It’s pretty difficult to have a rational discussion about race, for the reasons my colleague Jay Bookman has outlined today. Quite frankly, his list of reasons is incomplete: Today’s political and civic climate includes a host of loud mouths who are not interested in a rational conversation about race. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart come to mind.
Nevertheless, I sally forth in the hope that a few reasonable people might come across new information that gives them pause, makes them think, changes their minds. Today, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has a fascinating column in the Wall Street Journal that ought to provide fodder for reasonable conversation. UPDATE: A reader pointed to a link to the column, so here it is. )
The column, which has a rather provocative title, “Diversity and The Myth of White Privilege,” argues for the end of government-sanctioned affirmative action programs. But it’s not a simple-minded argument which pretends that discrimination, especially against blacks, never existed. Instead, Webb points out that broad-based diversity efforts boost “people of color” who never suffered historic discrimination in this country, while excluding whites who have suffered poverty.
I don’t agree with everything Webb says. He exaggerates in places, claiming, for example, that “WASP elites have fallen by the wayside,” a gross exaggeration which ignores the concentration of WASPs among the wealthy and powerful. (George H.W.Bush and sons come to mind.)
Nevertheless, Webb raises valid points:
I have dedicated my political career to bringing fairness to America’s economic system and to our work force, regardless of what people look like or where they may worship. Unfortunately, present-day diversity programs work against that notion, having expanded so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.
In an odd historical twist that all Americans see but few can understand, many programs allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations. These programs have damaged racial harmony. And the more they have grown, the less they have actually helped African-Americans, the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action as it was originally conceived.
Lyndon Johnson’s initial program for affirmative action was based on the 13th Amendment and on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which authorized the federal government to take actions in order to eliminate “the badges of slavery.” Affirmative action was designed to recognize the uniquely difficult journey of African-Americans. This policy was justifiable and understandable, even to those who came from white cultural groups that had also suffered in socio-economic terms from the Civil War and its aftermath.
The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed. But the extrapolation of this logic to all “people of color”—especially since 1965, when new immigration laws dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the U.S.—moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites. It has also lessened the focus on assisting African-Americans, who despite a veneer of successful people at the very top still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup.
Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.
I would choose a different remedy than Webb’s. I would argue that affirmative action programs still have a role to play, but they should be class-based and not color-based.