.September, 1995

White Privilege, Uber Alles

What the Attack on Affirmative Action is Really About

September, 1995
By Tim Wise

His voice may have been cracking but the message was loud and clear, as Presidential wanna-be, Pete Wilson gloated over the decision by the University of California Regents to abolish affirmative action in its nine affiliate schools. “This is the beginning of the end of racial preferences,” announced Wilson, whose recent vocal chord surgery has made Bill Clinton sound like Pavarotti by comparison. If only it were true. Fact is, racial preferences will continue, no matter what is done with affirmative action in the UC or elsewhere; only now, they will be exclusively the kind of preferences which have ruled the day in America for 375 years: preferences for whites, particularly those of financial means who carry that extra Y chromosome.

All the U-Cal Board has done with their ill-conceived decision, spurred by black millionaire regent Ward Connerly—who makes Clarence Thomas seem like Amiri Baraka—is give its approval to doing things the old fashioned way, again. Preferences for people of color who have been held back by centuries of unequal opportunity will go by the boards, but preferences for whites whose daddies and granddaddies attended the UC back before the schools were truly integrated will continue as always. Ah, colorblindness. Ain’t it grand?

First there was Connerly, televised in perfect soundbite fashion, reminding us that “our institutions must be blind to the color of one’s skin,” apparently convinced that the banks which have such a hard time finding money to loan to people of color, and the employers who “just filled the position,” are visually impaired in such a wonderful manner, and that only the practitioners of affirmative action can spot melanin nowadays. The world Connerly lives in must be a nice one. It’s a shame the rest of us aren’t living there yet.

Then came Governor Wilson, who set land-speed records for the dissemination of spurious nonsense, by claiming that affirmative action (and not the racism which makes it necessary), is counterproductive to racial harmony. Blaming affirmative action for increased racial tension is like blaming anti-lynching laws for causing the bigotry of those who were already quite proficient with the rope. But why get bogged down with one of those chicken and egg equations? The fact that affirmative action was widely supported by whites in this country until the right began politicizing it, and until economic stagnation became the rule and not the exception, is of no consequence to Wilson, who has yet to find a victim he won’t blame for society’s problems.

Even worse was Wilson’s claim that although “thirty years ago there may (?) have been some rationale for affirmative action, (but even then only for those who actually had suffered direct, personal, identifiable discrimination), now, the people being favored haven’t been the victims of discrimination, and the people being disadvantaged haven’t been the perpetrators.”

Although purely a-historical on the face of it, this platitude is quite revealing, as it is totally inconsistent with the fundamental color-blind principle that quota bashers have made their collective mantra. After all, if it is fundamentally wrong to ever consider the color of one’s skin in hiring, promotions, admissions, or scholarships, then philosophically, it would have been just as wrong in 1964 as it is today. Of course, those attacking affirmative action don’t like to go that far publicly, since most everyone accepts that, had we simply eliminated de jure apartheid only to say “go ahead, run the race,” without some assistance, equal opportunity wouldn’t have had even a glimmer of hope in this country. That folks like Wilson are able to skate by with the inconsistency is testament to how little analysis has gone into coverage of this issue.

Secondly, that Wilson’s support for affirmative action “thirty years ago,” extends only to those who were themselves “direct, personal” victims of discrimination, indicates the problem that he and most of his ilk seem to have: understanding the real and pernicious effects of institutional bias. To look for individual acts of racism as the only justification for affirmative action is to misunderstand the purpose of racial remedies, and even the issue of racism itself. If racism only manifested itself in the blatant, bigoted acts of employers, schools and landlords, it would be easy to address. Putting aside the cost of civil lawsuits, at least theoretically there would be straightforward legal remedies against such actions. But the whole point of affirmative action was to address institutional racism—best defined as the ongoing racial inequity brought about by race-neutral structures and practices, which, despite their race-neutrality, exact race-specific impacts upon persons of color: things like the old boy’s network, or the overreliance on standardized test scores which measure the class and often race-bound quality of one’s primary and secondary-level education, rather than innate ability.

Wilson, as with so many others who would abolish affirmative action, is mute on the subject of institutional racism and how society might address it in the absence of racial remedies. Better to deny the problem than to have to deal with the unpleasantness of the overlapping integers of race-class oppression in the U.S.

It is that same institutional bias that makes Wilson’s claim that “now the people being favored haven’t been the victims of discrimination, and the people being disadvantaged haven’t been the perpetrators,” equally absurd. Although young whites may never have committed any injustice against a person of color, it is nevertheless true that all whites enjoy certain privileges as a result of past and present discrimination. Our ancestors, and even ourselves to a large degree, didn’t and don’t have to compete in a truly fair labor market, to say nothing of the housing, educational and financial services markets. Whites have consistently been protected from competition with labor of color, even when (and especially when) that labor might have been “more qualified” than the whites in question. Although whites at various levels of the class structure experience privilege in different ways, it is still true that all experience it in some form. Consider that even whites earning less than $25,000 annually have a better chance of procuring a conventional home mortgage loan than a black person earning over $42,000, according to recent studies.

Then Wilson bellowed the by-now-cliched claim that affirmative action is “demeaning” to its recipients because it conveys the impression that they “can’t make it on their own.” It is—as black conservatives like Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell and a gaggle of others have claimed—an affront to the dignity of hard-working people of color.

Has anyone noticed how affirmative action’s critics accept this argument without reflection, and yet give short shrift to those same people of color who tap them on the shoulder and politely remind them that for assaulting self-esteem you really can’t do much better than old-fashioned racism, and that without affirmative action, that’s the kind of esteem-killer will be seeing more of? Those who dare point out such heretical truths are derided by the champions of black and brown “dignity” as “professional victims,” or “whiners” who “bitch and moan,” and need to “get over it.”

But what about the self-esteem of white folks? Doesn’t anyone care that maybe I—a white, heterosexual male—might feel inadequate given the advantages I’ve received as a member of the most privileged group of persons on the planet? What about the advantages folks like me receive, with hardly a sideways glance at something as noble as “merit?” Has anyone stopped to think that perhaps those strings I’ve been able to pull to get jobs, scholarships, and traffic tickets dismissed, may be the undoing of my self-image? Of course not. Apparently the self-esteem of millions of white children who reap the rewards of racism matters little to the Wilsons and Connerlys of the world.

Ultimately, Wilson descended from the vapid to the downright venal with his crowning comment: “This decision will allow us to accomplish diversity naturally, without artificial racial preferences.” Sounds an awful lot like some Southerners I know who always thought the Supreme Court’s desegregation timeline of “with all deliberate speed,” meant nothing more intrusive than sometime prior to the apocalypse.

“Accomplish diversity naturally,” huh? Guess that’s what Simi Valley has done. No affirmative action there: just good old fashioned “natural” processes at work. I thought natural diversity was what Wilson was trying to stop with Proposition 187. After all, there are natural market and political forces driving folks across the Mexican border (as in, even less jobs than we’ve got here—a scary proposition), and yet Wilson has been the most vocal supporter of putting the brakes on this “natural” process, sealing the borders, and seeing to it that the children of the undocumented can’t get vaccinated, let alone a decent education.

So just what does it mean to accomplish diversity naturally? Is there any reason to believe that in the absence of affirmative action such an evolutionary process will transpire? If history is any guide, the answer is clearly no. Expecting white America to voluntarily open the corridors of power to persons of color is a far worse bet than a Samuel Beckett character waiting for Godot. A little hint to Pete: the savior never does come. But then again, Wilson already knows that. And that’s why he’s gloating.

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