22 August 2005

Convoluted logic and opposition to affirmative action

On Nashville Truth, Glen criticizes affirmative action. His post begins with a quote by John Roberts:

"..... it is constitutionally impermissible to grant preferential treatment solely on the basis of race to those who have not been proven to be victims of illegal discrimination." - John Roberts (1984 memo)

Glen continues:

The first letter to the editor that I ever wrote, at the age of 12, was on the subject of affirmative action. I believe now as I believed then, that giving preferential treatment to one group of people over another group of people, solely on the basis of skin color, is discrimination. It is not reverse discrimination, it is discrimination. I just don't understand how the very people who fought so hard to end discrimination would seek to create a system that discriminates.

The argument for affirmative reaction is that it's required in order to right a historical wrong. A number of people, and indeed the nation as a whole, benefitted significantly from virtually free labor during the slave era. Since the slaves didn't receive any of their money, their descendants were also cheated out of the money that rightfully should have been paid for that labor. I assume that Glen and others would approve of the general principle I'm alluding to, namely, that if I live in the house that my grandfather stole from your grandfather, I need to return the house to its rightful heirs. Of course, some may disapprove of the general application of this principle in an imprecise way (hence, the Roberts quote).

This is all fine. But let's then consider this: The current war in Iraq is targeting people in a very general way. Even in the best case scenario in which the current war is targeting the right areas for the right reasons (highly dubious, but anyway), by the time this is over, thousands of innocents will have been killed due to general actions aimed (purportedly) at restoring justice. While such actions may (if you swallow Bush's line) restore justice, they won't restore much justice for the innocent child killed by a bomb who had (to borrow a few words from Roberts) "not been proven" to be a terrorist.

The only conclusion I can reach from the anti-affirmative action stance is that general solutions to the restoration of justice are idiotic if they result in a loss of our money but brilliant if they increase our access to money or oil (even though they result in the loss of other's lives.) None of this strikes me as very principled.

In a sense, the demand for reparations is more principled than affirmative action. American blacks aren't asking for a hand-out: they're asking for money that is rightfully theirs. This isn't a radical notion. Reparations have been paid to victims all over the globe. On the other hand, affirmative action made good practical sense in that it provided incentives that led to long-term change. There's much to debate here regarding the particular merits of any program, but the fundamental principle of entitlement to stolen wages is rock solid.

10 comments:

Glen Dean said...

Karlo, I am white and I grew up in a lower middle class home. Why should a rich black person's son recieve preferential treatment over me? It doesn't make sense to say that since this crime happened to my ancestors a long time ago, I am owed something. Reparations is complete nonsense. I think that everybody who feels like they deserve reparations should be given one million dollars on the condition that they leave this country and never return. I am sorry for being one who tells the politically incorrect truth, but reparations is just another way of getting something for nothing. By the way, do you get less if your light skinned? What if your ancestors were indentured servants? Do they get some reparations also? How about American Indians?

Karlo said...

It's an imperfect solution. But reparations are always imperfect. The point is that something was stolen and should be given back. We're quite willing to embrace imperfect solutions when waging wars against nebulous enemies, so why can't we adopt the same attitude when trying to right historical wrongs closer to home.

Kate said...

I'd argue that it is actually politically correct to be against affirmative action in the current political climate. But that's not my point.

I think a lot of people in America think that racism doesn't exist. They believe that we really do live in a maritocracy, one that is color blind, and that everyone has an equal chance at success. Unfortunately, this isn't true. It has never been true. We are a country of inequalities.

Affirmative action has given us an opportunity to make things more equal. It is for all "minorities", not just African-Americans. Yes there are rich African-Americans, but the reality is that there is a much larger percentage of poor and economically disenfranchised African-Americans than there are caucasians. There is still rampant housing discrimination and segregated schools (public and private), and there are a disproportionate number of African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos in prison.

Affirmative Action has not solved our problems, but it has provided an opportunity for a number of minority students to get educations that would have been denied to them without affirmative action. I think the program should be extended to be based on economic class, not just race. As Glen Dean pointed out, some caucasian students are at a disadvantage because of economics. My husband comes from a lower working class family. He had to join the military to go to college. Why not have a handful of slots open to economically disadvantaged students of any race? Of course, a lot of schools have these programs already, but it would be nice if the federal government insisted on it.

