In a response to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's recent Wall Street Journal op-ed attacking affirmative action programs, The Root's Terence Samuel laments how distracted our racial conversations have become. Rather than discussing Webb's "politically nuanced and historically layered" arguments about diversity programs, Samuel writes, we are engulfed in the corrosive Shirley Sherrod scandal.
As for Webb himself, Samuel thinks that the senator is a complicated -- and forward-thinking -- figure on issues of race:
I got to know Webb a little while working on my book about the Senate. He does not categorize easily. He has made the high incarceration rate among young black men one of his signature efforts in the Senate. He calls it a "trajectory" issue, believing that it affects the long-term future of the country. "We want to keep bad people off our streets. We want to break the backs of gangs, and we want to cut down on violent behavior," he said. "But there is something else going on when we are locking up such a high percentage of our people, marking them at an early age and in many cases eliminating their chances for a productive life as citizens." So his arguments about diversity programs cannot be lightly regarded as facile, political posturing.
A fierce defender of his Scots-Irish heritage, Webb is a Democrat and part of what he and its other members describe, only half-jokingly, as the "redneck caucus" in the Senate. Webb has made the point more than once that poor, working-class people -- black and white -- have the same economic and social interests and should naturally be in political alliance. Webb, like Sherrod, thinks that the schism that exists between poor and working-class blacks and whites was the intended handiwork of economic elites who saw such an alliance as harmful to their interests.
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