Saturday, July 24, 2010

Webb and Affirmative Action

Since we're going down the divisive race-tinged politics path, I'll also share an excellent op-ed by my Senator (who, I might add, I voted for in his race against George Allen), Jim Webb, on why we should get rid of affirmative action programs.

Webb makes two points about affirmative action that I consider to be quite self-evident:

1. It is fundamentally unfair and discriminatory, and
2. It was an absolutely defensible, if imperfect, remedy for centuries of state-sponsored discrimination

These two obviously butt up against each other, and I've fallen out on the pro-affirmative-action side of that clash, while still recognizing the truth of both points. He buys both of these arguments too, and then he makes some very good additional points in favor of dropping affirmative action:

- Affirmative action now is not helping who it is supposed to help: African Americans. Non-African American "people of color"are benefiting from this policy despite the fact that their history of discrimination doesn't even begin to approach that of African Americans.

- Race based policies that treat whites as a monolith ignore disadvantaged white sub-populations deserving of help (Webb specifically mentions poor Southern whites). At the same time, they give a leg-up to "people of color" that are advantaged by treating "people of color" as a monolith (more recent Asian immigrants, for example). This isn't some naive "we should be color-blind" point. This is a serious point that monolithic racial thinking obscures disadvantages within the categories "white" and "people of color".

I think these are both sensible observations. Am I swayed on my position on affirmative action (which I actually came to through a long, complicated, acrimonious episode on campus at William and Mary - it was not a position I came to casually)? Not by this op-ed alone, no. But I think he makes some excellent points.

I would add one of my own - one nagging problem I have had with affirmative action even through my conversion to being a supporter of the practice. Affirmative action generally improves the chances of people of color at later stages of their lives: college and employment, specifically. It seems to me, by then the problem is already entrenched. The real disadvantage faced by African Americans is not in the admissions committees of colleges, it is in the quality of primary education in their communities. It seems to me, affirmative action at these later stages does nothing to impact the root cause of these problems. It's a farce, in that sense. Perhaps it takes a few real achievers from bad schools and gives them a chance to shine as they could have shined in high school if they had a more supportive environment. Perhaps. And that's what's kept me supporting the program. But it isn't a solution for black students who have already lost out in elementary school and middle school, where I imagine the bulk of the problem lies.

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