from dinner tonight. My dad decided to teach my siblings about politics a little each night at dinner, and tonight we got into a conversation about affirmative action. I was the lone voice on the pro side. Since I’m probably the least rebellious rabid liberal whose blog you’ve ever read, this was kind of nerve-wracking for me despite how unusually well the conversation went. My dad kept saying he didn’t want to change anyone’s mind, but just to present both sides, and my mom was all smiles afterwards even though she mostly thought my ideas were crazy. My brother thought it was cool that white males tend to vote Republican (we started out with a lesson on the major constituencies of both parties), which I accidentally laughed at because he doesn’t know yet why that’s meaningful to people beyond “Hey, I’m a white male Republican, too!” The worst I got was a “You’re white – even if you don’t want to be – ” as the intro to a question from my sister. Before the election she called me to hear my views so she could make a balanced decision. But then after that she somehow got solidified in her stance that she was so unsure of before, and has since resented it anytime I defend my side, even though I’m always the only one on my side. I must suck at sharing views, huh? And yet here I am writing a blog.
So I may have already written about affirmative action, but I’m going to do it again because it’s my blog and I need the peace of mind that comes from making your argument in writing.
Once upon a time, there were two men, Joe and Jim. Joe stole labor from Jim via slavery. Thus, Joe owes Jim money – back wages that he never paid. He also owes Jim compensation for beating him, and he owes Jim’s wife compensation for raping her, and he owes the entire family compensation for splitting them up. But nobody ever makes Joe pay Jim, or anybody else involved. When Joe dies, he gives his kids a lot of technically stolen money. When Jim dies, he gives his kids nothing. This goes on for generations. Along the way, the government gives money to Joe’s descendants so they can buy a house, but denies Jim’s descendants the same deal because they’re black. Joe’s descendants build equity in the house and make money off of it; Jim’s descendants rent. Joe’s descendants join a union and get better pay and benefits; Jim’s descendants aren’t allowed to join. Joe’s descendants vote for politicians that watch out for their interests; Jim’s descendants are kept away from the polls by force. Joe’s descendants get loans from the Department of Agriculture; Jim’s descendants are denied the same deal because they’re black. Joe’s descendants are raised speaking the language that’s tested on the SAT and expected on scholarship essays and in job interviews; Jim’s descendants are scolded for using their native language.
And then when somebody wants to give Jim’s descendants a leg up, Joe’s descendants decide it’s time to start keeping score of fairness. They don’t hold anything against Jim’s descendants, but they’re firm believers in meritocracy – as of five minutes ago. They never stole from anybody – they didn’t have to, because their ancestors and the government did it for them. But that’s not their fault! Nor is it the fault of Jim’s descendants.
(This is where the difference between the two kinds of guilt becomes important again – Joe’s descendants are in a state of being guilty of benefiting at the expense of Jim’s descendants. But I’m not admonishing them to feel the emotion of guilt over it. It’s true that it’s not their fault that things are this way, but it’s also true that that’s totally beside the point of whether or not things are this way.)
Now, it is very difficult, probably impossible, to determine exactly how much debt Joe’s ancestors now owe Jim’s ancestors. And it is equally difficult/impossible to determine exactly who counts as Joe’s ancestors and who counts as Jim’s ancestors and to what degree. FInally, it is challenging to find a good way to repay that debt, because it is not just a financial one. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it some kind of attempt.
However, if you believe we should not try to rectify any of these wrongs, then you better at least be consistent and not start caring about fairness from now on. It’s not a great stance, in my opinion, to say “It was wrong, but it’s unfixable now. Tough luck.” But it’s downright offensive to say “Affirmative action?! That would be unmeritocratic, and our country is all about meritocracy!” Usually more ignorant than audacious, true, but now that you know, you have no excuse.
This of course does not preclude arguments about how affirmative action should be carried out – as I said before, determining how to go about these things is incredibly complex and I think we would benefit from a lot more argumentation over the how. But instead all the everyday person ever considers in terms of affirmative action is the whether.
That’s what’s starting to get to me in this country. We spend so much time and energy arguing over the stupidest things. I don’t have time to think about starving children, I’m busy worrying about whether the lesbian next door checked the “single” box or the “married” box on her patient information form last time she went to the doctor. Some of this stuff is so ridiculous that I can’t even take it seriously anymore. But then again, it’s not just about people being stupid or latching onto unimportant issues; somewhere, it’s about power plays.