Righty: We’re looking at reverse discrimination, plain and simple. Why should today’s white males be victimized because of so-called bias against blacks and women in the past? (“So-called” because most blacks were unqualified for professional jobs and most women left the workforce after a few years to raise kids. How was it discriminatory not to hire them?) We’re all poorer when key professional positions are filled by marginally competent individuals who got hired because they had the right skin color or gender. And who is suffering most? Just your average working-class white boys, who never enjoyed special privileges in the past and will never be given a break now that all the opportunities go to minorities and women. How could this country have sanctioned a policy that singles out white males for ill-treatment, as if they were a kind of legally designated pincushion for the grievances of irate special-interest groups? How does it help society to penalize several generations of talented individuals simply because they were born as white guys? Affirmative Action MUST be scrapped once and for all.
Lefty: Affirmative Action finally created the level playing field we needed to give minorities and women a chance to share in the American Dream. How can any decent person begrudge them the opportunities that were denied them for so long simply because they weren’t white males? Affirmative Action was instrumental in the growth of the black middle class, and it continues to rescue talented, underprivileged young people from lives of chronic poverty and frustration. Affirmative Action helped women break through the age-old prejudicial barriers that kept them out of contention for high-level jobs in business and the professions. As for the complaints of reverse discrimination, there is still so much natural bias in favor of white males that they hardly suffer under Affirmative Action. They have no idea how privileged they are simply as a result of being born with light skin and male genitals.
The New Moderate:
Discrimination seems to be as American as Velveeta, whether it’s directed at minorities, women or “overprivileged” white males. Yes, women and blacks were encumbered in the past by prejudices that kept them conveniently subservient. So naturally the U.S. corrected the old injustice by instituting a new one in its place.
The name of the program is a dead giveaway: they couldn’t call it “Reverse Discrimination,” because that would have been too honest and unpalatable; it never would have played in Peoria. So they had to do what ideologues always do to push a potentially unpopular agenda: they disguised it with a candy coating of euphemism. Affirmative Action. Sounds upbeat, progressive and vague enough to whiz right by the majority of Americans without ruffling too many feathers. They didn’t even capitalize it, probably in the hope that we wouldn’t notice it. (I capitalize it here.) Were we ever allowed to vote on whether we wanted Affirmative Action? Nope, it was simply foisted on us from above by high-minded social liberals (including President Johnson) whose feel-good impulses apparently exceeded their capacity for objective fairness.
Did black Americans really need an extra boost after they finally won their full civil rights back in the 1960s? Absolutely. There was a small, aristocratic black middle class at the time, but the vast majority of African Americans had no tradition of literacy or professionalism to draw upon as they began to compete for admission to better schools and jobs. Shouldn’t we have discriminated in their favor, then? No. We should have stopped discriminating against them. We should have trained them, coached them and inspired them to compete. It would have meant creating a New Deal-style federal program to help minorities make the transition, and it wouldn’t have been cheap. But it would have been cheaper than the disastrous welfare system that inadvertently spawned a permanent black underclass in the U.S. More important, it would have been the honorable thing to do.
Instead, it was easier simply to favor blacks and other minorities, with minimal regard for their qualifications. So we admitted them to the Ivies with substandard test scores when they would have done better at good old State. Their dropout rate was alarming, and those who went on to graduate would forever be branded by many whites, consciously or subconsciously, as Affirmative Action babies: the undeserving beneficiaries of a blatantly preferential policy. Even worse, we gave preference to wealthy and middle-class blacks over working-class whites, while the poorest students of either race were simply bypassed. (If we need an Affirmative Action program at all, we should use it to benefit poor people regardless of race or gender.)
Affirmative Action has devalued the real accomplishments of blacks and other minorities who have made it by virtue of their own talents. (If I had been black and brilliant, I’d bristle at the suggestion that I succeeded only because of reverse discrimination.) Even more damaging, Affirmative Action has cast a pall of public doubt over the idea that blacks can succeed on their own. Guess what: if you treat people as if they’re handicapped, everyone — including the beneficiaries of your largesse — will start to assume that they are handicapped. This is not the image the black community needs or wants. In fact, many African American leaders oppose Affirmative Action for this reason.
If, after 40 years of equal rights, blacks still require Affirmative Action to compete with whites, something is seriously wrong somewhere. Lefty would blame racism while secretly harboring doubts about blacks’ abilities; Righty would probably harbor those same doubts, but not as secretly. I suspect that what’s holding blacks back isn’t primarily racism or lack of ability, but a miasma of social problems afflicting the African American community (and especially the young male African American community, which is a culture unto itself) like some virulent and endemic disease. No surprise here. We have to start attacking these problems at the elementary school level or even earlier — not at the point of admission to college or the business world.
As for the upscale white women who have benefited from Affirmative Action at the expense of men, I’ll try to take the high road on this one. Let’s just say that if I were female and white today, I’d be mortified by the assumption that I required special consideration to compete equally with men. Yes, back in 1970 women needed to be taken seriously in the working world, and fast. It was still an era when older businessmen referred to their wives as “the little lady” and expected female employees to type, fetch coffee and occasionally “put out” for harried male executives like themselves. But those days are long gone, at least in the civilized world. So is the infamous “glass ceiling” that kept women from rising above middle-management positions. Yes, bastions of stubborn male supremacy still exist at scattered corporate and institutional outposts, but so do bastions of female supremacy (the publishing industry, corporate marketing departments, and the nonprofit sector are shining exemplars of feminine prowess).
The male establishment has transferred significant power to women in the space of a single generation. Given that we’re looking at a major realignment of the historic gender roles of our species, the pace of change has been amazingly swift. Now that women populate corporate boardrooms and significantly outnumber men at American colleges and graduate schools, no amount of feminist eloquence will persuade me that they still require a free pass. Affirmative Action for women in the job marketplace seemed fair enough back in the seventies, but it’s needlessly discriminatory today.
What about the lingering pay gap between men and women, you ask? If a disproportionate number of women still congregate in traditional “pink collar” jobs like secretarial or clerical work, discrimination isn’t the culprit. Most men abandoned those low-paying fields long ago for the chance to earn grown-up salaries (can you blame them?), and women filled the vacuum. The continuing social pressure on men to be high earners drives them to steer clear of ill-paid clerical jobs, while women are free to take them as a source of additional family income. Nobody snickers at a woman who earns only $20K for a year’s work. Men simply don’t enjoy that luxury, so they generally follow the money.
Summary: Affirmative Action may have been a necessary evil back in the 1970s, but it’s simply evil today. It’s unfair to blacks as well as whites, and women no longer need it. We could use coaching programs, not preference programs.