James Webb vs. Affirmative Action

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“Affirmative action, which originally sought to repair the state-induced damage to blacks from slavery and its aftermath, has within one generation brought about a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand.”

Jim Webb in the Wall Street Journal

“The original intent of affirmative action expanded, and a lot of different ethnic groups who never suffered state-sponsored discrimination at all came under the rubric of affirmative action,”…the assumption that everyone who was white had a benefit and anyone who was not white didn’t have a benefit, it was not a fair assumption.” –Jim Webb in the Wash Post

“I think it’s time to either open this thing up to poor white groups or just go back to a level playing field–while keeping an eye on African Americans.” …”I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action in its original intent, which is to help African Americans.” -Jim Webb in the Wash Post

“I’m not sure where the real Jim Webb is, …”Why doesn’t he just do the manly thing and retract his statement, admit he was wrong, rather than trying to come up with these bizarre explainations?”

-VA State Senator Henry Marsh in the Wash Post

“He’s essentially articulated a positon on affirmative action that almost no one articulates today.”

-Prof Robert D. Holsworth, Virginia Commonwealth University in the Wash Post

The on again, off again nature of Jim Webb’s statements regarding affirmative action have caused a restlessness in the black community.  Seven members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus endorsed Webb’s opponent in the Democratic primary.  I have come to share some of the black members publicly articulated concerns regarding Webb’s conflicting positions on affirmative action.

Stephen Steinberg , a professor of Urban Studies at Queens College, has a stunningly apt analysis of so-called class-based affirmative action, the kind Jim Webb sees as being more fair.

Steinberg relates,…”the idea of class-based affirmative action is the brainchild of armchair theorists and political pundits with no political leverage or constituency.  Worse still, the suggestion that affirmative action should be class-based rather than race-based was advanced, not for its own sake, but as a second line of defense against the right-wing crusade to gut affirmative action.  It provided a rejoinder to the contention that it was unfair to give preference to the child of a black doctor over the child of a white miner or garbage collector. Class-based affirmative action never had a chance of being enacted as policy, but served only as a rhetorical foil in the affirmative action debate.”

“this explains why the idea of class-based affirmative action has been embraced by the very conservatives who spearheaded the crusade against affirmative action: Clint Bolick, Dinesh D’Souza, Clarence Thomas, Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein, and Newt Gingrich. Essentially they have used the “class card” to trump the “race card.” They feign compassion for the working classes only to provide ideological cover for their assault on affirmative action.”

Advocates for class-based affirmative action conjure up, in Steinberg’s analysis, “the hackneyed argument that it is unfair to give preference to “the son of a black doctor over the son of a white garbage collector.” …”But that son of a black doctor is likely to find himself in competition with, not the sons of the white garbage collectors, but the sons of white doctors, who have not had to cope with the psychological liabilities and material disadvantages of being black in a white society. This is the rationale for giving a leg up even to the son of a black doctor.”

Steinberg continues, “Now let us think about that son of a white garbage collector. Granted, he has many liabilites to cope with in a society highly stratified by class. On the other hand, as a white man in a racially stratified society, he has access to coveted jobs in the blue-collar world that historically were the exclusive domain of white men. Indeed, in cities where garbage collectors were protected by union contracts, blacks could not even get hired as garbage collectors, much less as policemen or plumbers or assembly workers.”

Steinberg concludes, “In short, affirmative action is designed to address inequities of caste, not class.  It gives recognition to the fact, as an oppressed minority, blacks have had to deal with the impediments of race in addition to those of class. This is not to deny that there is a dire need to address the inequities of class as well as those of race.”

Webb’s positions, if taken as a whole, would dramatically weaken the benevolent effects of contemporary affirmative action programs and place them in the politically perilous position of benefiting blacks only, which is a good way to get affirmative action killed.

In my mind, this issue is a bone of contention that has not been removed by Barack Obama’s recent visit. Which, in and of itself is a kind of affirmative action program for white democratic candidates with foot-in-mouth disease on matters of race and class.

I, for one, ain’t satisfied.

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