Is White Privilege A Myth?
My senior senator, Jim Webb, has taken to the pages of WSJ with an op-ed titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege,” subtitled “America still owes a debt to its black citizens, but government programs to help all ‘people of color’ are unfair. They should end.”
Forty years ago, as the United States experienced the civil rights movement, the supposed monolith of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America. After a full generation of such debate, WASP elites have fallen by the wayside and a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers. The time has come to cease the false arguments and allow every American the benefit of a fair chance at the future.
This is, to say the least, an unusual position for a Democratic United States Senator. Indeed, Pat Buchanan could have written it. But Webb’s no Pat Buchanan.
I have dedicated my political career to bringing fairness to America’s economic system and to our work force, regardless of what people look like or where they may worship. Unfortunately, present-day diversity programs work against that notion, having expanded so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.
In an odd historical twist that all Americans see but few can understand, many programs allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations. These programs have damaged racial harmony. And the more they have grown, the less they have actually helped African-Americans, the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action as it was originally conceived.
I made pretty much the same argument in my recent posting “Does Harvard Discriminate Against Whites?” But Webb goes further:
Affirmative action was designed to recognize the uniquely difficult journey of African-Americans. This policy was justifiable and understandable, even to those who came from white cultural groups that had also suffered in socio-economic terms from the Civil War and its aftermath.
The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed. But the extrapolation of this logic to all “people of color”—especially since 1965, when new immigration laws dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the U.S.—moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites. It has also lessened the focus on assisting African-Americans, who despite a veneer of successful people at the very top still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup.
Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.
This is largely correct, although Hispanics in border states may quibble with the assertion that they don’t face government discrimination. But Affirmative Action was never solely about government based discrimination. One of the “vestiges of slavery,” one could argue, is private racism, especially against blacks.
Moreover, aside from marginal slots at elite universities, does anyone seriously think whites are being singled out for discrimination by society at large? Webb doesn’t. However, he correctly points out that “Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.” He devotes several paragraphs, not surprisingly, talking about the plight of poor whites in the South, noting that they’re virtually indistinguishable from blacks in terms of education and achievement. He concludes:
Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white. The need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible, both in our markets and in our communities. Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners. It can do so by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes.
Memo to my fellow politicians: Drop the Procrustean policies and allow harmony to invade the public mindset. Fairness will happen, and bitterness will fade away.
While I don’t disagree with the premise, 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.
I like the concept of “enabling opportunity for all.” But what does that mean in practice? Do we Federalize education? Under our current system, which is typically funded by local property taxes, children in poor communities are trapped in poorly funded schools. That’s doubly true if surrounding communities are also poor. And this gets compounded by the fact that poor families are more likely to be single-parent families with households headed by poorly educated, young people too tired to give their kids’ education much attention and poorly equipped to do much good, anyway. How do we break this cycle through the government?
Correction: The original referred to Webb, elected in 2006, as my junior senator. But he’s actually my senior senator, as longtime Senator John Warner retired and was replaced by Mark Warner (no relation) in 2008.