Monday, July 20, 2009

Race in America

I only managed to watch a small portion of Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings on television. The part I saw was the speech by one of the New Haven firefighters who feels unjustly persecuted on racial grounds by Judge Sotomayor. I have to confess that it was pretty surreal to see a young white male more or less accuse a Latin woman of racism. The firefighter (whose name I unfortunately failed to catch) was on the verge of tears when he talked about being racially discriminated in America.

Today, I saw a replay of the same attitude by yet another white male. This time, it was a New York Times journalist Ross Douthat who decided that somehow his perspective on racism is valuable enough to be shared with thousands of readers. In his article "Race in 2028," Douthat takes on the issue of affirmative action. Of course, no white person who is against the affirmative action will ever honestly tell you what really bothers them about the concept. The arguments against affirmative action always follow the same scenario. "Of course, I hate racism," says the white person (who now, at least in some cases, thankfully omits to say that some of his closest friends are... you know). "But we have to keep in mind," the white person in question immediately adds, "that there are inherent dangers that always accompany this practice."

The ingeniousness of these imaginary "dangers" ranges from simply bizarre to outright freaky. Douthat's justification for his dislike of affirmative action, Sonia Sotomayor and Barack Hussein Obama (don't the conservatives just love the president's middle name) is corruption. "A system designed to ensure the advancement of minorities will tend toward corruption if it persists for generations, even after the minorities have become a majority," he says and later continues: "But if affirmative action persists far into the American future, that experiment will have failed — and we will all have been corrupted by it." Of course, there is no explanation of how he manages to connect affirmative action and corruption except a hint towards "the backroom dealing revealed by Ricci v. DeStefano, where the original decision to deny promotions to white firefighters was heavily influenced by a local African-American “kingmaker” with a direct line to New Haven’s mayor." For anybody who has lived in New Haven (as I did for several years) the idea of some kind of African-American mafia that influences the mayor and corrupts court proceedings in that city sounds outlandish.

Racism in New Haven is palpable. It's something you live and breathe every single day. That's why it was so shocking to see the white firefighter who somehow managed to dissociate his speech at the confirmation hearings from the everyday reality he experiences in his town. I look at people like the firefighter and Douthat and I wonder how it is even possible for them to avoid the simple realization that absolutely everything they have, do, and experience is the result of centuries of racial discrimination in America.

Affirmative action must come "with a statute of limitations" claims Douthat. It needs to be "phased out" very soon or the white folks will start to get upset and it will turn into "a source of permanent grievance among America’s shrinking white population." It's curious to observe that Douthat honestly believes that it's the white population who has a cause for "permanent grievance." Note the weird, convoluted logic here. Centuries of slavery and segregation only deserve a couple of years of redress. The existence of affirmative action for several decades, however, will justifiably provoke a permanent sense of grievance on the part of folks like Douthat.

Another thing that bothers me in the discussion about affirmative action is this idea that affirmative action is something that racial minorites need and we, the kindly white people, give to them out of sheer niceness. Albeit in different ways, racism hurts every one. It's not the problem of African-Americans or Hispanics. It's the problem of the entire society. It's not a question of what "we" do for "them". It's a question of what all of us should do for ourselves, our society.

I'm very much in favor of affirmative action for my university. I want African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American students in my class. But not because I'm so nice and kind and want to do something good for them. As a teacher, I need these students desperately. I need their contribution, their perspective, their knowledge, their presence, and their talent. I hate Douthat and Co's attempts to coopt my voice as a representative of the "shrinking and permanently aggrieved white population." Racism is what permanently aggrieves me, not affirmative action.


Peter N said...

I understand what you are saying, and in some ways agree with your conclusions, but in others cannot help but feel like the logic of your opponents is equally persuasive.

The biggest problem with affirmative action, from my perspective, is that it, in the Greek sense, visits the sins of the father upon the children. One can easily construe affirmative action as something of a punishment, due to the treatment of former slaves in the past. At the same time, however, those individuals who are to be handicapped due to affirmative action did not oppress anyone, nor are the recipients of affirmative action those who were oppressed. There is no agency or I'll will on the part of those who may be hurt by these programs, so it might be true that such a "punishment" is unjust. That doesn't mean it's unnecessary or wrong, but the arguments against it can be just as legitimate as those in favor.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, the firefighter story went as follows: everybody willing to get some promotion wrote some test which was not rigged against the minorities in any way; whites showed better results on the test than minorities; the administration threw the results away for fear of being accused of racial discrimination; whites took administration to court.

In this particular case I am with those who, according to the test results, deserved promotion and were denied it for political reasons. The color of their skin is not important for me. Unlike in literature, there is no such things as "black perspective on firefighting" or "white perspective on firefighting". Therefore, those who did the tests better should be promoted. Regardless of their color. Those who underperformed should study better next time. End of story. Affirmative action should not be employed when lives are at stake. Including the lives of the blacks, by the way.

Your picture is much more to the point if you want to criticize racism than that muddy firefighter story...

Clarissa said...

"At the same time, however, those individuals who are to be handicapped due to affirmative action did not oppress anyone, nor are the recipients of affirmative action those who were oppressed."

-I can't agree, Peter N. White Americans benefit from racism every single day. Saying "I personally didn't oppress any one" equals denying all of the benefits that you receive every single minute of your life because of your race. This isn't about what happened centuries ago. This is about what's going on today.

Clarissa said...

"some test which was not rigged against the minorities in any way"

-Every test is by its nature "rigged against" the minorities. This firefighter wasn't placed on Earth by extraterrestrials 5 minutes before the test. It's easier for him to do better on the tests because of his and his family's entire preceding history.

"The color of their skin is not important for me."

-I'm sure it's very important to them as people who experience daily racism in their lives.

"Those who underperformed should study better next time. End of story. "

-To accept this point of view one has to believe that they didn't do as well on the exam simply because they didn't study enough. I think it's a simplistic explanation.

Anonymous said...

You know what? I actually have a more equal solution to the problem:

Let's abolish the law which ties funding of public schools to property taxes. (And any other laws indirectly supporting segregation of which I am accidentally not aware.) And make funding of all public schools equal. This will cause increased mixing of people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds within about one generation, as there will be much less reason to buy houses in wealthier predominantly white neighborhoods for the sake of sending one's children to better school.
Side effect will be that the authorities will be forced to do something serious to improve the quality of education in general, not just in their little separate oases. Fear is a strong stimulus: either make effort to improve everything, or face everything turning into South Chicago.

One generation after these measures take effect, abolish affirmative action.

But of course, nobody will support such a suggestion, as wealthy (mostly whites) will want to preserve their privileges (and their investments), and minorities will hold on to affirmative action forever. Long live status quo!

Clarissa said...

That would be a first step. But it definitely won't be enough to do away with racism or its effects within one generation.

Clarissa said...

How long will it take to stop these things from happening: