Home Social Issues On Affirmative Action, Jim Webb Is Right…and Wrong

On Affirmative Action, Jim Webb Is Right…and Wrong


By now, most of you have probably read Jim Webb’s Wall Street Journal editorial, “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.” I’ve been giving this some thought, reading what others have written, and have a few reactions of my own.  In sum, I believe that much of what Jim Webb wrote was correct and needed to be said. I’d even go so far as to say that it was courageous for Webb to write on this subject.  Although, given how much Webb admires Daniel Patrick Moynihan – author 45 years ago of the groundbreaking report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” – and also how much Webb has already spoken out on this matter (for instance, see Webb’s 1995 Wall Street Journal article, “In Defense of Joe Six-Pack”), it’s not surprising.  Also, here’s Webb from his Meet the Press debate with George Allen in September 2006.

Now, with respect to affirmative action, my view on affirmative action has been that-and, and remains that it’s a 13th Amendment program. If you go back to the Johnson administration’s executive order on affirmative action, it was based on the 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, designed to remove the badges of slavery. African-Americans are the only ethnic group in this country that have suffered from deliberate discrimination and, and exclusion by the government over generations. When this program expanded to the present day diversity programs, where essentially every ethnic group other than Caucasians are included, then that becomes state-sponsored racism. And we should either move this program back to its original intent, which I support, or we should open up diversity programs to the point where poor white cultures-and they are cultures, as in southwest Virginia-have some opportunity.

So, again, none of what Webb wrote this past week was surprising. At least not if you’ve been following him for any length of time. However, Webb’s latest venture into the thorny territory of race comes at a particularly interesting time in this country, with the nation’s first African American president in the White House, with a still-bubbling controversy over the firing (and possible rehiring) of Shirley Sherrod, and with the NAACP demanding that the Tea Party movement “to be responsible members of this democracy and make sure they don’t tolerate bigots or bigotry among their members.” Into that maelstrom wades our old friend Jim Webb, ever the one to throw himself at an armed-to-the-teeth bunker. In this case, that “bunker,” metaphorically speaking, comprises the interconnected issues of race, ethnicity, class, social status, and gender. Just another day at the office for Jim Webb!

With that, here are a few thoughts of my own, and specifically my opinion of where Webb is right – and wrong. [NOTE: This article turned out to be way longer than I originally intended, once again demonstrating that this is not a simple or easy subject to tackle.]  

Webb is Right

First, Webb is absolutely right to help stimulate a much-needed national conversation on this issue. Unfortunately, it seems that the only way we have that conversation in this country is when we’re forced to do so, such as when Barack Obama responded to the Jeremiah Wright controversy with his superb speech on race. It was in that speech that Obama said:

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

Enter Jim Webb to discuss the “resentments” to which Barack Obama referred. In Webb’s case, however, his argument is not so much with Affirmative Action aimed at removing the “badges of slavery” for African Americans, but at the expansion of “diversity programs” to “all ‘people of color’.” As a smart, progressive friend of mine wrote me:

I agree with Webb that the original pupose of affirmative action programs, as envisioned in the 1960’s to redress the legacy of slavery, has grown a lot over time, leading to their use to help other groups with other ethnic backgrounds, some of whom certainly were never slaves. The problem we face as a society is that the expanded use of these programs, beyond their original intent, has become very ingrained in our society, law, and culture, and this will make it difficult to change them.

And change them we must, I certainly agree with Webb on that one. As Chap Petersen writes in his own, excellent blog post on all this, “The facts have changed but the terms remain.” Chap adds, “The Civil Rights laws had a distinct purpose which needs to be recovered — the remediation of ills arising from America’s history of slavery and segregation.” The question is, should “affirmative action” or other governmental preferences be used to encourage “diversity” more broadly – whether we’re talking about women, other “people of color,” the disabled, veterans, economically disadvantaged groups (e.g., Appalachian whites), or whoever else.  Should Affirmative Action be strictly focused on African Americans and removing the “badges of slavery,” or should it be applied more broadly, given that prejudice and discrimination undoubtedly still exist with regard to all different kinds of people (“people of color,” disabled people, gays and lesbians, you name it)? Finally, how do we decide which people get “preferential” treatment and which don’t, and how do we do so without stirring up feelings of unfairness among everyone who has not received such “preferential” treatment?  These are all difficult questions, and Webb is correct to address them. He certainly shouldn’t be vilified for doing so, as I’ve seen on a few blogs, both left and right.

