Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jim Webb, Hardball, and Affirmative Action

I don't really like to watch Hardball with Chris Matthews, but the guy they have hosting world news on BBC America right now bores me to tears. So last night Matthews won out and I got this little gem to show for it:

Did anyone else just feel the urge to claw someone’s eyes out? What I really want to know is why MSNBC still brings Pat Buchanan on to talk about race issues. Buchanan has shown time and time again to be a racist (not to mention the time he referred to pedophilia as “gay stuff”). For Buchanan to sit there and tell us that we have to be more moralistic and resort to an Olympic model of meritocracy is infuriating and completely unsurprising from a man who has had every opportunity available to him. White men are “diminishing?” Jesus Christ. Nothing pisses me off more than the “downtrodden white man” motif (well at least besides rape jokes).

First of all, the post Jim Webb wrote that Buchanan, Matthews, and Eugene Robinson are talking about is entitled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.” Yes really. Now, no where in the article does Webb actually use the word “myth” and it’s highly likely that the editors chose the title, but it’s still not a very good way to start. Webb’s overall point though, is that many white people suffer too. Poverty isn’t a fun ride for anyone.

John Cole:
“I think a lot of people are missing where Jim Webb is coming from in his op-ed. I’m not going to defend the entire thing, but I think you need to understand that Webb comes from a portion of Appalachia where poverty is so deep, so ingrained, that the idea in those regions that there is some sort of “white privilege” is in fact laughable. To them, the privilege of chronic unemployment, life in a tarpaper shack with no medical care, food stamps but no grocery store, and not much of a future doesn’t look like that great of a deal. And you need to understand, there are a LOT of people in this situation. I regret the way the piece read, and I hate the title, but Webb is talking about addressing the deep-rooted poverty he’s seen his entire life in the back hills of VA, WVA, Kentucky, and elsewhere. I don’t find that message to be much different from the lesson Shirley Sherrod was trying to pass on regarding class v. race. In many regards, I bet Sherrod and Webb would agree.”
Webb isn’t saying that other minorities haven’t suffered (though it can kind of read that way). He’s only pointing that not all white Americans, especially Southern Americans, were sitting on their plantations eating bon-bons while their slaves worked the fields. As Webb points out, “blacks and hard-put whites [were] both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power.” The vast majority of whites (we’re talking like 95% here) in the South never even owned slaves. Even today upper class whites are often given preference over lower class whites (a recent New York Times piece points out that a “upper-middle-class white applicant was three-times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications”). All of these are perfectly valid points and concerns Webb brings up.

But here’s where Webb drops the ball; even though the vast majority of whites in the South didn’t own slaves, Webb ignores the reality that they still benefited from the degradation of blacks. Around this time the idea that being white was something special in and of itself became very popular. Yes it was propagated by wealthy white slave owners to try and stop white indentured servants from teaming up with black slaves (like they had been doing) and to keep poverty stricken white families from fighting against the system, but none of that changes the fact that the belief that being white is some sort of accomplishment still permeates our society today. Anyone who ignores the reality that blacks were considered less then human, and that those beliefs have affected race relations in this country, is being ridiculous. There are definite class issues that need to be addressed in this country, but to turn the attention to federal programs meant to help minorities instead of the people that are benefiting from keeping the poorest class poor is not going to solve the problem.

I also have a major issue with this statement that Buchanan reiterates in the above clips:
"Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years."
What is the point of this statement other to try and stoke white resentment and “other” immigrants even more so then we already do? The very language of this conversation subtly asserts that whites are more deserving of any special treatment that exists. Another statement trying to make this about immigrants:
"In an odd historical twist that all Americans see but few can understand, many programs allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations."
This is actually pretty clever on Webb’s part since shifting the attention away from blacks and onto immigrants allows him to ride the wave of resentment and entitlement a lot of people feel over immigration.

When you get to the core of it though, part of this whole debate boils down to what the purpose of affirmative action today is. Is it still to try and make up for slavery and Jim Crow laws? Is it to promote greater diversity? Is it a combination of both those things? Another question we have to ask ourselves is how much affirmative action really harms poor white men (since Webb conveniently forgets that white women have benefited the most from affirmative action). Without any numbers on the subject, which I can’t even guess how we would go about getting, all statements on the subjects are basically assumptions. Considering the overwhelming evidence that white Americans are better educated, wealthier, and live in nicer neighborhoods then other racial groups, I find it hard to believe affirmative action is this blight on our society that is keeping the white man down.

Charing Ball:
“Let’s lay out the hard facts: there are about 29.6 million small businesses in this country generating about $9 trillion in revenues. Only 7 percent are minority-owned and only 1.4 million (5 percent) of them are black owned. Another 1.7 million (6.5 percent) are Hispanic owned. They (all minority owned businesses) account for $694 billion or 7.7 percent of the overall revenues.

And what about the other facts, which Webb ignores, that shows that 73% of all college students in the US are non-Hispanic non-Jewish whites compared to the 27 percent combined college student representatives of all other races. And while 48 percent of all poor people in America are white, that percentage only accounts for 11 percent of the total white population. Compare that with the 34 percent of American blacks, the 31 percent of Hispanics and 13 percent of Asians, who are living below the poverty line."
Webb says, “Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white,” but this is already the reality. Nondiscrimination laws protect everyone. (The fact minorities seem to need that protection more than whites says something about the reality of race issues in this country.) Webb can claim "these programs have damaged racial harmony" all day till he’s blue in the face but it still misses the point. (And is Webb actually saying there was great racial harmony before affirmative action?) As long as a person named "DeShawn" is less likely to get a job interview, will make less money at the job he finally does get, worry about harsher prison sentences, and have less education opportunities than a person named "Jake," affirmative action will still have a purpose in our society.

This isn’t to say that affirmative action is perfect or that whites living in poverty don’t deserve help. But to try and blame affirmative action, instead of the very system that required affirmative action be created in the first place, is short sighted and misplaced to say the least.


  1. I am so tired of the "well these white people aren't privileged, therefore white privilege doesn't exist" argument. Especially when it comes from a privileged white man.


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