[Recently by Robert Weissberg: Some Other Memories of Madison and The New Left]
On a fateful September 28th in 1965, pursuant to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 requiring the Department of Labor to "take Affirmative Action to ensure that applicants are employed" in firms doing business with the federal government regardless of race, creed, color or national origins.
Less than a decade later, like Frankenstein's monster or a mutant virus in some "B" science fiction/horror flick, "Affirmative Action" had grown grotesquely, far beyond its original modest intent, to infiltrate almost every corner of American life.
Now, what began as a temporary allegedly-compensatory push in 1965 is hardening into a government administered caste system. In a few years, we may have families where three generations have thrived thanks to racial preferences and set-asides.
Affirmative Action's continued survival, even in the face of mounting opposition, is easily explained: mainstream white office-seekers, regardless of party or even ideology, are simply terrified of being labeled "racists". Recoiling from what could be a winning "mobilize the base" campaign strategy, they all either avoid the subject altogether or weasel out with vacuous rhetoric.
It is just assumed that to be anti-Affirmative Action is to be certified as "anti-black" or "anti-Hispanic"—and this is the kiss of death in today's world of enlightened racial sensitivity. Ending preferences is further hindered since "assisting racial minorities" (even if the help is actually harmful) has become the respectable Motherhood and Apple Pie stance in public discourse.
Still, for the record, note that, for example, a 2009 Quinnipiac University national poll found that 73% of registered-to-vote Republicans endorsed ending racial preferences versus 18% in favor. Among registered independents, 63% wanted to abolish it.
And white support for Affirmative Action is paper thin, far less than what the Quinnipiac poll suggests. If public sentiments were measured by behavior, nearly all whites would avoid the consequences of Affirmative Action. Even white liberals (and for that matter well-off blacks) will pull their kids out of black-administered schools.
Just imagine if, as per the current Obamacare bill, federal grant-hungry medical schools flooded America with doctors recruited from "historically under-represented" groups—and whites using the "public option" were required to use them? At most, Affirmative Action doctors, teachers, lawyers and the like are tolerable only if exclusively serving "historically under-represented" populations—i.e., poor blacks and Hispanics who cannot escape.
My view: Ending the racial spoils system is not as hopeless as it might initially appear. The successful ballot initiatives in California, Washington and Michigan, all massively opposed by the political and business establishments, are only the visible outcroppings of underlying shift. Outside of those who material benefit from the spoils system, Affirmative Action is a slowly rotting policy awaiting collapse.
Potential office-seekers, notably Republicans, contemplating the plunge into seemingly shark-infested waters have more going for them than they recognize. Once a few brave souls test the waters, there may be a "me too" stampede akin to the sudden and totally unexpected collapse of the Evil Empire.
Begin by recognizing that few Americans born after 1965 (let alone recent immigrants) had any personal experience with the evils that Affirmative Action was designed to combat. The persistence of racial discrimination or lingering racism is not the issue; rather, unlike seeing "Colored" drinking fountains, legally segregated schools and similar vestiges of Jim Crow, race-related evils are extraordinary rare as personal knowledge to nearly all Americans.
Nearly all racial segregation is now voluntary or purely economic. Whites (and Asians) have to be taught—browbeaten might be a better word—about these past horrors and, moreover, that these evils remain as debilitating as ever, despite the billions in remediation and endless civil rights laws.
Indoctrination is so labored that its propagandistic purpose is almost comically self-evident, e.g., Black History Month with its litany of "more needs to be done" grievances and countless other lopsided media spectacles recounting, for the umpteenth time, the horrors of slavery and incapacitating racism.
Public consensus is misleading, since doubters who speak up may be shipped off to sensitivity training or have their public careers ruined. What brave soul would go on CNN to talk openly about race and IQ? This results in what Frederick R. Lynch called, in his Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action, called a "spiral of silence" whereby the majority assumes its doubts are not shared and suppresses them, thus collectively intimidating itself.
