First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Affirmative Action and the American Soul
As we prepare for a war whose purpose is to keep the world -- including us -- safe from the weapons and perpetrators of terror, it's not a bad time for some serious self-examination.
What kind of nation is the United States? We defenders of virtue, how well do we tend to our own house?
If only perfect nations were allowed to defend themselves or fight for noble causes, then there'd be precious few countries able to field an army, and we would not be one of them.
There are moral measures by which our treatment of the Indians is not quite as evil as, say, Turkey's treatment of the Armenians or the Soviet Union's treatment of the kulaks. Only the passage of time washes our hands of that crime, for those who systematically warred with, murdered, starved, deported, and oppressed the Indians are all dead now.
And perhaps the American blood that was shed fighting for other people's freedom in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific washed away some of the stain.
Speaking of fighting in other countries, it seem our big wars are noble, while our small ones are a mixed bag indeed. For every intervention that brings freedom to countries like Haiti, Panama, or Grenada, you don't have to go far back in our history to find our military supporting oppressors or outright murderers in El Salvador, Chile, or Nicaragua.
We do better, in the long run, when we go to war for moral reasons rather than realpolitik. We do better when we behave like a great people rather than a great power.
There is one other unresolved issue that puts us in that category of imperfect nations engaging in justified war: the issue of race.
I don't speak of the old crime of importing vast numbers of African slaves -- that one was paid for in blood and horror on the battlefields of the Civil War, which, despite the propaganda from both sides to the contrary ("states' rights" vs. "preserving the union"), was always about slavery and no other issue.
I speak of the far more recent crimes of oppression against the children of the liberated slaves. The terror campaigns of the Ku Klux Klan; the Republican retreat from Reconstruction after the administration of President Grant, opening the floodgates of anti-black oppression; the imposition of Jim Crow laws throughout the South; Woodrow Wilson's segregation of a once-integrated federal government, removing the last bulwark of hope; and the lies and slanders and slights and discrimination against African-Americans that continue, to one degree or another, to this day.
Most of the old official apparatus of anti-black discrimination has been swept away -- though not completely.
We don't have poll taxes and voter registration tests designed to keep blacks from voting. But we do have gerrymandering that concentrates black voters in isolated districts so that all the other districts are "safely" white, effectively eliminating the influence of black voters there.
President Truman officially eliminated racial discrimination in the armed forces with a stroke of his pen, but it took long, long years for integration to become a reality. New ways -- perhaps inadvertent ones -- of discrimination kept resurfacing.
During the Vietnam War, for instance, college deferments kept a lot of whites out of military service for years, and when these college boys finally did get in, they were more likely to be seen as officer material. Blacks, undeferred and unrespected, did more than their share of dying.
Now we have an all-volunteer military, which has struggled mightily to transform itself into a place where racial discrimination is not a barrier.
The inadvertent result, however, is that blacks still bear a somewhat disproportionate share of the military burden. It is only natural that a greater proportion of African-Americans of military age would choose military life in a day when the military is one of the least discriminatory institutions in America, and when blacks are seriously overrepresented in the poorer and less-educated groups from which volunteers are most likely to come.
Still, we have a rainbow army that is far more representative of what America ought to be than of what America yet is.
For there is still no shortage of racial discrimination. It no longer has the weight of government behind it, and most people are ashamed to behave openly in a way that would bring a charge of racism -- and that is enormous progress. Those who say "nothing has changed" are either cynical liars or have very short memories.
But those who say that racial prejudice has ended are just as dishonest -- or else they live in communities so white that they don't actually know any black people.
The sad fact is that while most whites that I know have either grown up without prejudice (my children's generation) or have had a sincere change of heart and have thrown out the prejudices we were taught growing up, there is still a bigoted minority.
And if it sometimes seems to whites that black people are way too sensitive, taking offense where none is intended, it would be good to keep in mind that if even ten percent of whites still seethe with racial hatred, that's enough to make sure that blacks in America run into hostility and unfair treatment almost every day.
Still, the goal of most whites and most blacks that I know is to cease giving and taking offense, and to create for our children a nation in which the distinction between black and white is no more important than the distinction between Polish- and German-American, between Irish and Italian. Still proud of an old heritage, still culturally variegated -- but more American than hyphenated.
Which brings us to the controversy of the week -- the Michigan university system's affirmative action case pending before the Supreme Court, and the Bush administration's brief filed attacking the constitutionality of Michigan's discriminatory policy.
I have long been a supporter of affirmative action. It wasn't about fairness -- you can't prefer one race at the expense of another without somebody getting hurt, no matter which race is getting the preference.
Rather, I supported affirmative action because the only way whites were going to learn that blacks were not some different species was for both races to go to work and school together.
I think "diversity" is a silly goal, since wherever you have more than one human being you have diversity. What we actually need is unity -- to know each other well enough that we see each other as one people, with differences, rather than as two separate peoples.
And when the legal oppression of blacks ended, there was zero hope that it would be the end of de facto segregation. Old-boy networks already in place included precious few blacks, and public services like police and fire departments, the post office, the schools, and the various bureaucracies needed a massive influx of blacks in order to break down the barriers of suspicion and mistrust.
Blacks had to be persuaded that they really were a part of this country at every level. And whites had to get a chance to work side by side with blacks -- and have blacks as superiors, not just as equals or inferiors, in the workplace -- in order for the internal, personal walls of prejudice to come down.
It has taken time, and the results are far from perfect, but those who want to overcome the legacy of racial hatred and resentment have the chance to do so.
Ironically, however, a case can be made that one of the last barriers to full equality of blacks in America is the very same affirmative action that has done so much in the past thirty years to break down the walls of discrimination.
