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Affirmative Action

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Christina Weakland permalink
    December 9, 2009 3:59 pm

    Hi Uncle Rick. First of all, you are brilliant, and I hope you can get this site turned into a book. I would joyfully read a book structured in just this format – clarifying the extremist positions and offering an alternate that is wiser, more tempered, and takes into account the shades of grey. I find readin online far less pleasurable.

    And that said, I have one point to raise on the male/female pay gap. I’d contend that the issue is not a question of women taking lower paid and lower status jobs than men and thus skewing the stats, but of women doing the SAME jobs for lower pay than their male peers. I tend to think this is not entirely the result of eqregious discrimination, though in some cases it may be – but I think it’s partially due to the natural inclination of bosses to try to save their companies some dough, and some gender differences in aggression that lead men to pursue raises or higher starting salaries more assertively. Women, biologically, and undeniably, protect relationships above all else. Men biologically compete to be the high-status alpha. So for a women – being pushy about money and in so doing risking incurring the wrath or mere distaste of a boss – takes an extra push that many of us don’t have in us. The solution, as I see it, is training for women in high school and college on how to think about and approach the “ask.” Until we stop caring about being percieved as “nice” it will be unlikely that women will receive equal pay for equal work.

    My 2 cents.

    • December 10, 2009 12:34 am

      Greetings, dear Godchild. (Yes, folks, I’ve known Christina since before she was born, if that’s possible.) Glad you like what you’ve seen so far, and thanks for the high praise. I thought those three-way debates might make a fun and provocative book, too — though with my cranky opinions I don’t suppose I’ll ever be as popular as Chris B.

      You make some good points here (unlike a lot of pontificators on the subject). First of all, I wish people who talk glibly about the pay gap between men and women would specify which gap they’re talking about. There’s the sizable overall pay gap, which I addressed, and the smaller “equal work, unequal pay” gap that you specified.

      I remember arguing with a feminist who insisted that women earn only 68% as much as men for the same job. No, that was the comparative figure for overall income (a percentage that’s steadily rising, by the way — I think it’s somewhere in the 70s or even higher now). In other words, all those female waitresses, clerks and secretaries skewed the figures to create a larger gap.

      But you’re right — there’s also a pay gap (a smaller one, but still a gap) between men and women who work the same job. In some selected fields, like marketing, women apparently outearn men, but it’s more often the case that men take home slightly higher paychecks than their female peers. (You might be the first woman of elevated consciousness who actually acknowledges that factors other than sexism might lurk behind these figures.)

      I think you’re onto something with your idea that women aren’t as aggressive in pursuing raises. It might be cultural conditioning, or it might be something embedded in the genes… maybe a little of both. Of course, a lot depends on individual personalities, too; I knew some pretty aggressive women in the business world, and I was a pretty laid-back male. (I asked for a raise maybe three times in my entire career. )

      It might take a while longer, but I think women will eventually enjoy full professional parity with men. Women far outnumber men now in college and graduate school, and scientists say that the Y chromosome is gradually breaking down over time. Men are a doomed race!

  2. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 6, 2010 3:52 am

    A level playing field is flat, not two big (w)holes.

    • January 8, 2010 7:24 pm

      It’s more like a mound (for the favored ones) and a hole (for white males) now. Agreed, though, that we need a truly level playing field once and for all.

      • Taliesin Knol permalink
        January 8, 2010 8:59 pm

        The favored being the rich, usually white, and the holes for the poor,blacks that had been economicaly screwed, and poor whites, also screwed, and by the same people in most cases. Those “people” were the rich, either slave-owning southerners, or rich Northern businessmen.

  3. January 26, 2011 11:37 pm

    It’s just dollars. Money is the root of many evils but not all but quite frankly in a capitalistic society we tend to make decisions based what the most expediant and what is the least expensive. When I have an opening for a position that either a man or women can fill and I have in small business there aren

  4. Nick Kelsier permalink
    April 29, 2011 11:25 am

    My mom worked for US Bank for near 50 years. She was an senior vice president in their corporate trust department. She was responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in money US Bank earned every year.

    She got paid 80% of what a male doing the same job got.

    Yeah…have fun arguing there isn’t gender discrimination still going on.

  5. April 30, 2011 3:50 am

    Nick: Sure there’s still discrimination going on; good luck landing a tenure-track academic position in a liberal arts field today if you’re a white heterosexual male. As for your mother… if she started out as a banker over half a century ago, she was working when there was still genuine discrimination against women. Times change…

  6. May 2, 2011 10:11 am

    Rick,
    I stumbled across this blog this morning and was impressed by your thoughts and writing. I feel that anyone that cries that these programs are discriminatory towards Caucasian middle class males are immediately branded as racists.
    A very close friend of mine recently was awarded Black Engineer of the Year for his company. He was so insulted, touting that he was the best and that being labeled by his ethnicity devalued his brilliance and work.
    I think my problem with the program is that it is not to give them an edge if all other things are equal. It is difficult to word this without sounding like sour grapes however I feel that I have lost several bids where I was imminently more qualified and experienced, however couldn’t check the minority or female vote.

    • May 2, 2011 12:20 pm

      Robert: Glad you’re enjoying the site. I can’t believe any company would create an award for Black Engineer of the Year. That’s so demeaning… it’s almost something you’d expect to see on “The Office.” And of course I agree with you that systematic discrimination against white males is an unfair remedy for past discrimination toward minorities and women. Somebody from a Minnesota progressive site actually quoted my opinion on affirmative action (without citing the source) and knocked me for “whining” about the plight of white males. We’re just basking in privilege, of course.

  7. April 6, 2013 11:45 am

    Coaching Programs are a good idea.
    however, what about reform? Make it that people recieve Affirmative Action not based on race, sex, or gender but financial need of the individual.

  8. September 12, 2013 7:53 am

    This is a load of bollocks! And I don’t mean ordinary, common or garden bollocks, no, I mean “arty farty” bollocks. The sort of bollocks that gets right up the nose – sideways. It’s the sort of bollocks you find floating innocuously in your porridge some sunny morning, and you’re just not expecting it to be there. It’s the sort of bollocks that is beyond the pale, which won’t go away and is right in your face – stuck there like a huge boil on your one and only proboscis. It’s the sort of pure, unmitigated bollocks that gets the goat, not the ordinary kind. This is the sort of bollocks that is – well, as they say for short: it’s complete bollocks and that’s just the way it is. This is the sort of bollocks that is just “there”, all up in the air and hoity-toity with it. It’s just something that grates, is something that has no rhyme or reason to it: it is bollocks, pure and simple. And mark my words: this is bollocks – this is real bollocks – this is truly bollocks – this is unmitigated bollocks! In fact, it’s all a load of bollocks!

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