Perhaps because of this, liberal academics are especially energetic in sustaining the never-ending victimization narrative. One favorite is the study where job applicants with identical resumes are named "Richard" or "LaTishya", and Richard wins the job. Case closed—even if these exotic black names are closely associated with troublesome lower-class black work habits. In an odd sense, today's champions of enduring race-related debilitation are the mirror opposites of Soviet propagandists pushing the vision of the Workers' Paradise.
In fact, when it comes to personal knowledge, Americans 50 or younger have from early adolescence onward witnessed the very opposite—being taught by struggling teachers hired because of skin color, not competence; reading textbooks hailing Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman while slighting the slave-owning George Washington.
Official government pandering has become almost embarrassing—the US Post Office has issued 32 "Black Heritage" stamps commemorating notable blacks such as Carter G. Woodson, Anna Julia Cooper and convicted felon, Malcolm X. Nearly every city with a black population has its Martin Luther King, Jr. street.
Bright white high school seniors sweating out admission to prestige colleges know full well that their less-accomplished but "discriminated against" black and Hispanic classmates have the inside track. Ditto for the ubiquity of corporate sponsored "minority only" job fairs and the "women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply" boilerplate in all employment ads.
Sports fans must witness their NFL teams compelled to interview blacks for top position (including Head Coach) thanks to a self-imposed league agreement designed to deter litigation—the so-called "Rooney Rule". And what white public figure enjoys the diplomatic immunity bestowed on the likes of Jesse Jackson or the Rev. Al Sharpton?
This is truly an upside down world, in which millions of American are routinely hammered about some out-of-sight black victimization while personally witnessing the unequal benefits bestowed on blacks.
In short, as far as being privileged, black is the new white.
Running parallel are the mounting failures of Affirmative Action. Reality, despite endless messenger shooting, has steadfastly refused to cooperate with the social engineers.
And this reality is far more evident than some invisible racism or debilitating low expectations held by teachers infected with "institutional racism". Decades after Executive Order 11246 millions of whites encounter freshly-arrived black co-workers often needing extra help, or see promotions and pay raises parceled out to avoid "racial discrimination" litigation.
Even the politically correct Main Stream Media cannot avoid reporting rampant inner-city mayhem of drug-related gang violence, dysfunctional families and all the rest that was supposed to vanish eons ago thanks to government catch-up intervention.
Similarly, thousands of college students encounter University departments whose only practical justification is to insure that more black students are admitted and more black professors hired. That struggling blacks are given far more academic help, even academic free-rides by sympathetic teachers, compared to their white classmates is hardly hidden.
Meanwhile, overwhelmingly black cities like Newark, NJ, Camden, NJ, Baltimore, MD, East St. Louis, Ill., Gary, IN, and Detroit, MI, among countless others have sunk into near Third-World depravity despite billions in aid and black political domination (so much for the argument that blacks bring a special expertise to the table). The federal government itself has regularly proclaimed this No Progress verdict loudly with woeful reports on education, income, welfare dependency, crime, illegitimacy, drug addiction, AIDS and whatever else was supposed to disappear thanks to these preferences.
Only the most steadfast supporters of Affirmative Action outwardly proclaim progress. Nearly everyone else knows it to be a lie.
What is seldom appreciated in this racial spoils system is its "efficiency" in generating resentment among those not on the gravy train.
Consider the anger-generating arithmetic of racial preferences in employment though the same logic holds for college admissions. Suppose 50 candidates apply for five jobs at IBM and the firm objectively ranks them top to bottom. Assume the most qualified black candidate is ranked 25, and to fend off lawsuits, he is hired instead of number 5, a white candidate. How many whites have actually lost their jobs due to Affirmative Action? The correct answer is one, candidate #5. But since numbers 5 through 24 scored higher than the hired black, 20 whites "honestly" (but incorrectly) see themselves as victims of reverse discrimination.
