The Scatterbrained Syncretist








David Weisman posted some thoughts about affirmative action at The Art of Peace. He begins:

Why do they always blame America first?

The recent celebrations of Martin Luther King's triumphs brought to mind a related subject: Affirmative action.

That is an interesting association. Dr. King was a proponent of racial equality and didn't support racialist government programs.

David continues:

When America dealt with racial strife a few decades ago, they did something that to my knowledge no other nation has ever done in similar circumstances. They recognized that many Americans were disenfranchised, a few to the point where they did not always consider America's gain to be their gain. They made laws against racial discrimination, but they knew those laws would be impossible to enforce. Who can really prove one man refused to hire another for a certain reason?

Of course, America has been dealing with racial strife for centuries...not just "a few decades ago". Perhaps David means "dealt with" in the sense of fixed...but that can't be right, because he seems to argue that affirmative action is still needed. He claims that laws against racial discrimination were known to be impossible to enforce despite the fact that they have frequently been enforced. (His specific reference was to disenfranchisement...African Americans have been voting for a long time.)

To partially compensate for the impossibility of enforcing the law, affirmative action was created.

As I recall, affirmative action was created to compensate for historical injustices and to correct imbalances caused by racial discrimination. That was believed that civil rights law didn't do enough.

Now there are some who say that this policy, practiced as far as I know by nobody but Americans, (certainly not the French!) was wrong. They say that African Americans who achieve are stigmatized because people believe they only did so through affirmative action. Many people who believe this would hate them for other reasons even if there were no affirmative action. The program is not perfect, but when we look at how other nations around the world have dealt with minorities disenfranchised to the point of violence, it brings renewed appreciation of the American way.

"There are some who say"...almost anything.

David says that "many people" who believe that African Americans are stigmatized by affirmative action "would hate them for other reasons". I don't know. Many people who are concerned about the stigma of affirmative action don't hate African Americans at all...some are even African Americans themselves. It looks like David is trying to stigmatize as racist "many people" who disagree with him about a particular policy. I don't think that is what he intends...but it is requires effort to avoid the inference.

David writes that the "program is not perfect" but neither specifies the imperfections nor suggests any corrections. Since a multi-decade program to eliminate racial inequality has not been effective, I would think he'd have some suggestions...but that is where his post ends.

To be fair, the point of David's post was to highlight America's willingness to correct itself and he was discussing affirmative action as an example.

I left this comment:

While each ethnic group's experience in America has been unique, most have found ways to integrate into the larger society. A few have not. None of the groups who have found success here benefited from affirmative action programs.

What has been the model for overcoming disadvantages? And why shouldn't African Americans have the opportunity to use the same model that has been so useful to others?

David replied:

Well, most groups emigrated here voluntarily, so there wasn't quite the same disruption of culture and family as when slaves were kidnapped and brought to America. Usually they formed their own communities, again minimizing the cultural and educational disruption. Most of those who came here were, well, those who felt ready and willing to emigrate, and were ready to rebuild.

Of course all this was several hundred years ago - but if you look at the length of time it took to surpass the achievements of the Roman empire after it collapsed, you will see how hard it can be to put humpty dumpty back on the wall.

Many groups of immigrants were disliked by people here already - yet none of them had any legal experience like the Jim Crow laws in the past few decades. If you surf the website of the League of the South and other organizations, you will find many that explicitly consider African Americans inferior, and if you research further you will find that many major politicians are connected to some of these groups - either because they agree or because they believe it is in their interest.

Many of the most successful groups are those where well educated people with financial backing from family or others are a substantial portion of the new immigrants, though perhaps not all.

I responded to his reply:

David, you point out some of the salient differences between the experience of African Americans and other immigrant groups. But your reply doesn't answer the question about which methods of social integration have been effective...nor do you explain why the special attributes of African Americans' historical experience indicate that the path to success would be different for that group. Certainly other groups (like indentured servants, transported criminals and Chinese "coolies") did not come here freely and many groups were not welcomed...yet their descendants have managed to find a place in American society.

So I repeat the questions that you avoided. What has been the model for overcoming disadvantages? And why shouldn't African Americans have the opportunity to use the same model that has been so useful to others?

In his reply, David writes that "Most of those who came here were, well, those who felt ready and willing to emigrate, and were ready to rebuild." I'm not sure this is factually correct. The millions of Irish who came here were fleeing famine, others were refugees from oppression and genocide in their countries of origin...I don't think they were quite as "ready and willing" as David claims they were.

David talks about the fall of the Roman Empire but doesn't demonstrate any relationship between that event and slavery. The parallel escapes me completely.

He also says that the world is full of bigots...and it may be true, but that is human nature and affirmative action can't be expected to change human nature. Any policy that is designed to ameliorate racial inequality will have to succeed despite human frailties.

In the end, David observes that successful integration is a consequence of good education, strong families and supportive communities (if that is what he means by "others"). There are a few other critical traits...but that is for another discussion.

My argument is simple. If this is the path to social well-being in America, shouldn't we be finding ways to encourage African Americans to take it? If this is what works, how do we help African Americans by sending them in another direction?

David responds to this note here.

I reply.