A reader asks: "You expressed dismay at racism and segregation, but find affirmative action acceptable and desirable?"
Almost a month ago (during the whole Trent Lott mess) I received the following email from reader Steve Presutti, but didn't have a chance to address it as I was leaving for my winter vacation:
Dear Mikhaela Reid:It's a big and complicated question, so rather than just sum up my position, I thought I'd also provide some quotes from some good essays on the topic.
I enjoy reading your blog and find the content both informative and provocative. I usually find myself agreeing with most if not all of the ideas expressed.
Bearing that in mind, I'm wondering if you could clarify part of your most recent post. If I understand your implications correctly, you expressed dismay at racism and segregation, but find affirmative action acceptable and desirable. Are these concepts not different facets of the same gem? That is, my understanding is that all three concepts are predicated on treatment based primarily, if not solely, upon a person's race. I have trouble seeing why these issues should be accepted or rejected individually instead of as a single cohesive whole. Am I misunderstanding the issues, your position, or more?
But first, the short version: affirmative action based on race isn't a magical cure for the legacy of racism and inequality and discrimination in this country. But anyone who thinks the US really has a level playing field right now, or thinks that whites don't get preferential treatment and priveleges needs to start paying a little more attention. Or as Alternet's Sean Gonsalves put it: "I'm not suggesting that affirmative action is our salvation, but neither is it the reverse racism that some opponents claim." So, some suggested reading and choice quotes:
The Opposite of Racism Isn't Colorblindness
By Sean Gonsalves, AlterNet, August 21, 2001
If St. Paul was right, that the wages of sin is death, is it a stretch to say that the wages of white supremacy is colorblindness?and
To suggest such a thing, I'm sure, makes a good number of white brothers and sisters uneasy, thinking perhaps Black Americans have deserted Dr. King's dream where people are judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
Forget that King, just before his death, called for affirmative action in his last book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" His dream wasn't that everyone would not recognize color, but that skin pigmentation would not be used as the key measure of human potential.
King wasn't so naive to think a society steeped in centuries of white supremacy would be magically transformed into a colorblind utopia. I'm not suggesting that affirmative action is our salvation, but neither is it the reverse racism that some opponents claim...
All across America there is an informal social network that gives whites preferential treatment in gaining access to a limited range of economic opportunities. Can colorblindness really be the answer, when, in a race-obsessed society, it renders white-skin privilege invisible?A Big Story Goes Unreported
By Norman Solomon, AlterNet, April 26, 2000
If newsrooms and media suites weren't so overwhelmingly white, this situation might be more widely – and forthrightly – discussed in print and on the airwaves. Perhaps some pundits would voice concern about "white pathology" and wonder aloud at the extent of moral failures by Caucasians who live in the outer city.and a personal favorite:
But, as things stand, we don't hear much about the social sickness involved in the endemic propensity of white commentators to confuse their monologues with real dialogue on the subject of race.
Affirmative action is a flash point for the unspoken – and often unconscious – white delusion of superiority. We're commonly told that affirmative action is now unnecessary because a level playing field exists.
Out of touch with reality, these claims ignore the fact that racial prejudice and institutional bias continue to pervade American society – and that few blacks or Latinos can be found in the more lucrative and powerful professions. Given the lopsided statistics, the level-playing-field argument doesn't hold – unless, of course, one actually believes that racial minorities are inherently inferior...
Breaking the Cycle of White Dependence
By Tim Wise, ZNet, June 12, 2001
I got to thinking about projection recently, after receiving many an angry e-mail from folks who had read one or another of my previous commentaries, and felt the need to inform me that people of color are "looking for a handout," and are "dependent" on government, and of course, whites.and
Such claims are making the rounds these days, especially as debate heats up about such issues as reparations for enslavement, or affirmative action. And this critique is a prime example of projection, for in truth, no people have been as dependent on others throughout history as white folks.
We depended on laws to defend slavery and segregation so as to elevate us, politically, socially and economically. We depended on the Naturalization Act of 1790, to make all European immigrants eligible for nearly automatic citizenship, with rights above all persons of color. We depended on land giveaways like the Homestead Act, and housing subsidies that were essentially white-only for many years, like FHA and VA loans. Even the GI Bill was largely for whites only, and all of these government-sponsored efforts were instrumental in creating the white middle class. But it goes deeper than that.
From the earliest days, "whites" were dependent on the land and natural resources of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Since Europe offered no substantial natural riches from its soil, European economic advance and expansion was entirely reliant on the taking of other people's land by force, trickery or coercion. That, my friends, is dependence.
Then these same Europeans relied on slave labor to build a new nation and to create wealth for whites; wealth that was instrumental to financing the American Revolution, as well as allowing the textile and tobacco industries to emerge as international powerhouses. From 1790 to 1860 alone, whites and the overall economy reaped the benefits of as much as $40 billion in unpaid black labor. That, my friends, is dependence...
And white dependence on people of color continues to this day. Each year, African Americans spend over $500 billion with white-owned companies: money that goes mostly into the pockets of the white owners, white employees, white stockholders, and white communities in which they live. And yet we say black people need us? We think they are the dependent ones, relying as we assume they do on the paltry scraps of an eviscerated welfare state? Now let's just cut the crap. Who would be hurt more: black folks if all welfare programs were shut down tomorrow, or white folks, if blacks decided they were through transferring half-a-trillion dollars each year to white people and were going to keep their money in their own communities?...and
Indeed, I am beginning to think that whites are so dependent on people of color that we wouldn't know what to do without them. Oh sure, some neo-Nazis say they would love to try, but in reality I doubt they could make it. If there were no black and brown folks around then whites would have no one to blame but themselves for the crime that occurred; no one to blame but themselves when they didn't get the job they wanted; no one to blame but themselves when their lives turned out to be less than they expected. In short, we need people of color – especially in a subordinate role – as a way to build ourselves up, and provide a sense of self-worth we otherwise lack...For the unsubtle reader, I hope it's clear that this last sentence is a rhetorical, not literal statement.