As We See Them
I don't have a great problem with affirmative action. The continual mainstreaming of African-Americans is a positive value that has been created in the past 30 years. I do have a problem with musty, creaky policies that seem to do more bad than good. I have a lot of problems with a political party that wants to support the old policy rather than come up with something new and imaginative. The problems and needs never change but neither does the necessity to continually transform policy as one era supplants another.
When affirmative action came into being in the early 70's it was viewed as a mild remedy for an impossible situation; that is, what to do about the repression of African-Americans throughout American history. The thought, at that time, was that what was needed was a stable, black middle-class, a professional class, that could provide the model for young blacks, as well as provide more complexity in the black family. Very few people objected. The objections began when colleges and universities started promoting a more radical view of the African-American student. Apparently, the last thing the academics wanted was a large, bourgeois African-American population, more interested in taxes, schools, protection for children, and investment in small business than "identity politics." That's the perception. Whether it's true or not is anyone's guess, but perception plays a huge role in politics.
Some began to ask, "where is the effort to build a black middle-class?" in the midst of identity politics? The "identity" always had the tacit understanding that is was "anti" to those who they perceived had harmed them. How could anyone expect to take that attitude into the real world and work well and successfully with that same group?
So, after awhile, affirmative action became a pure political play. It began to resemble the old spoils system that corrupted in the mid-19th century. Even more omninous, it began to look like a new caste system built on new political myths. If a person is fully defined by their race, then the die is cast. How can I escape such a fabrication? And why should I? I would only try to escape it if the fabrication had any power. And I would escape those who would want to impose that fabrication. So, while it may have power on campus, it doesn't have much power in middle-class homes, even in those brief moments when the kids are on campus.
It's a result of the identity politics of 30 years, even 35 years ago. It could only have made it this far in the hermetically-sealed campus. It was a kind of revenge of the intellectual class for not gaining the power they wanted.
We think every effort should be made to mainstream the African-American population and increase their odds at success. The effort was too heavily weighted on the public policy side and not enough on the development-of-the- individual side. Now, all the indivdual is equipted with, when he or she leaves campus, is a way to rationalize their first failures. At that moment, life begins to look like a vicious cycle and the poor misfortunate person does not leap up to the next level. This happens to all people, of course, but because of the politicalization of the African-American, they wear the hairshirt more often. And make no mistake about it. The hairshirt was manufactured by the new left who easily took over the civil rights movement when it couldn't survive in the real world and had to move back to the campus.
Tax payers don't want colleges and universities to radicalize anyone but, rather, to send them all off into the happy hunting grounds of the middle-class. In fact, if this were happening now I don't think there'd be a great grousing about it. And, in truth, it's very difficult to argue against a situation that needs a remedy.
My instincts tell me that if the universities would dismantle their ethnic studies programs, the middle-class would not be so upset about affirmative action. And, again, one of the great problems is that the goal was lost sight of. The goal was not to "diversify the campus." The campus is a place the vast majority of people pass through. It's a better place for diversity but that was not the goal of affirmative action. The goal was to produce a generation of decent, bourgeouis black men and women, in good profesions who would provide the stability the African-American group needs. That was the purpose and, like all good things, was side-tracked by the radicals who were hungry for the raw ingredients of political power.
It serves as a lesson to policy makers: When you make your policy have an exit strategy in place because the political fortunes will change.
One could beat the university to death I suppose but, for being the smart guys, they acted very dumb in the last 30 years. They promoted the idea of the "victim," and politicized race and gender, and tried to rationalize it through very suspect philosophies; philosophies that were being abandoned the moment they were taking hold on American campuses. It's one of the most disgraceful periods of time in academic history. Of all the peoples in this nation, the African-American needs to be taught to see him and herself as part of a large, real society that wants that person to develop their potentials to the utmost degree. To get to that point a person has to cross a threshold or two and it's not possible with the philosophy of victimization in place. At the first failure the victim has a perfect alibi. They need not do anything else.
Ending affirmative action isn't going to solve any problems. But there won't be any solutions forthcoming until you move these tired old radicals out of the road and let the air breathe again. They will not let go of the ideas that brought them to power; they resemble petty tyrannies rather than liberal, democratic institutions.
The experienced person asks this question, "If families can not solve the problem of inequality, how can huge nations?" Equality is not the key. The key is connecting people to the organizing principles of the culture and encourging them to develop freely toward their goals. I am not equal to Bill Gates because he focused himself on his interests and reaped the reward. I am not equal to Michael Jordan because he focused on his marvelous talents and developed them and reaped his reward. The complex inequality that makes up this society is the result of desire, opportunity, talent, sacrifice, imagination and a host of qualities that can't be guaranteed by public policy or wrenching private identities into political ones. The tragedy is that these qualities are worthless unless the person is connected to the organizing principles. And, tragic even yet, some parts of the educational system have taught alienation as a badge of honor. Some have even tried to develop a tribal culture with the tribes coming together occassionally to agree and disagree about policy. This fantasy could only take place on the dole, so to speak. When the dole dries up and the political fortunes change, the illusion collapses. To see how all of this has ruined a generation of educators, scholars, and some of the students is disheartening.
Back to the melting pot, I suppose.
The other thing people forget is that, no matter how you slice it, one group feels very "victimized," and that is the lower middle-class whites. And before long they will find representation in the political world and affirmative action will be seen as the worst form of elitism, concocted by white liberals who desperately need to exert power somewhere or else they, too, will view themselves as the dreaded victim. And that would be too humiliating to bear.
Let go of the past. Bury the stupid myths concocted out of a red-hot vacumn 35 years ago. By not doing this, the progressives look like the desperate Nazi army, turning back toward the Allies and fighting the Battle of the Bulge. They know it is one last stand.
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January 30, 2003