Senator Webb has an important op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.”
The good news is that he calls for an end to (almost) all “government-directed diversity programs,” and, less equivocally, declares that “nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white.” Whites are not monolithic, he points out, and neither are nonwhites. All excellent stuff, and his words are especially brave, welcome, and important coming from a leader in the Democratic party. When was the last time a top Democrat said anything like this?
The bad news is that he seems pretty clearly to be leaving the door open to special programs for African Americans, as indeed he has in the past — but, now as then, it’s hard to understand why.
As a good Southern populist, he decries, á la Shirley Sherrod, the exploitation of poor whites and blacks by monied interests. Putting that aside (I don’t think most white Southerners are comfortable as victims), he’s right in his other major point that the original justification of affirmative action for African Americans — who had suffered through slavery and just been liberated from Jim Crow — does not apply very well to members of ethnic minorities who have only recently immigrated to the United States.
But it doesn’t apply very well to African Americans in 2010, either. Senator Webb asserts that blacks “still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration, and family breakup,” but the word “still” is misleading, since the critical one that largely drives the others — illegitimacy — has gotten radically worse, not better, as discrimination has radically diminished.
Consider, in any event, those African Americans who were born in, say, 1992 — the birth year of those now getting college-admissions preferences. Those students are not slaves or former slaves, were not alive under Jim Crow and have never been victims of government discrimination, and were born over a quarter-century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed to protect them from public and private discrimination. Additionally, the African Americans who get these preferences at the more selective universities come overwhelmingly from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, not from impoverished farms or ghettos.
So two cheers for Senator Webb, reserving the third for when he acknowledges that the time has come to end racial preferences for all groups, rather than for all but one.