Full acceptance in society means having an assumption of respect. Of course, we can undermine that ourselves by the way we dress -- respect comes from acting the part of a respectable person, and as every teenager knows, you can easily choose a look that drives "respectable" people insane.
But the fact remains that because of affirmative action in the school and university systems, blacks are prevented from getting the assumption of respect no matter what they do.
For white people, once you're out of college and got your first job, it rarely matters what you actually majored in or what kind of grades you got. A C average doesn't keep you from being President, and majoring in English rather than accounting doesn't stop you from rising in the business world if you work hard and know your stuff.
But if you're a black man or woman who got excellent grades, earned a place at a terrific university, and graduated magna cum laude, it does not change the fact that everybody -- including other blacks -- will assume that you got your degree, and your job, because of affirmative action.
The very existence of race-based preferences makes it so that there is an assumption of disrespect for black people.
The worst perpetrators of this are, in fact, the very liberals who scream most loudly in favor of continuing race-based preferences forever. They are the first to sneer at Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, or Condaleeza Rice, declaring that they are only window dressing, that they only got their high positions because of affirmative action.
And, especially in the schools, there is a fundamental assumption of disrespect: The ironclad belief by supporters of racial preferences that black people simply don't have what it takes to excel at education under the same rules as everybody else.
I find this belief so unspeakably racist -- and false -- that it is almost unbearable that the loudest proponents of this view are so-called "black leaders." Can't they hear what they're saying?
Of course, their official line is that it's because of white prejudice that black kids can't do well in school. But black kids do worse than white kids in school even when they have black teachers.
The supporters of racial preferences then claim that it's because of widespread poverty among blacks that blacks do worse in school, on average -- and black poverty is largely caused by a history of discrimination.
But even if that's true, do you solve the problem by promoting black kids who haven't learned what they're supposed to learn, who haven't done the work?
If a kid knows he's going to be promoted whether he works or not, how many are going to work? Some -- always some -- will love the learning for its own sake -- but that's a minority in every racial group.
And the constant rhetoric of despair -- "black kids can't excel because they are oppressed" -- isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of working hard in school.
The fact is that black kids are, on average, every bit as capable of excelling in school as white kids -- if they have important people in their lives who expect them to perform up to high standards.
Diversity in universities is a trivial goal compared to the goal of helping black kids, from kindergarten on, to believe in themselves and to believe in school. When we tell kids of one group that they can't succeed, then most of them won't succeed.
When we tell them that it's not their fault when they flunk a test and don't do their homework and learn nothing from books, then they're not going to change their own behavior in order to pass the test and do the homework and read and understand the books.
Are there racists among those who oppose racial preferences in college admissions programs? You bet your life. Just as there are racists among those who use "no quotas" as a code word for "blacks need not apply."
But there are also racists among those who declare that blacks can't possibly succeed without getting special low standards to allow them into colleges.
And it cheapens the respect owed to those blacks who really do excel in school or work.
I've heard blacks in public life say, "I don't care whether white people respect me." But that's simply ridiculous. We all care whether other people respect us. And the problem with racial preferences in education is that even black people lose respect for black people.
How many black people wonder if black dentists or doctors got into -- and through -- medical school because they were allowed to get by with lower scores than white dentists or doctors? How many black businessmen wonder whether the black college graduate applying for a job actually knuckled down and earned that degree or merely coasted through -- and will expect to coast through whatever job they get?
It didn't used to be that way. In the days when blacks had to claw their way into college, you knew that a black man or woman with a college degree had met higher, not lower standards of courage and intellect and hard work than the average white person.
The ideal would be for us not to make any racial assumptions at all -- to have a person's race lead to no conclusions about their education or anything else, except perhaps for what clothing colors they can get away with wearing.
The question for us now is: What is the best way to create a society in which all our citizens have an equal opportunity to achieve whatever position and respect their inborn abilities, ambition, and hard work allow them to achieve?
It's time to stop assuming that every person, black or white, who supports racial preferences is "for" black people, and to stop assuming that every person, black or white, who opposes racial preferences is "against" black people.
The fact is that most Americans today, black and white, are weary of the whole thing. Most of us want America to be at peace within, blacks and whites getting along with each other as individuals, not having to be wary and watchful.
There is room for honest disagreement on where affirmative action is necessary and where it is now counterproductive. Every choice has its costs, and every choice has its benefits.
Instead of insisting that the issue of affirmative action be interpreted as being for or against black people, it's time to recognize that we need a realistic debate about what will best enable black children from grade school to college to reach adulthood with the same chance for success and respect as anyone else.
I think there are places in American life where affirmative action should still be mandatory -- for instance, in large corporations where a pattern of discrimination is clear, or in schools where racial sorting makes assumptions about what black kids ought or ought not to strive for.
But I also think there are changes that cannot be achieved by government action. When black parents and neighborhoods expect all their kids to achieve in school the way that Chinese-American or Japanese-American or Jewish parents historically have, and support them accordingly, then I believe black children will get comparable results and achieve comparable respect.
That can't be legislated. It can't be imposed by lawsuits. And black people don't have to wait for white people to do anything in order to achieve it. The shame of it is that black families who have achieved precisely that result still have to watch as their children, who have done well without any special help, are still assumed to be the beneficiaries of affirmative action, and therefore "really" inferior despite their credentials.
Meanwhile, as we prepare for war against armies led by a monster, the young men and women who will go into combat trusting that their comrades will support them, fight for them, take care of them if they're injured, are black and white and every other race; are drawn from the heritage of every nation; and show us all not just what America is, but what it can be, and should be, and, God willing, will be.
Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.
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