Senator Webb, Tact and Timing Are Not Your Strong Suits
As if there existed a need to prove Republicans don’t hold a monopoly on awkward or detrimental comments in regards to race in America, Virginia Democratic Senator Webb wrote an editorial in Friday’s WSJ that is sure to be highly commented upon:
Let’s piece out Sen. Webb’s editorial and see what we find:
The NAACP believes the tea party is racist. The tea party believes the NAACP is racist. And Pat Buchanan got into trouble recently by pointing out that if Elena Kagan is confirmed to the Supreme Court, there will not be a single Protestant Justice, although Protestants make up half the U.S. population and dominated the court for generations.
OK, full stop right there. First of all, the NAACP (if I understand their statement correctly) pointed out that there were racist elements within the Tea Party movement and did not claim that all people showing up at Tea Parties were necessarily racist. He’s also equivocating the NAACP with the actions of the various Tea Parties.
Even more disturbing is finding a US Senator bringing to light a Pat Buchanan complaint. One might hope that if a Senator did this it was for the purpose of ridiculing Buchanan, but as we’ll see below it appears as if Webb is if anything playing up Kagan’s Jewishness against what I will call Protestant-grievance.
Which also raises the whole problem of, in the opening paragraph of an essay, the implications of pitting African Americans against Jews. Anyway, let’s read on:
Forty years ago, as the United States experienced the civil rights movement, the supposed monolith of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America. After a full generation of such debate, WASP elites have fallen by the wayside and a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers. The time has come to cease the false arguments and allow every American the benefit of a fair chance at the future.
Oh boy… where to begin. First, to ascribe “supposed” to the idea that Protestantism dominated American society up till sometime in the 20th century is to ignore reality, which is, Protestants did dominate American society. Secondly, why is Webb even throwing out the whole “Protestant” meme to begin with? The Civil Rights movement was about racial inequality, not religious inequality. MLK himself was Protestant, just not white!
That Webb would apply the term “whipping post” to “WASP”s when in fact it was Americans of African descent who were the literal victims of whippings (on posts and off) is, to me, pretty insensitive.
Let’s move on:
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. How so?
Lyndon Johnson’s initial program for affirmative action was based on the 13th Amendment and on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which authorized the federal government to take actions in order to eliminate “the badges of slavery.” Affirmative action was designed to recognize the uniquely difficult journey of African-Americans. This policy was justifiable and understandable, even to those who came from white cultural groups that had also suffered in socio-economic terms from the Civil War and its aftermath.
This is beginning to look like historical revisionism, or at least Sen. Webb is taking some rather large liberties in summarizing American life in the 1960’s and shortly thereafter. If, as Webb claims, the white cultural groups in the South understood and gave cognizance to Johnson’s efforts, why did so many counter groups spring up in the South? Why did George Wallace create an entire new party to fight desegregation, that received so many votes throughout the South? Sorry, Sen. Webb, but evidence points to many whites in the South resenting the actions taken by the Federal government to bring about positive changes for African Americans, right from the start. Now things start to get a bit more convoluted:
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.
At least he gives a nod to the post-Civil War problems that African Americans still had. Yet here Webb takes a decidedly strange twist and mentions “demographics”. The lexicon says of “demographics”: statistical data relating to the population and particular groups within it. How, pray tell, does Webb go from talking about affirmative action programs for African Americans to talking about statistics on populations? What I find fascinating here is that the phrase “Freudian slip” usually refers to speech, not writing, yet I’m wondering if the phrase on “demographics” snuck into that paragraph as a way of saying that there are too many
brown people “people of color” in America?
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.
Ok, the last part is just pure white-grievance, but it is the first sentence that holds another mystery: Webb is implying that the only reason the US government has affirmative action programs is because the US government has discriminated in the past. This is a very narrow view of affirmative action. AA programs are an attempt to correct what is seen as systemic issues in society, not simply as reparations for specific wrongs by a particular government agency or government agent. Webb here is doing some fancy rhetorical footwork, and ignoring one of the purposes of why our society has undertaken broad based programs to address racial inequality.
