Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Senator Opens The Discussion

Bloggers Melissa McEwan, John Cole, and Barbara O'Brien have responded swiftly to the op-ed, "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege," written by Senator James Webb (D-Va) and appearing in the Wall Street Journal on Friday.

Former Senator Bill Bradley, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, and numerous figures in the mainstream media have told us for over a decade now that "a national conversation on race" needs to begin in the U.S. Webb, at least, is trying.

One caveat needs to be established: one of the Virginia Senator's remarks is puzzling. He contends

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.

To Webb's credit, he obviously is not trying to pit one minority group- blacks- against other minority groups, those whose individuals hail from Asia and Latin America. But as one apparent Asian-American commenting on Cole's piece noted

It’s not a bad piece insofar as his points about blacks vs. poor whites go; it’s, er, odd where Asians are concerned because, AFAIK, we haven’t ever been beneficiaries of affirmative action policy. I have never been considered a “minority” for purposes of university or graduate or professional school admissions or any activity related thereto, and in fact there’s plenty of evidence (cf. California university system) to the effect that Asians are disadvantaged by such policies.

But Webb's central point is "policy makers ignored such disparities within America's white clultrues when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith." Webb, who himself is a (non-denominational) Protestant of Scotch-Irish background, explained that as of 1938

Of the South's 1.8 million sharecroppers, 1.2 million were white (a mirror of the population, which was 71% white). The illiteracy rate was five times that of the North-Central states and more than twice that of New England and the Middle Atlantic (despite the waves of European immigrants then flowing to those regions). The total endowments of all the colleges and universities in the South were less than the endowments of Harvard and Yale alone. The average schoolchild in the South had $25 a year spent on his or her education, compared to $141 for children in New York.

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%.

While acknowledging "the need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible," Webb argues "our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all.... by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes."

This was too much for McEwan, who claims Webb's "race-baiting argument that white people are being treated unfairly" "isn't about white people; it's about privileged white men."

Well, no. It isn't about privileged white men, and, arguably, not even about men. It is about people who are not privileged because, shockingly, not all Caucasians (or even white men) are wealthy.... or even middle-class. Though Cole declines "to defend the entire thing" (i.e., Webb's argument), he notes

Webb comes from a portion of Appalachia where poverty is so deep, so ingrained, that the idea in those regions that there is some sort of “white privilege” is in fact laughable. To them, the privilege of chronic unemployment, life in a tarpaper shack with no medical care, food stamps but no grocery store, and not much of a future doesn’t look like that great of a deal. And you need to understand, there are a LOT of people in this situation. I regret the way the piece read, and I hate the title, but Webb is talking about addressing the deep-rooted poverty he’s seen his entire life in the back hills of VA, WVA, Kentucky, and elsewhere.

O'Brien responds to McEwan by agreeing with Cole. While critical of Webb because impoverished white areas "were dirt poor before there was such a thing as affirmative action programs," she reminds us "let’s not forget that people can be left behind for reasons other than race."

Webb over-emphasizes affirmative action as a hindrance to achievement by poor and working class whites, his reference to Asians is misguided, and he does not directly address programs intended to assist handicapped individuals. But he understands what McEwan makes clear she does not- that individuals can in fact be disadvantaged by factors other than race, even if they're not female, gay, or trans-gender. (And referring to an affirmative-action critic as an "unabashed misogyist" pushing a "race-baiting argument" may not be conducive to starting that national conversation on race.) As Cole observes, Webb's primary message is not "much different from the lesson Shirley Sherrod was trying to pass on regarding class v. race. In many regards, I bet Sherrod and Webb would agree."

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