Second, Webb is correct that whites shouldn’t be treated as a “fungible monolith.” Obviously, there are cultural, historical, and economic differences between whites from Greece, Norway, Russia, Scotland, etc. Also, for the purposes of the “fungible monolith,” are Hispanics – people of Spanish origin – considered “white?” Anyway, point taken, although given how much intermarriage there is among white sub-groups, I’m not sure how important this is anymore.

Third, Webb is correct that people who have not been historically discriminated against in the United States should not automatically be granted “special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.” To the extent that happens, it’s simply unfair, especially when you consider the fact that most immigrants who come to America are the “best and the brightest” of their home countries, the hardest working, the most ambitious and entrepreneurial, the greatest risk takers, etc.  In fact, as we know, voluntary immigration – as epitomized by the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the idea of the “melting pot” – is one of the main factors that has made this country great. But that’s a completely different story than the forced enslavement of Africans, taken violently from their homeland, put onto horrific slave ships and then sold into a life of bondage, then “freed” to decades of disenfranchisement, discrimination of all kinds, Jim Crow, even lynchings.  For those historical reasons, Webb is absolutely correct that the main point of Affirmative Action was, and should remain, maximizing African Americans’ prospects for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the United States of America. Beyond that, we should be constantly rethinking and revising the program and adjusting it to modern-day reality. As FDR said in a somewhat different context:

The country needs and unless I mistake its temper the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.

I completely agree with FDR on this, and my guess is that Jim Webb would agree with FDR as well.  Today, many of the expanded “diversity” programs probably deserve to be phased out. I just wish that Webb – as my progressive friend wrote me – “had acknowledged more clearly that these expanded programs were developed by compassionate people who meant well and deserve respect.”

Finally, I believe Webb is right that the ultimate goal is for “[n]ondiscrimination laws [to] be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white.”  Perhaps the answer, as Webb said in the 2006 campaign, is to “open this thing up to poor white groups or just go back to a level playing field.”  The question is, are we there yet in this country? Are we getting close? If so, how close are we and to what extent should we be changing our “preference” programs to take account of those changes? Should we be moving towards a more economics-based approach, for instance? These are the questions we should be discussing, preferably in a reasonable and civilized manner, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century in America.

Webb is Wrong

Although I believe Webb got a lot right in his article, I also believe he struck several “off” chords and got some things wrong as well.  Here are a few.

First, I agree with John Cole, who says, “I regret the way the piece read” and “I hate the title.”  On the latter point, my understanding is that op-ed authors often don’t choose their own titles, and that’s a shame in Webb’s case, because his argument is complex and nuanced, not the simplistic blather the “lamestream media” likes to peddle. Thus, we had the infamous “Women Can’t Fight” title by Washingtonian, and now we have the overheated “Myth of White Privilege” language in the Wall Street Journal.  In neither case did the titles do justice to the articles, and that’s a shame.  

As for the “way the piece read,” I agree that this is not Jim Webb the writer at his finest. As my progressive friend wrote me, “there are certain adjectives and phrases I would have urged him to change because I think they can be seized upon and taken out of context by his political enemies.” For instance, phrases like “the supposed monolith of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance served as the whipping post” and “WASP elites have fallen by the wayside” jump out at me, and not in a good way. Does anyone seriously argue that this country was not dominated by a WASP, male elite for much of its history? Heck, even Webb admits that, when he writes about the “three-tiered society, with blacks and hard-put whites both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power.” Has that all gone away in the year 2010? Every single last bit of “WASP elitism” is now gone? I’m not sure Webb’s arguing that, but it could certainly come across that way, even if he didn’t intend it to.