Webb also ignores the fact that in American history immigrants of Asian and Latin American descent were strongly discriminated against, and even today (while Asians have pretty much escaped being victims of systemic racism) Latino’s will find themselves as the target of coarse racism in certain circles, though thankfully it is much less than in the early days after the Spanish American war when there started to be large influxes of immigrants from PR and Cuba, etc.
Onward (and downward):
Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.
The clearest example of today’s misguided policies comes from examining the history of the American South.
Webb had mentioned that there are plenty of poor white people in the South and that disparity is overlooked if one considers “whites” as a whole - a fair enough point and indeed something to be looked at by policy makers in this country. But then Webb goes and does this:
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%.
Umm… how did Jews get drawn into this essay? Are not most of them considered “white”? Oh yeah, that opening paragraph, and Buchanan whining (through indirection) about Kagan being Jewish. This raised a red flag for me. It just seems that Webb is doing all the Buchananites a favor.
Oh, and Webb overlooks an obvious reason why so many Asians have college degrees - they or their parents recently immigrated here and as part of the hurdle of getting into the country was finding a job, and we’ve tended to import a large Asian population already educated! And children of college educated parents are more likely to attend college. But hey, let’s not get too analytical here…
Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith. […]
Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.
Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white. […]
This is his punch line, but Sen. Webb has taken the low road to get there. While he has a good, and obvious, point that America’s “white cultures” are not monolithic, his conclusion is highly strained. He still wants special treatment for African Americans but acts as if there are no other groups still struggling to overcome their past wrt America, e.g., Native Americans? Vietnamese and Cambodians?
And the Senator overlooks the very real problem of even differentiation within the African-American communities. While he labeled the success of African-American’s as being a “veneer” earlier in his essay, truth is that there exists a growing middle class among African Americans.
Affirmative action and the addressing of systemic racial inequalities is a difficult topic to cover. The issues themselves are not readily solvable. I believe Sen. Webb has failed, big time, because he’s essentially written a classic us vs. them thesis, pitting one group against another (Blacks, Jews, Protestants, Asians, Latinos in all their combinations.)
Am I being too sensitive here? Am I reading too much between the lines?
The need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible, both in our markets and in our communities. Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners. It can do so by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes.
Memo to my fellow politicians: Drop the Procrustean policies and allow harmony to invade the public mindset. Fairness will happen, and bitterness will fade away.
Race is not an “artificial” distinction - it is a problematic one. How to become post-racial while addressing inequalities due in part to past treatment is, and has been, one of the most difficult social problems the US has faced. That Sen. Webb entreats his fellow politicians to “allow harmony to invade the public mindset” begs the question of what is the government’s responsiblity in light of the lack of harmony in the past and the present.
I might be oversensitive to what Webb wrote, but if so then I’m not the only one, as the following article shows:
[…] This is not a new topic for Webb, whose complicated views on race-based programs were an issue in his 2006 Senate campaign, when some of his fellow Democrats complained that Webb sounded like a Republican. In a 2000 book review, also published in the Wall Street Journal, Webb wrote that affirmative action “has within one generation brought about a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand.”
Asked whether Webb’s latest piece was prompted by the racial controversies of recent days, Webb spokesman Will Jenkins said Webb would let the article speak for itself
Though Webb’s position on affirmative action has long been known, at least one prominent Virginia Democrat — former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder — was highly critical of Friday’s column.
“If it’s not for the civil rights movement and diversity programs, he would not be a United States senator today,” Wilder told the Associated Press, referring to Webb’s 2006 victory with the help of minority voters. “Things are tough enough without having people you thought were friends do things like this.”
I agree with Wilder. With all the recent race-baiting and grievance theater pouring out of the right-wing it seems to me that Webb’s opinion piece is poorly timed and very poorly thought out on his part.