Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shelby Steele on Racial Preferences

From Shelby Steele's excellent book, The Content of Our Character:

A [racial] preference [like affirmative action] is not a training program; it teaches no skills, instills no values. It only makes color a passport. But the worst aspect of racial preferences is that they encourage dependency on entitlements rather than our own initiative...And here we fall into an Orwellian double-speak where preference means equality.

The most interesting chapter so far is Chapter 5, titled, "White Guilt."

Update: someone posted the quote above on his facebook wall, and a debate ensued. Here you go:

J.N.: First of all, Steele's argument pre-supposes a disparity in skill levels between traditionally privileged applicants and the beneficiaries of affirmative action. This is not typically the case. In fact, one of the major arguments FOR affirmative action is that while a member of a minority may be less prepared, he is by no means unable or unfit to do the job. There are still basic qualifications that must be met.

Therefore, we don't need affirmative action to teach skills or instill values. In fact, it's insulting to even suggest that those who qualify for affirmative action are somehow "lesser" people than those who do not- I particularly have an issue with the "instills no values" part.

What affirmative action does do, however, is function as a mechanism that counterbalances the systemic disparities in OPPORTUNITIES for minorities, usually a side effect of internalized and often subconscious racist and oppressive actions on the part of the status quo. A status quo, mind you, that has no problem enjoying all of the advantages and perks that come from being members of the preferred race, cultural and moral background.

In the case of two candidates equally qualified, affirmative action is meant to give more opportunity to the member of a historically disadvantaged group over the one that isn't. However, affirmative action as a policy isn't instituted in every single job or educational institution--not even the majority. And even if it were, minority populations are small enough that there is still room enough to for everyone. So the biggest argument against it--systemic discrimination against majority ethnic members--doesn't really hold up considering the numbers.

Bottom line: in his lifetime, a white, middle-class college-educated guy will never lose as many opportunities to affirmative action as a poor, uneducated black woman will just for being born black and poor into a society which does not value all of its members equally.

Affirmative action isn't replacing equality with preference. It's bringing people into the picture who weren't even considered as part of the equality equation to begin with.

D.M.: Shelby Steele creates a "strawman" and then knocks it down. "Affirmative Action" is NOT setting up a racial preference no matter how much the Republican Party and the mindless right wing want to claim that it is. In fact, what occurs in a real Affirmative Action situation is a slightly larger pool of applicants for a job or a slot in a university. The claim that the slightly larger pool has then degraded the job, the university, or the applicant is absurd. Racism exits in our society to label those who fight against racism as "reverse racists" is quite simply a ploy by the most right wing elements in our society to maintain white skin privilege.

L.L.:
you two basically say two things: one, African-Americans don't start on an equal playing field (they are "less prepared") and thus deserve additional assistance to maximize "opportunities"; or two, that affirmative action, though it uses race as a benchmark, simply broadens the pool of accepted applicants. Both of you also refer to "white" privilege as a justification for affirmative action. Steele would respond:

"Such policies have the effect of transforming whites from victimizers into patrons and keeping blacks where they have always been--dependent on the largesse of whites...The former victimizers are now challenged to be patrons, but where is the black challenge? This is really a statement to and about white people, their guilt, their responsibility, and their road to redemption. Not only does it not enunciate a black mission, but it sees blacks only in the dimension of their victimization and casts them once again in the role of the receivers of white beneficence...

What is needed now is a new spirit of pragmatism in racial matters where blacks are seen simply as American citizens who deserve complete fairness and in some cases development assistance, but in no case special entitlements based on color. We need deracinated social policies that attack poverty rather than black poverty and that instill those values that make for self-reliance. The white message to blacks must be: America hurt you badly and that is wrong, but entitlements only prolong the hurt while development overcomes it."

Steele, unfortunately, does not specify what he means by "developmental assistance," but I suspect he would approve of merit-based programs like scholarships and financial assistance to top performers who come from low-income families.

J.N.: "Where is the black challenge?" really? REALLY? The black challenge is in their freaking daily existence. Blacks continue to be victimized and discriminated against, now not just because of their skin color, but because they are now the economic and social victims of a society that has minimized their lives to the near constant effort of trying to EXIST much less SUCCEED in white America. I agree that blacks need other assistance, but I think they need it as well as affirmative action, not instead of.

The problem here is that your author seems to be equating affirmative action with reparations, which while I may be foolish to deny a connection, that is not all or even a majority of what it does. We're not making it up to the blacks for making them pick our cotton all that time, we're counterbalancing all the sh*t we've been doing to them from the moment they were granted citizenhood up until TODAY.

L.L.: You've played right into Steele's hands. He would respond that in your mind, the "black challenge" has no relation to merit, hard work, or anything individual--it's merely a rehashing of the old formula that being black = wretched, and being wretched necessitates special help. You fail to see that you've just condemned an entire group of people as wretched or disadvantaged because of their skin color. Of course, you then cast yourself as the compassionate shining white knight who will help these unfortunate wretches surface from their so-called miserable existence. I will quote Steele again:

"Selfish white guilt is really self-importance. It has no humility and it asks for unreasonable, egotistical innocence. Nothing diminishes a black more than this sort of guilt in a white, which to my mind amounts to a sort of moral colonialism."

Steele also quotes Ralph Ellison, who said, "Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is the gift of its individuals."

S.M.: [She is half-white, half-Filipina] It seems like whenever anyone is talking about victimized races in the United States, they are either black or Hispanic. Although statistics may be in their favor on that note, they are no longer the minority of minorities. There are programs everywhere for "disadvantaged" Hispanics and blacks, but somehow, when you're a half-this or half-that, no one knows what to do with you. Are they supposed to discriminate against the top half, but not the bottom? Maybe vice versa?

I'm saying I agree completely agree with Steele that being a particular race has become an issue of entitlement. Frankly, I feel bad for [fully] white people, because the masses of disadvantaged minorities seem to forget about the disadvantaged "hillbillies." Unfortunately, if those "hillbillies" stand up for themselves, then suddenly they are bigots. And when you are mixed, forget about it; one side identifies you as the other side, and suddenly I'm not white or I'm not Filipino enough--[and] I'm American, God-damn it. It's for this reason that affirmative action has always got my pannies in a bunch.

L.L.:
the Supreme Court, when recently analyzing an affirmative action case, pointed out the difficulty of having any racial categories or preferences in an increasingly mixed-race world.

From my perspective, the difference between African-Americans and other races is the way Americans favored and promoted slavery in America. While other races have experienced government-sanctioned discrimination (Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, etc.), I don't think they were subject to institutionalized slavery and the deliberate break-up of their families. Perhaps I am wrong, but my understanding is that America--at least domestically--has treated only Native Americans worse than African-Americans (as a group). Consequently, I am not offended when academics and others focus on African-Americans and Native Americans when discussing social programs. Today, however, using race to award benefits has become controversial, because a family's wealth and education levels are probably the primary factors in establishing a child's success--not race.

By the way, I am surprised that no one has cited perhaps the best argument for affirmative action: diversity. Being from California, perhaps we take diversity for granted. (Or perhaps we believe in many types of diversity, not just racial diversity.)

Update: some of the confusion seems to be the difficulty of defining "affirmative-action." For example, I do not think
this program (Posse Foundation) is race-based affirmative action, though some people might disagree. (The program clearly includes Caucasians and Asians from disadvantaged areas, not just African-Americans.) In the future, perhaps people should attempt to define affirmative action before engaging in a debate about it.

Update: See HERE for a link to one of the best articles on affirmative action I've ever read.

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