Given the ubiquity of this moving-blacks-up-the-line pattern annually, across untold areas, it is an incredible machine for generating racial animosity—hundreds, perhaps thousands, of angry white males for every black hired at IBM or admitted to Yale.
Legitimacy is further undermined by accidents of geography, married names, and savvy politicking (and this excludes outright frauds like black "front" companies or misrepresenting one racial/ethnic identity). Vagueness is often the tip off to the corruption. Not even a team of Talmudic scholars working 24/6 might delineate differences between "minority", "disadvantaged", "discriminated against", "the historically under-represented", "the poor", "people of color", "under-privileged", and similar brain-clouding euphemism that may or may not reflect race and ethnicity, but seek to avoid laws banning racial preferences.
The Nazis' Nuremberg Laws on racial purity were at least unambiguous. We now live in a world where women are a "minority", dark-skinned Asian Indians "white", while a youngster whose father has a Spanish-sounding last name may go to Harvard as an AA admit but would be rejected if named Smith though his mother was a Gonzales.
The "Native American" population has exploded thanks to the benefits of Affirmative Action (recall how Ward Churchill declared himself a "Native American" though he was a man without a tribe). Are Portuguese-speaking Brazilians "Hispanics"? (Apparently not, I'm told.) But Mayans from Mexico without a trace of Spanish ancestry who can't speak Spanish are!
Blacks with parents who emigrated from the Caribbean have hit the Affirmative Action jackpot when applying to Ivy League schools, much to the outrage of American blacks who might insist that being a descendent of a slave in Jamaica doesn't count. Meanwhile, thousands of "disadvantaged" students from wealthy African families gain undeserved entry to top schools by today's equivalent of divine right.
Bizarre, resentment-provoking examples aside, easily overlooked is how administering the racial spoils system awards immense power to obscure, unelected bureaucrats or judges. They decide, for example, that Iranians are "white" but Hasidic Jews are protected "minorities" in awarding government contracts. And who decides whether someone is "really" black though he or she may pass as "white"? Such capriciousness makes a mockery of rule of law.
Similar inexactitudes surround establishing "bias" in tests, Some Affirmative Action defenders insist that written tests inherently, though mysteriously, discriminate against blacks, who are allegedly more comfortable with a difficult-to-define style of verbal discourse.
As the original "a little help in the footrace" rationale for racial preferences becomes antiquated, updated justifications are required. These increasingly become surrealistic jokes. Not even fact-twisting apparatchiki who extolled the latest Five Year Plan could out-brag the University president who informs the freshman class that recruiting unqualified, semi-literate blacks to campus improves education for everyone by increasing diversity. (Perhaps he means that the basketball and football teams will improve). And to compound this blatant mendacity, he stresses that these diversity recruits actually meet the university's highest intellectual standards—though, as everyone will see, they are immediately enrolled in remedial courses.
Kafkaesque lying for racial justice hardly embarrasses anyone. In the battle over Michigan's Anti-Affirmative Action initiative, General Colin Powell insisted that America's national defense in an increasingly multi-cultural world required admitting hordes of sub-par students who would probably not graduate—or, if they did, only with diplomas in ideologically-infused fields like Ethnic Studies.
What all of this adds up to is a failed, increasingly convoluted social engineering scheme tottering on the edge.
Of course, nearly all "respectable" politicians refuse to admit this inconvenient truth in public. At most they might privately dismiss it by saying that America can afford the cost—and most critically, that the spoils system sustains decades of racial peace, no small accomplishment for those who remember 1960s "burn baby, burn" urban riots.
The apt parallel may be the welfare reform of the 1990s. That ended decades of debilitating, family-destroying "compassion" which was nevertheless long thought to be politically sacrosanct.
Similarly, nearly all Americans would welcome ending all the lies necessary to keep Affirmative Action going.
It's time to pull the plug.
Robert Weissberg [email him] is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, University of Illinois, Urbana and currently Adjunct Professor of Politics (Graduate), New York University.