A friend of mine sent me a link to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal penned by U.S. Senator James Webb of Virginia. Sen. Webb essentially issues a plea for ending federal government sponsored affirmative action/diversity programs, specifically because they are discriminatory toward whites. I actually somewhat agree with Sen. Webb. My thoughts on affirmative action have evolved over the years, and I am firmly within the camp of providing more help to people who are poor in this nation, irrespective of race or ethnicity. Though race remains a contentious issue in this nation (our history all but guaranteed that), class is really the central issue that most threatens the viability of the nation, and anything that would lessen class disparities would be a great thing.
But I have to say that I had real issues with some of Webb's analysis.
Paragraph 1: If I recall correctly, the NAACP did not resolve that the Tea Party movement is racist. The NAACP did say that there are racist elements within the Tea Party movement, and asked that the movement purge those elements from within their midst. I also don't recall the Tea Party movement saying that the NAACP was a racist organization, though individual supporters of the Tea Party have made such claims.
Paragraph 2: Forty years ago, white people dominated the power structure of the country, period. Note, I wrote white people. Those who held power were predominantly Protestant, but there were definitely Catholics and Jews comfortably in positions of power throughout the country. I realize that he is setting up his argument about the need to differentiate among whites, but where there was power 40 years ago, there was a white person (man) present.
Regarding the marginalization of white workers within government (or within organizations that work directly with government), I think that Sen. Webb is wrong. Though the President is black, whites still maintain the majority of positions of power within government. Now, I can imagine that it would be difficult to go from running every high level position in government to having to share some of those positions with people who aren't white (primarily men). But, shouldn't some of that enmity be directed toward the rise of white women within the government? More than any single demographic group in the country, white women have made important and necessary strides into the halls of power within government. So, it makes it difficult for me to agree with Webb's point that affirmative action/diversity programs, on the whole, have marginalized white workers.
Paragraph 3: Please see my aforementioned point about white women regarding Webb's blanket statement regarding affirmative action/diversity programs not favoring anyone white.
Paragraph 7: I will always have an issue with the idea that affirmative action is automatic discrimination against a white person. It isn't. I will concede that affirmative action programs have been administered horribly in too many instances. There have been instances, too many, when unqualified people have moved ahead (and please don't act like there has never been an unqualified white person promoted to a position). But the presumption that if you see a black person in a higher education classroom, or a job (that isn't a low level position), then clearly a white person was discriminated against is bogus. That is how Webb's statement reads, and unfortunately, I think that too many white people believe that. I do agree that affirmative action programs expanded to include groups (including white women) not included in the original concept.
Paragraph 8: Sen. Webb points out that there were no specific government programs where whites were the beneficiaries. There is a growing body of history books and monographs that counters that notion. An examination of the subject of the suburbanization of the country, and the rise of the American middle class would reveal just how government across the board essentially helped white Americans grow their wealth (I know that I don't have to mention the South). Discriminatory practices in lending, discriminatory practices in the provision of veterans benefits, and a host of other government programs (federal, state and local) discriminated against black Americans. That wealth gap between whites and blacks, for example, didn't just emerge in the last 40 years.
Paragraph 9: I totally agree with Sen. Webb that it is a mistake generally to treat whites as a monolithic group, but his argument regarding public policy is wrong. The Civil Rights Movement dismantled the public policies of segregation. Jim Crow laws throughout the South treated whites as a monolithic group. Discriminatory practices by government workers prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 treated whites as a monolithic group. Moreover, Webb treats whites as a monolithic group for the purposes of making his point that affirmative action/diversity programs discriminate against whites, as a monolithic group. So, yes, "one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy."
Paragraph 11: This is just a teeny tiny point. John Hope Franklin is an eminent historian. The "black" isn't necessary.
Paragraph 13 (and 14): Sen. Webb left out some salient facts. With the exception of some of the southern cities, the South sought to recreate its antebellum agricultural dominance, and many places resisted industrialization, to the detriment of the region. As immigrant populations poured into the factories Northeast and Midwest, Southerners mostly returned to the farm. The establishment of Jim Crow legislation and the creation of a dual society, clearly strained the coffers in state treasuries. So it's no wonder that expenditures on students in the South, for example, would be so low, or that the South would lag behind other regions experiencing dramatic changes during the rise of modern America.
Paragraph 15: I understand that Sen. Webb is trying to make his point about affirmative action/diversity programs as discriminatory public policy against whites, but in suggesting that policy makers completely ignored the diversity of whites in terms of offering specific programs, he is incorrect. I found a 2000 article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette focused on Appalachia and the federal government's efforts to provide assistance through public policies since the Lyndon Johnson administration. Though the War on Poverty was a broad based program affecting many poor communities, President Johnson made it a point to showcase poor whites by launching his effort in Appalachia. These policies came about just as the federal government was developing affirmative action programs.
I also think it is important to include women, white women specifically, in this discussion, because if one can make the argument that just as there may be "special consideration for a minority candidate," then white women too have received "special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts."
Paragraph 17: Sen. Webb essentially suggests that non-discrimination laws have not applied to white people, which simply isn't true. Have there been problems? Yes. But, if I am not mistaken, the courts have been the place to remedy that issue, and as recent as last year with the Ricci v. DeStefano case, the SCOTUS has pushed to ensure that non-discrimination laws are indeed, non-discriminatory, even for white people. So once again, one could read that Sen. Webb is suggesting that any gain by a minority is a direct loss for a white person, and I think that is a bridge too far. It suggests that white people are automatically the winners, and if any other group lands a position within or related to government, then a white person was automatically discriminated against. I really don't think that Sen. Webb is making that argument, but it's sounds close to it.
I actually agree with Sen. Webb that non-discrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens. I think that it's a great goal. But with that in mind, I also think that it would be good not to leave this at just racial discrimination, as Sen. Webb states. I think I've made a reasonable argument that white women have benefited from similar programs that blacks and other minorities have, and in larger numbers. Have we reached the point where we are ensuring that "artificial distinctions such as [gender] do not determine the outcomes," or class, or sexual orientation, or religion? I am not so sure that we are really there yet. But, if we drop one "artificial distinction," then we should drop those other distinctions as well. At some point, and clearly for Sen. Webb, that point should be soon, we are going to have to end affirmative action/diversity programs, and just hope that people will actually do right.
That sounds like a tall order to me, and I am not that confident that people will not discriminate on the basis of race. Bluntly put, I am tired of all the hullabaloo, but I would be willing to give it a shot.