The issue of reparations is complicated. As for Native Americans, a number of tribes have won suits against the government, especially concerning the stolen profits from the exploitation of natural resources. "Indian gaming," which has allowed tribes to open up casinos on their land regardless of local laws against them, was begun as a form of reparation. The casinos have brought in a ton of money to a number of tribes that were nothing short of destitute before. Some developers, like Donald Trump, have charged that they should be allowed to open up competing casinos nearby because otherwise they're discriminated against, and a number have won, including Trump, which is one reason why there are so many more casinos these days. We also paid out reparations, however minimal, to Japanese-American victims of WWII internment camps.

The principle is, I believe, that the effects of the past are present today and still need to be remedied. There are no Native Americans alive today who lived through the Trail of Tears or saw their relatives slaughtered on the banks of Sand Creek. This doesn't mean that the effects of forced relocation, subjugation, and the destruction of families and tribes aren't felt today. The prison system is the fastest growing Native American reservation, and a number of our nation's poorest counties are those of reservations. The same is true for the effects of slavery. Here in Chicago, a segregated city, I see the effects of slavery and racism every day. The mass exodus out of the south that happened between the world wars, in reaction to the lynchings and racial-based violence of the south and the indentured servitude of sharecropping, created large ghettos that have yet to be transformed into viable neighborhoods. Jim Crow laws here prevented African-Americans from living in certain neighborhoods (and there's still some intimidation), made the buses stop at 35th street, just on the line of the "Black South Side," and led to the creation of the largest concentration of public housing in the nation along State Street between 35th and 75th. In the past ten years, the city and the federal government have been "transforming" the CHA (Chicago Housing Authority), and in doing have left over 200,000 former public housing residents essentially homeless. There is a direct link between this and slavery.

I don't know what the answer is regarding reparations. I've not heard a good enough plan yet, though I have to say the past couple of years living in New Orleans I've been focused on the war. I'm back in Chicago now, and no doubt I'll start to hear the stories of what's really going on, the "view from the ground" as Jamie Kalven says (he and his wife documented the destruction of Stateway Gardens on a website: http://www.viewfromtheground.com). I'm sure there are a number of viable reparation plans out there, though I can't imagine any of them stand a chance these days. We can't even muster up compassion for grieving mothers. Compassion for African-Americans? The poor regardless of race?! Please.

A thought-provoking post, Karlo. Sorry for my extra-long response.

Take care --

Glen Dean said...

Sorry Kate, while there is and always will be racism, it is not to the extent that you claim. Also, blacks and hispanics are in prison because they committed crimes. Do they get harsher sentences than white rich people? Yes they do. But that would not be a problem if they did not commit a crime in the first place. The message that you are sending to American blacks says, "you are owed something", and that is the exact message that does them the most harm. If you want to help black people, then persuade them to stay in school and wait until they are married before getting pregnant. Tell black men to take responsibility and be better fathers. Tell them that while they may be at a disadvantage, that is still no excuse for dropping out of school and using drugs, committing crimes, and getting pregnant. Tell them that they need to quit thinking of themselves as victims. Your message keeps black Americans down and dependant on a government that seeks to take away their freedom. My message empowers them to move on and accept what is available to them.

Karlo said...

Thanks for the long post, Kate. The particulars are certainly thorny (as the particulars are for any major project with enormous costs). And I agree with you Glen that there needs to be incentives for people to help themselves. We should keep in mind, though, that reparations aren't a hand-out. Many of the wealthy people today have inherited that wealth from people who benefitted directly or indirectly from the exploitation of unpaid labor. The idea behind reparations, in a sense, isn't "liberal" at all, but is more properly Libertarian: these people's ancestors earned this money, so the nation, through taxes (primarily paid by the wealthy who have largely inherited this wealth) should pay back these unpaid wages. This has nothing to do with feeling sorry for someone or with hand-outs or anything else. It's simply a matter of being in possession of stolen property.

Kate said...

Excellent clarification, Karlo. Glenn, you speak like a typical person who has never known poverty and its effects. Nothing is so simple. The idea that an African-American kid from the south side of Chicago can pull himself out of the ghetto as easily as you came up from lower middle class to middle (upper? I don't know), is naive. There is a ton of racism in this country still. It is not an even playing field, for the kid from the ghetto or even for me, a woman. Look at our represenation: how many women are in congress? How many African-Americans? Latinos? Do the numbers even begin to reflect our society? I don't think so.

Affirmative action is not a "hand-out," it is (or more accurately, was) a stepping stone into college and not much else. To ask employers to have their businesses reflect their communities is not bad, nor is it bad to demand that accused criminals be judged by a jury of their peers, meaning people like them. It was not long ago at all that our government and businesses discriminated openly against African-Americans solely because of the color of their skin. It was legal to do so!! Affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws changed this, but they clearly haven't changed attitudes of many in our country.

