Senator Jim Webb Aruges Against Affirmative Action, Says It Does Not Benefit Blacks

by Latoya Peterson
good is not enough cover
White privilege is a myth? Do tell…

In Jim Webb’s latest op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege“), he turns the traditional narrative for ending affirmative action on its head. Instead of using the same old racist platitudes, the Democrat from Virgina uses history and acknowledgment of structural inequality to propose a radical rethinking of government programs. But check the bait Webb uses:

I have dedicated my political career to bringing fairness to America’s economic system and to our work force, regardless of what people look like or where they may worship. Unfortunately, present-day diversity programs work against that notion, having expanded so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.

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. These programs have damaged racial harmony. And the more they have grown, the less they have actually helped African-Americans, the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action as it was originally conceived.

My, my, my. Webb’s op-ed makes some very astute points but also trades on the idea that race is a zero-sum game. For this reason, the piece both succeeds and fails.

Webb provides great historical context in making his argument and often notes that the historical baggage of state-sanctioned discrimination is still with us. However, Webb distills our history down to black and white, noting:

The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed. But the extrapolation of this logic to all “people of color”—especially since 1965, when new immigration laws dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the U.S.—moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites. It has also lessened the focus on assisting African-Americans, who despite a veneer of successful people at the very top still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup.

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.

Webb doesn’t mention Native Americans, who are also currently suffering due to our nation’s founding and history.

Webb’s idea that remediation is needed for African Americans is true, and many of the current programs do not have as much benefit as hoped. However, America’s racial history doesn’t only spin on a black and white axis. Webb is correct that there is no parallel for what African Americans have experienced. But, while immigration laws may have changed the make up of the United States, many immigrants did face state sponsored backlash on their way to citizenship. And even if immigrants and their children find success on American shores, the story doesn’t end there – for example, much of the new data about Latinos denotes a difference between first, second, and third generation Latinos, because the data sets become quite different. Quite a lot of research is starting to reveal that third generation Latinos tend to slide backwards, reversing many of the gains their parents achieved. For example, a 2009 research brief exploring connections between work and school and black and latino youth, and how the rates of “connectedness” start to fall after the second generation. While the reasons for this vary, some studies point to assimilation as part of the issue – along with adopting societal norms, third generation Latinos keenly feel the impact of racism and discrimination in hiring and in other aspects of life.

Webb downplays exactly how much racism is woven into the fabric of society, and underplays how much other ethnic groups suffer under a racist system.

However, Webb does bring up an important point – there is a diversity of white experience in America that is not currently acknowledged or measured:

Generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture. In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks’ average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.

Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith. Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.

I can agree with Webb on a variety of fronts. However, Webb frames his entire piece as if racism is only a problem that faces African Americans, recent immigrants have no issues in society at all, and whites, once again, are getting the short end of the stick. This line in particular…

Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.

…is eerily reminiscent of all the other critiques of “set-asides” disadvantaging whites and unjustly privileging people of color. And Webb never mentions that most business start ups are still helmed by white men (firms run by whites are 81% of small businesses, despite major pre-recession gains by nonwhites), that most people admitted to college are still white and upper-middle to upper class (the research on this is grim), that the managerial class in America is still predominantly white and male (check the EEOC numbers on private industry), and government contracts are still mostly funneled to companies helmed by white men (here’s a Native perspective on contract parity), even with all the other programs in place.

While I appreciated many Webb’s points, his overall analysis leaves me cold. It would be beneficial if policy makers revised many of these programs, since they are not benefiting African Americans in a substantial way. And it would be wonderful if the scope of research and policy reflected a more thoughtful discussion of sub-groups in general, especially since our racial categories (white, black, Asian, other, with Latinos as an ethnic group) as so broad and indistinct.

But Webb’s framing of the issue still ignores how many people do not believe African Americans are owed any sort of redress from the government, and his critiques minimize the impacts of racism on other nonwhite populations. We can agree on the need for government reform, particularly around the effectiveness of diversity programs and how they are proctored, but there needs to be a level of honesty as to how much racism and classim permeate society before we can make an accurate assessment.