209, which bars the state from favoring minorities in such matters as state contract awards and college entrance ratios. Connerly sees himself as an unhyphenated American and asks other states to follow California’s race-blind lead, as Washington State did in 1998. Still, in the matter of affirmative action, who is in charge: the states or the feds? Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide—one hopes on the grounds of the First, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments, which reserve such decision-making to the states or the people themselves. But however the Court rules, the question of different “races” will remain.

As Connerly says:

There are those who say that race matters, that we have to use race to get beyond race. Then, there are those of us who believe, as President Kennedy said in 1963, “Race has no place in American life or law.”

Ludwig von Mises attacked Nazi Aryan race theory in his Omnipotent Government (1944): “It is certain that there are today no pure stocks within the class or race of white-skinned people.” Richard Dawkins, lecturer in zoology at Oxford University and author of the best-selling The Selfish Gene (1989), holds that

conceivably racial prejudice could be interpreted as an irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance.

“Race,” as you can gather, defies precise definition—apart from Homo sapiens, the human race. Alone among the Earth’s species, man possesses sui generis characteristics: among them, vertebrated backbone, upright posture, hands, distinguishing hair, and advanced nervous systems. The striking system is the human brain, which empowers spoken and written language, abstract thought, rational intelligence, economic calculation, and the development of a culture of the arts.

“Races” (in the sense of variegated subdivisions of the human family) are complicated by the fact that every individual in that family is himself unique, distinct, dissimilar from each of his fellows, and yet broadly similar to them. Further complications arise through the association of racial classifications with different languages, cultures, and regions.

Today, some scholars are challenging the politically correct race concept. For example, Mary Lefkowitz, a professor of classics at Wellesley College, writes: “In ancient Greece, slaves could be of any color depending on who had been conquered. There was no Greek word for race.” And Kenneth K. Kidd, professor of genetics and psychiatry at Yale’s Medical School, claims:

When I look at DNA, I see no racial differences. There tend to be more DNA variations within each population group than between groups, and such variation is present broadly around the world within every population.

Yes, affirmative action rightly targets discrimination. But it uses the wrong methods: state coercion and numerical quotas. It also ignores many of the important problems that face minorities today, problems that the government itself has caused: disastrous public schools, the disintegration of the family through welfare, the subsidization of out-of-wedlock births, a sorry criminal-justice system, and disincentives and moral hazards targeted at black neighborhoods, including relief payments, public housing, food stamps, and minimum wages.

Above all, government intervention in “racial” matters contravenes the First Amendment right of freedom of association and the entire Bill of Rights philosophy of free choice under the rule of law. Uncle Sam seems to be saying, “Love thy neighbor—or else.” In a nutshell, the official view of “race” makes for a weak reed to enforce a national policy of racial “diversity.” Force doesn’t square with due process. Affirmative action is wrongheaded and counterproductive. It mocks the very civil rights that it purports to uphold and lends itself to racial polarization. It hits at voluntarism, choice, and consent, and meddles in free markets which could otherwise ease racial tension and result in greater social mobility. harmony, and, in the broadest sense, community.

The answer to forced affirmative action is “end it, don’t mend it.” The answer is, broadly, unforced affirmation — an era of good will for all Homo sapiens: mutual grace, mutual compassion, mutual respect, and mutual cooperation all around.