Clearing The Bar

by Chris Bodenner
In response to my post on McCain opposing affirmative action, a conservative blogger wrote:

[McCain] has now realized that if anything it is white men, not women and minorities, who are discriminated against.  Nevertheless, he isn't setting up any affirmative action programs for us---he's just restoring a level playing field.  I think we can all agree that all the old injustices and inequalities have disappeared. This is another instance of 'tough love.'
If Obama is elected, will he prove that African-Americans are now on an equal par with white Americans and can be assumed to have no disadvantages?  If so, that's a point in his favor. How can all those kids growing up in ghettoes claim to be at any disadvantage any longer if America elects an African-American president? ...  If we could eliminate all this talk about racial inequality, it would be much easier for white men to get jobs.

His take is unfortunate on so many levels.  First, the primary motivation for ending racial preferences should be the advancement of minorities -- by restoring personal agency, raising expectations, cooling racial resentment, avoiding the stigmatization of AA in the minds of many.  If race-based AA were replaced by class-based AA, perhaps the country could lower racial strife and still provide help primarily to African Americans (who are disproportionately poorer because of centuries of institutional racism).

Second, the idea that "all the old injustices and inequalities have disappeared" is absurd.  Structural inequalities formed by hundreds of years of slavery and segregation don't disappear in a generation or two, and there will always be some lingering racism.  But with legal discrimination in the U.S. now abolished, and with a general sentiment of goodwill towards racial opportunity in mainstream America, the question is whether those inequalities are insurmountable without lowering the bar.  While Obama is still vague as to whether the answer is "yes," he is unequivocal about the end of widespread, institutional racism:

[The views of Rev. Wright] expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America. ... As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems -- two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

The right-wing blogger asks, "How can all those kids growing up in ghettoes [sic] claim to be at any disadvantage any longer if America elects an African-American president?"  This dim line of reasoning is similar to the one examined in a recent CNN report, "Could an Obama presidency hurt black Americans?" The article (which was brilliantly lampooned by Larry Wilmore of The Daily Show) suggests that white America will see an Obama presidency as an excuse to ignore racial inequality. While some people like the blogger may do so, the innumerable dividends of a black president would far outweigh them.

Lastly, the right-wing blogger is hoping an end to racial preferences will make it "much easier for white men to get jobs." While equal treatment is a high virtue, the main concern with affirmative action shouldn't be the plight of the white man, but whether AA actually hurts the people it was formed to help.   

As a side note, I always find it interesting when right-wing Republicans extol "tough love" without seeing the irony of their own kind of patriotism.  They rail against liberals like Obama for being critical of U.S. foreign policy, addressing it's historical sins, or talking about America in any way except blind, pampered patriotism. Obama's "more perfect union" patriotism is the real tough-love patriotism.

(Peter Beinart wrote a brilliant piece last month about the philosophical divide between liberals and conservatives on patriotism.)