More broadly, you can just feel the anger boiling beneath the cool, intellectual surface of Webb’s article. I go back and forth in my mind on whether that’s good, bad, or just the way it is and probably has to be.  As always, Webb is first and foremost not a politician, but a writer. As Webb said in his superb (but angry) speech of October 28, 2006, lashing back at George Allen’s attacks on him as a writer, “I have written about what I have seen, and that is the duty of a writer, to help people understand the world around us, with all of its beauty and all of its flaws.”  And that is exactly what Webb’s done here, for better or for worse. I’d argue mostly for “better,” but I wonder if the tone will turn off some people who would otherwise be reachable with a softer, more diplomatic tone.  Of course, this is the same guy who was awarded the Navy Cross for throwing himself at three machine gun nests.  Jim Webb and “subtlety” don’t necessarily go well together.

Second, and this is by far my strongest criticism of Webb’s article: it’s simply untrue that “hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years,” have not been the “beneficiaries of special government programs.” Of all people, I actually agree with Mason Conservative on this one:

I get that Senator Webb wants to help poor whites in rural Virginia, its a worthy cause.  But he is essentially complaining that black Americans got the long end of the straw because of racism while poor whites, relegated as backwards racists, have been left behind.  In fact, that is false.  Much, if not all, of FDR’s New Deal in the South was controlled by white senators and congressman in Washington who brought schools, roads, dams, and electricity to the rural South, not to mention that NRA, AAA, and the CCC.  The kind of government “help” that Webb is talking about is something only out of the 1960s.

That’s an excellent point.  As the New York Times points out, “Federal and state agencies have plowed billions of dollars into Appalachia through economic development programs, highway construction and job-creation initiatives to help residents overcome the economic and psychological isolation caused by poverty and the rugged terrain.” Just look at the the states that are the largest net recipients of federal money, and you’ll see several – Mississippi (#2), West Virginia (#5), Alabama (#7), Kentucky (#9), Virginia (#10), etc. – in the Appalachian region. The point is not that this is unjustified, the point is that it’s simply incorrect to say that white people in Appalachia have not received large amounts of federal money over the years, and continue to do so to this day.  Thus, the feeling that money is being taken away from poor whites and given to relatively privileged “people of color” is highly questionable at best.

In fact, the most egregious ripoffs in this country are the huge sums of money we transfer every year from working class and middle class Americans to wealthy, powerful corporations – ADM and others in Big Agriculture, Exxon Mobil and Big Oil more broadly, Big Pharma, Wall Street, you name it – most of which are headed by…that’s right, you guessed it, those same white male “elites” who Jim Webb argues have fallen “by the wayside.” Have they? Really?

In sum, Jim Webb is right about a lot in his article, it’s great that he wrote it, but he’s also wrong in important ways – both in terms of tone and content. At the minimum, Webb has stirred up a debate on an important subject. The question is, will this debate generate mostly heat, mostly light, a little of each, or a lot of both?

UPDATE: The nation’s first African American governor, Doug Wilder, weighs in, and he’s not happy with Webb.

Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder took issue with Webb’s comments Friday, saying the senator has to show more specific evidence than his own opinion that minority groups have an unfair advantage over whites.

“It makes no sense,” said Wilder, who was the first black governor in American history. “If this is what you get from friends, God help us from the enemies when they come.”

Are the programs existing today run perfectly? Of course not…. They always need constant monitoring and improvements,” Wilder said. “The thing I don’t understand is, in the summer of 2010, with the all the problems of race… Why does he do this? I think the burden is on him to explain.

Uh, Governor Wilder?  I think Webb’s been explaining his thinking on this for several years now. You might not agree with him, but asking “Why does he do this?” is like asking “Why does Doug Wilder have an opinion on everything that he feels the need to share with the world?”  Perhaps because it’s just Wilder’s nature to do what Wilder does, and it’s just Webb’s nature to do what Webb does?  Heh.

In contrast, Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), who of course was an early and strong supporter of Jim Webb in 2006, “praised Webb for his column”:

“Poverty and inequality know no boundary, whether it is geography, gender, race, age or disability,” McEachin said in a prepared statement. “We need to provide opportunities so all those individuals can become productive, constructive members of society.”

Essentially, McEachin focuses on one part of Webb’s argument – working towards a color-blind society, to the extent humanly possible – while Wilder focuses on…not sure exactly, but he’s not happy with Webb’s op-ed apparently, even the fact that it was written at all. Other than that, though, it’s hard to tell what, specifically, Wilder disagrees with in Webb’s argument and what “improvements” he would suggest to the current system.


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