Virginia Senator Jim Webb has come under fire for his Wall Street Journal article, “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege”, where he argues that “America still owes a debt to its black citizens, but government programs to help all ‘people of color’ are unfair. They should end.”
We’re glad Jim Webb said it because he’s absolutely correct. In a former career in the moving industry, we would see government contracts go to large companies owned by white Cubans who qualified as “minority” contractors with economic resources far outdistancing their African-American competitors. Sometimes you would go into a bid conference and see a list of eligible minorities and wonder, “What the hell is going on here?”
This is not redress because someone doesn’t like your color or ethnicity, you have to apply to another door for that. These programs grew out of the theft of services from African-Americans forebears held in captivity and worked as slave labor. These programs are for their African-American heirs, and not every non-white person from across the planet.
As Webb says, “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.”
In the commentary about Senator Webb’s article, there is an attempt to both raise ire of progressives and immigrants at the notion of ending diversity programs and at the same time use “Myth of White Privilege” as a way to get African-Americans to dismiss the argument before they hear it, because they know it ain’t no myth, but it does put all white folks in the same basket and they don’t all belong there, at least not all the time.
Webb says, “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 socioeconomic terms from the Civil War and its aftermath.
And despite the headline, Webb does not deny white privilege, he just does not call it that. Instead, he acknowledges the existence of a ruling “white elite”, observing that “the Old South was a three-tiered society, with blacks and hard-put whites both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power. At the height of slavery, in 1860, less than 5% of whites in the South owned slaves.”
He then goes on to note other markers of the stratification of white society such as a 1980-2000 survey of college degrees obtained by white Baptists, 18.4%; Irish Protestants, 21.8% and compared it to the “national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.”
We would add that the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances shows that “the wealthiest 1 percent of families owns roughly 34.3% of the nation’s net worth, the top 10% of families owns over 71%, and the bottom 40% of the population owns way less than 1%.”
Webb says, “Policymakers 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 policymakers 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 start-ups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.
“Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.”
There is nothing in the senator’s article that suggests anything but the acknowledgement of the debt due African-Americans and the necessity of continuing programs that remediate it. Immigrants should not be able to come and make claim to remedies for a wrong — slavery, Jim Crow and all the rest — that they had not endured. Yes, other discrimination exists, but find other remedies. The government programs for “minority” contractors should be for African-Americans because their ancestors had their human capital taken and invested in building the roads and ports and growing and harvesting the crops that built this nation. That’s the work these programs were supposed to compensate for. The problem is that when they were devised, lawmakers could not bring themselves to enacting programs that were just for African-Americans. As a result, they increased the attraction of the United States, while at the same time perpetuated the weakening of a significant portion of its intellectual and human capital and now they complain about immigration.
Maybe the country will come to the point of looking at the world from a global perspective, knowing that we can only participate in this galloping race to the future, by paradoxically turning inward and strengthening our core human capacity so that we can engage other nations with a citizenry that has fully-realized its human potential. So let’s take another look at the diversity programs, of course being mindful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.