No one thinks that the government should go around handing out money to everyone who asks for it. I find it disingenous, though, for any self-described conservative to talk about "hand-outs" to individuals and not talk about the billions of government subsidies, hand-outs, to corporations. We subsidize like crazy to corporate entities, the bigger and more successful ones benefiting most, while letting our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, suffer right next to us. It's nuts. The fact that millions of families are without health care, adequate housing, and access to decent education systems is a black mark on our country. We can do better and we ought to.

If two places at your local college are reserved for African-American students, does it really hurt you? You complain and say that minorities should rise up and help themselves while simultaneously implying that you were passed up for a place by a "rich black person's son." Why didn't you work harder to guarantee yourself a place, just as you expect African-Americans to do? Do you see how hypocritical this is?

The sad reality is we care a hell of a lot more about corporate welfare than human welfare, and our nation continues to suffer for it. Major American companies no longer make anything here in the states, sending their jobs off to the third world, and meanwhile the rolls of the truly impoverished continue to grow exponentially. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown to nearly the same rate as before the Depression. This is not good. Programs like Affirmative Action help to grow the middle class, which benefits all of us. Having a larger underclass, one that is increasingly disenfranchised, serves none of us well.

Glen Dean said...

Kate, I don't think we should subsidize anything, any business, any person, any bit of agriculture, nothing.
I have lived in the South all of my life. I have never been to Chicago, but I did grow up in Alabama and currently live in Tennessee. I went to a rural county school that was about 60/40 black and white. Black kids got the same education that I recieved. I went to a public state university with black people. Every company that I have ever worked for has employed black people. So I don't know what it is like in Chicago, but I know that in the supposedly racist south, black people currently have as much oppurtunity as anybody else. Right now I work in a warehouse and guess what? My boss is black and he isn't the first boss that I ever had that was black. When I worked for Liberty National Insurance company, and was paid on commision, the biggest earner was a black guy. The whole city of Birmingham could have used the N-word everyday, but it would not have mattered, because thise guy was a hell of a salesman and he was rewarded for being a good salesman with good pay.

Like I said earlier, I don't know what life is like in Chicago. It may be Johannesburg. I don't know. But I do know that black Americans in the south have just as much oppurtunity as white Americans. That is a fact.

Kate said...

Glen, I just moved back to Chicago from New Orleans, where I lived for several years. I grew up in Nashville. The school system was integrated, like you said, but there was racism there too, just as there is in New Orleans and Chicago. I think we've never addressed poverty because we're too busy awarding massive handouts to large corporations. It's upsetting to me to see so many people sporting "Buy American" bumper stickers in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, when if you walk down those aisles it's hard to find a single product made in America.

I think we want the same things, Glen, for most Americans to prosper and have good lives, therefore guaranteeing that all of us, regardless of race, do well. I don't think Affirmative Action is the answer to all of our problems by a long shot. Frankly, I'm much more worried about the corporatization of America and the shipping of jobs, quality jobs, overseas than I am about Affirmative Action. I think this has hurt all us, of all races, more than anything else the past twenty-five years. We have the illusion of choice now. At Target, there are, generally, only two products of any type to choose from, and nine times out of ten they are both made by the same company, and made overseas. It's nuts! When we lose choice, when we lose jobs, when we lose any control over corporations (which by and large are unable to police themselves, obviously), we move closer and closer to losing our middle class. It's happening right now in Mexico, this erosion of the middle class, and I'd rather it not happen here.

Equally upsetting is the privatization of our wars. Several men from my husband's ranger unit have left the military (recruited at Ft. Hood, actually) to work for Blackwater. They are making oodles of money to do the same thing our military trained them to do (and they get better equipment). It's not a sustainable way to run a military, since you have to have new people being recruited and trained by the military if you hope to have quality people for the private companies to hire, and it is horrendous for troop morale. The guys we know are paid $30,000/month and are only required to sign one month contracts.

What a world we're living in these days! A "conservative" government growing government exponentially, creating an outrageous debt, and sending all that money to corporations who would rather do their business outside of America. Supposed "patriots" running over war memorials, smearing grieving mothers of dead soldiers, and heck, even sending wives of soldiers like little old me vitriolic, hate-filled email. Our politics have become poisoned. It's so nuts.

Glen Dean said...

This government is not a conservative government, in my opinion.

That is pretty cool that you grew up in Nashville. What a small world. Nice discussion.

Kate said...

I agree with you, Glen.

Take care --