A series of recent events–the Sotomayor nomination, the New Haven firefighters Supreme Court ruling, and the controversy over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates–has brought race relations dramatically to the fore.
I’m convinced that much of the continuing tension between the races has to do with poorly implemented affirmative action programs, and that if we solve the flaws of these programs, we can very quickly move forward toward a more positive and constructive attitude in this country.
Affirmative action was created in the seventies to offer opportunities to groups who had been historically denied a chance at college entry, good jobs, and economic advancement. And it was right to create these opportunities. It was right to open the door to the Sonia Sotomayors of this world.
Unfortunately, because of the methods by which affirmative action is implemented, in many cases giving someone an opportunity means taking it away from someone else. More often than not, it’s in the blue-collar white communities of this country where the rubber hits the road in terms of affirmative action. Members of these communities, particularly white men, who very possibly are the first generation of their families to have a chance to reach the economic level that they work to attain, are expected to stand aside for jobs, for promotions, and for a shot at higher education.
In some ways, this insistence on the sacrifice of some for the advancement of others has gotten really ugly. One ordinarily reasonable liberal pundit, Joan Walsh of MS-NBC, finds it acceptable to roll her eyes and make condescending comments like “Oh, please” at the notion that “white guys,” as conservative counterpart Pat Buchanan calls them, can be discriminated against. Racially motivated academics like Michael Eric Dyson can use the term “white people” as a perjorative and talk about “white privilege,” applying it to everyone from the CEOs of multinational corporations to blue-collar workers alike, without ever being challenged.
Dyson’s “white privilege” arguments echo the ugly, convoluted reasoning used against African Americans prior to the Civil War in promoting the supposed moral, scientific, and religious acceptability of slavery–in other words, in justifying the unjustifiable. Dyson’s own convoluted reasoning uses the term “white privilege” to justify discrimination against whites, the implication being that since they are privileged, they somehow deserve the treatment they get.
A Solution Is Closer than We Think
None of this is necessary. There is a way to give women and minority groups a hand up without demanding long-term sacrifice of working-class white men who also need an opportunity to achieve. It’s as close as our nearest airport.
Airlines have the nasty habit of overbooking their flights, assuming that not everyone will show up to take those flights. On occasion, more people show up than can fit on the plane, and that’s when the airline goes into action, offering to buy back tickets for as much as twice the value of the ticket. They guarantee a seat on the next available flight, and if the flight doesn’t go until the next day, a room at a nearby hotel. In other words, someone who volunteers to step aside is rewarded for the sacrifice.
This could work in terms of affirmative action. Instead of dismissing the concerns of working-class whites who find themselves discriminated against, we could recognize the sacrifice they are making for the advancement of others and reward them for their sacrifice.
In colleges and universities, this is how it could work: The institution makes its initial acceptance decisions based on academic performance, without regard to race. Once they have a preliminary list of incoming freshmen, they then look at the racial, ethnic, and social mix of their students to see if they’ve achieved the diversity they want. If they’ve met their goals, great. If not, they decide how many affirmative action applicants they want to accept, choose the same number of students randomly from the initial acceptance list, and start to contact them.
These students would be made the following offer: “If you are willing to step aside for an affirmative action candidate, we will guarantee your acceptance into next year’s freshman class, and we will pay your tuition for your first semester.” Some students would jump at the chance for a free semester of school and would take the offer; others might not want to delay their schooling. Chances are, given enough students offered this opportunity, all of the affirmative action candidates could be accommodated.
This same process could succeed in the workplace, particularly in civil service jobs. Someone who qualified for a promotion who agreed to step aside for a qualified affirmative action candidate would be guaranteed the next available opening, and would receive a cash bonus to compensate for the delayed opportunity. Once all of the affirmative action candidates and those who had stepped aside received their promotions, the process could start again.
This option accomplishes the goals of affirmative action, but doesn’t permanently penalize those who are asked to step aside. It delays opportunities for whites in the short term, but doesn’t discriminate against them in a way that alters their whole life.
Expand Affirmative Action
Another fact that needs to be recognized is that many working-class whites don’t have access to higher education, and are not sought out by top colleges and universities as are minority students. This needs to change. The same universities that look for talented young people in Harlem and the south side of Chicago need to look in poor, white, working-class communities and in rural areas. Talent is everywhere; we can’t turn our backs on any group in looking for that talent.
A Note to Conservatives
Conservatives have been calling for the elimination of affirmative action since it began, and that may ultimately be a valid goal. But the playing field isn’t even close to being level yet, not for poor African Americans, Hispanics, and others living in cities, and certainly not for poor whites, urban or rural.
If conservatives want to get rid of affirmative action, they need to work to provide every child in America, from South Central L.A. to the Bronx, from rural New England to West Virginia and the Ozarks, with the same top-notch education that children receive in Beverly Hills and on Park Avenue. From preschool through senior year of high school, every child–every child–deserves a chance to excel.
In other words, you want to end affirmative action, cough up some serious cash.
A Place at the Table
One disturbing issue that no one seems to bring up is that, in choosing one individual over another, in promoting one group at the expense of another, we are constantly making these choices and think it’s okay to do so. We have accepted the idea of both an upper echelon in society and of a permanent underclass.
The choice shouldn’t be “Sonia Sotomayor or . . .”; it should be “Sonia Sotomayor and. . . .” We need to get past looking out for our own racial or ethnic group, our own class, our own concerns about getting a place at the table, and begin to figure out how to create a place at the table for everyone.