Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Affirmative Action: Thank You, Law and Order

Recently, I watched two Law and Order episodes in which defendants (one a college student, and the other a star reporter for The New York Sentinel) cheated in some way, were involved with a murder and finally let their lawyers claim that affirmative action put them over their heads and put additional pressure upon them. This is actually a very broad conservative argument: Affirmative action is bad for minorities' self-image or perception somehow.

Tim Wise's piece, "Lamont in the White House", discusses a number of the issues very eloquently, such that I doubt I will top it. But there are even more problems Tim didn't discuss.

One of the lawyers arguing this came up to Jack after a plea bargain was made and said he had a dream that the US Supreme Court had not voted the way it did in the Michigan case, going onto say that the white students were applauding those black students who did succeed. But this stems from a flatly false notion of white behavior: this idea that we've just been waiting for the black community to be able to pick up the pieces from racism and move on. No, successful black individuals are scarcely more acceptable now than they were ever before. As Jack said, "I'm barely white enough to live in Greenwich." Witness the whole of black history, where any attempt to improve one's standards (escape slavery, learn to read, create businesses, leave the ghetto, go to better schools) were vigorously and violently denied. Think that that's all nasty things of the past? Fine, add in the diatribe that many will launch about how much money those black sports stars make. Or the fact that social scientists have argued that were there no racist pressures operating there would be no de facto segregated communities in the United States, and that when too many blacks move in to a white neighborhood whites leave in droves for another sub-sub-suburb. Black success doesn't make us happy; it makes us scared.

Now, it is true that affirmative action may deepen the perception of the black woman and man as black rising above other variables in their lives, but as Jack pointed out, that's putting the problem backwards. For black people in this country know the negative stereotypes held about them and their culture very early on in life, often before they are ten years old. They were already self-identified themselves racially because they had no luxury to do otherwise: race was part of their lives. Indeed, this is yet another race privilege: To be able to pretend that racism does not exist. The lives of most black individuals are filled with examples; for them to deny it would be highly suspect.

Another issue that came up was the "Dinner with Spike Jones" problem: The whole black community identifiying with the successful black individual propelled by preferential treatment. Indeed, this is a problem, but to identify this as a problem with affirmative action is eminently silly. For that pressure will obviously accrue to any successful person of color, non? And if that's the case, doesn't that mean that blacks are carrying a unique burden, because their actions are viewed as not just representing themselves but also their community's intelligence and character? In fact, this isn't hypothetical or anecdotal. Claude Steele has done good work about the "stereotype threat", wherein blacks who take standardized tests that are viewed to matter (SAT, AP, etc.) suffer compared to comparable white students because they feel the additional burden of justifying their ethnicity; sometimes they go too quickly to finish early, sometimes too slowly because they are paranoid about checking answers. Give them a practice test or a test that they are told does not matter and scores improve drastically.

One does, of course, have to bear in mind that affirmative action, however needed, is in essence picking up for the failure of somewhere else in society. The high school system was terrible; thus, the college must take that into account. The black employee has had fewer years of employment because of racism. If this is deferred for too long, it may indeed be that a student, however bright and gifted, or a potential employee, however qualified, is behind the curve somehow, such that they cannot compete.

What do I say to that scenario? Give them the opportunity to try.


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