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Affirmative action was also predicated on America’s history of discrimination. It was never intended to apply to those who had recently arrived in America without proof of past discrimination in this country.

Who among the newly arrived immigrants from South Korea, Oaxaca, the Punjab or Nigeria become eligible for affirmative action, and who do not — and on what reasoning are their claims of hardship more valid than those of poor fourth-generation Americans of any ethnic background?

There is also not always consistency in the application of affirmation action. Late-night talk-show hosts are not proportionally racially diverse. Neither are Silicon Valley CEOs, the directorship of the Sierra Club, employees of the U.S. Postal Service or the NBA.

The public is confused about why we might consider ethnic criteria in hiring in the college anthropology department, but not so much when selecting trans-Atlantic airline pilots, neurosurgeons or nuclear-plant designers.

Should gender considerations be used to encourage more males on campuses? Female bachelor’s degree recipients now far outnumber their male counterparts and are skewing notions of gender equality.

Given these complexities and contradictions, the public, the Supreme Court and state legislators increasingly think that a multiracial United States is unique precisely because race and tribe — unlike most other places in the world — are incidental rather than essential to our American identities.

The advice of Martin Luther King — judge Americans only by the content of their characters — is not only the simplest, but in the end, the only moral standard.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.