Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) is both a student of history and an unapologetic free thinker — two traits that immediately separate him from 90% of the people in elected office today.
As a Senator, he has been a leader on national issues such as the GI Bill for Iraq-Afghanistan vets and the reform of Federal criminal sentencing laws. In both cases, he took positions that were risky, even unpopular, for the sake of doing the right thing.
Yesterday, in the Wall Street Journal , he took on the ultimate verboten topic: Federal affirmative action programs, specifically those which require government contracts be given to “minority” (i.e. non-white) applicants. As a white man, he risked being called a “racist” by even addressing this subject. And surely some will misrepresent his message.
But he was right to do it. Because this discussion needs to be acknowledged (it’s already happening) without the predictable name-calling which has already infected the illegal immigration debate.
Since the good Senator has raised this topic and I am now commenting upon it, I will confess the following: I am an ordinary white American male who was raised in a stable home by church-going and loving parents. I’ve had every advantage that comes with living in this great nation and am glad for it. Having said that, I note the following facts –
1. The Civil Rights laws of the 1950′s and 1960′s were passed to address a specific situation unique in American history, namely the enslavement of black Americans until the Civil War and the subsequent segregation laws which were used to treat them as second-class citizens. This situation is (and was) unique and there is no corollary to it — although invariably other minority groups attempt to analogize themselves to that experience.
2. Because of slavery and segregation, there was a distinct impact on American society which has taken generations to unravel. That situation was recognized by laws passed in the latter 20th century which sought to remediate this discrimination by ensuring access to opportunities by the descendants of America’s native African-American population.
3. Our world has changed radically (for the better) since those times. My parents grew up in a society that was still segregated. My mother attended an all-white high school in Alexandria in the late Fifties. By the time I entered the Fairfax City School system, we were fully integreated, although my high school was still 90% white. My children — who are half-Korean by ethnicity — now attend the City schools which are at least half minority. Their friends are of Asian, African and Middle Eastern descent. There is no connection with the segregated system of 50+ years ago.
4. The “minorities” that have come legally to the U.S. in the past generation from around the world are not poor and down-trodden. Nor are they victims of legal discrimination. In our area, they are highly-educated and motivated professionals who have sought the academic and career opportunities of America. (I say this being married to the daughter of such a family). It is an absurdity to conflate their legal situation with that of the Jim Crow era.
5. Thanks in part to this infusion of human capital, we increasingly achieve a “diversity” of outcome without any government manipulation. Look at our local schools: the valedictorian of the celebrated W.T. Woodson High School this year was of African descent — and nobody noticed. Our magnet school (Thomas Jefferson) as well as the University of Virginia could have all their slots filled with qualified “minorities” without losing any academic ground. The U.S. Supreme Court is fully diverse, with the conspicuous exception of Protestants.
6. While America integreates, the whole concept of race is being changed before our eyes (See Obama, President Barack). Intermarriage among racial groups is not controversial — it’s not even noteworthy. In a mixed marriage, the concept of identifying yourself or your children as a “member” of one particular racial group becomes a case of self-selection — nothing more. It should not form the basis of qualification for some government benefit.
Those are the positives. Now here are some realities from those of us (like me) who are not minorities:
1. Believe it or not, being “white” is not an automatic ticket to success (people of my age will remember the famous Eddie Murphy spoof on SNL years ago about the “white world” — unfortunately it’s not true). The majority of citizens on Medicaid and TANF are white. There are significant pockets of poverty in Virginia in communities which are completely white. Indeed, the lack of diversity is often a proxy for lack of jobs or investment. On average, white Virginians have average higher incomes than some minorities (blacks and Latins) and lower than others (Asians). It’s a mix. (Okay, I will admit we dominate NASCAR).
2. As Senator Webb points out, the current contracting laws, which seek to benefit anyone who is “non-white” are built on a Civil Rights era platform where only blacks and whites existed in significant numbers — and only whites had access to education or investment capital. The facts have changed but the laws have not. That has led led to bizarre outcomes where being a “Native Alaskan” is considered a great windfall (??), while working your way through school out of a trailer park means nothing. (side note — I once had a client who could not bid on a Fed contract because he was “not a minority” — he was an Afghani refugee who escaped the Communists and started his own successful business in Springfield).
3. The most statistically significant determinant of success in America is not race. It’s the wealth and education of your parents, whether they are from Mumbai, Lagos or Peoria. Again, I say this being the product of a great parents, an advantage which I cannot duplicate except for my own kids.
Here, is my humble conclusion to all this …
The Civil Rights laws had a distinct purpose which needs to be recovered — the remediation of ills arising from America’s history of slavery and segregation. The effects of that history is still apparent in this nation, yes in Virginia. That challenge is not over although this nation has made enormous strides. Separately, the use of Federal (and state) law to promote small business is critical, especially in Virginia which needs to open up its state contracting to more outside firms.
However, only favoring businesses which can prove they are “non-white” is simplistic and ultimately wrong. Similarly, there is no moral or historical reason to legally favor the children of immigrants over the children of existing residents –simply because the latter is white and the former is not. Again, that choice dilutes the moral clarity of the Civil Rights laws and ironically puts a burden on those who may need help the most.
We have seen two generations pass through without a serious discussion on the topic that Senator Webb has raised. It’s going to happen very soon. When it does, I suggest that it occur without the inevitable cries of “racism” and with a clear eye towards the history of our people and the purposes for which these laws were intended.