When Is Affirmative Action Unfair?

A Democratic Senator comes out against diversity programs, igniting fierce debate

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As the Wire noted Thursday, the Shirley Sherrod furor has set off a new discussion about race in America. The latest ripples in the pond come from an op-ed by Demcratic senator from Virginia James Webb, called "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege." Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Webb argues that "[b]eyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end." Though the early, "initial program for affirmative action ... was designed to recognize the uniquely difficult journey of African-Americans" and, Webb's thinks, was "justifiable and understandable," he argues that continuing to treat "whites as a fungible monolith" is incorrect and unjust: in 1974 white Baptists had almost the same average level of education as blacks, while between 1980 and 2000 white Baptists and Irish Protestants, for example, graduated from college at a much lower rate than some ethnic groups, and hung about ten percentage points below the national average.

Bloggers, expressing intense surprise at a Democratic senator writing such an op-ed, have sprung to debating the merits of Webb's argument. Are diversity programs unjust racial favoritism? And if so, why continue to make an exception for African Americans? Furthermore, is there a policy that could continue to help the disadvantaged while avoiding affirmative action's pitfalls? Unsurprisingly, quite a few liberals are irritated with Webb, and some conservatives don't think he goes far enough. But in the middle, there's an interesting bipartisan consensus. Here's a sample of the reaction:

  • 'Dishonest'  Blogger Melissa McEwan thinks Webb is guilty of the very "white monolith" thinking he's criticizing; if you you define "white" as anything beyond "privileged white men," argues McEwan, then the whites he claims are being unjustly discriminated against often "qualify for, and have been aided by, 'special government programs.'" Why? Because diveristy programs have often helped such groups as women, gays, and the disabled. She calls his op-ed a "race-baiting argument that white people are being treated unfairly."
  • 'I Regret the Way the Piece Read, and I Hate the Title,' begins John Cole at Balloon Juice, discussing liberal outrage at Webb's position, "but Webb is talking about addressing the deep-rooted poverty he’s seen his entire life in the back hills of VA, WVA, Kentucky, and elsewhere." He points out that "Webb comes from a portion of Appalachia where poverty is so deep, so ingrained, that the idea in those regions that there is some sort of 'white privilege' is in fact laughable."
  • Not Enough: Doesn't Actually Rule Out Affirmative Action for Blacks, protests Roger Clegg at National Review, from the opposite end of the spectrum. Though he calls Webb's op-ed "especially brave, welcome, and important coming from a leader in the Democratic party," he finds it "hard to understand" why Webb is denouncing all forms of racial favoritism, save one.
  • Given His Party, This Is Still Huge, responds Clegg's colleague Jonah Goldberg. Furthermore, he agrees with Webb's argument that " the case for preferences for blacks is morally and historically distinct from, and better than, the case for preferences for, say, among, Hispanics or Jews." Though he doesn't find that case persuasive, he's inclined to focus on the fact that Webb went as far as he did denouncing affirmative action.
  • The Substitute: Class-Based Aid?  "While I don't disagree with the premise," writes James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, "I'm not sure what policy conclusion one reaches. I fully agree and have long argued that using race as the sole criterion for policy preference should end.  But, surely, we don’t want to create new categories, such as 'Scotch-Irish Sons of Confederate Veterans,' for special treatment.   We could target based on poverty, perhaps with some sort of regional cost of living adjustments." He wonders how to break the "cycle" of poverty and disadvantage "through the government."
  • Yes, With a Caveat: Racism Still Exists  "Class/income-based affirmative action has long struck me as an alternative that ought to get more attention than it does," writes Kevin Drum at liberal publication Mother Jones. Class-based programs might wind up helping "ethnic minorities" a little less, "[b]ut they have some advantages too. For one thing, they help poor people." The one "obstacle," he says, "is the insistence of conservatives on refusing to even admit that racism is a problem anymore. It's become practically a truism on the right that racism is a thing of the past, nothing more than a convenient whipping boy to be exploited by race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton ... This is just poisonous."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.