Why Angry White Guys for Affirmative Action
"There isn't a white judge on today's Court
by Paul Rockwell
Thousands of Americans, including the Bay Area-based Angry White Guys For Affirmative Action, will march to the U.S. Supreme Court April 1st, in defense of University of Michigan affirmative action programs. The outcome of the national debate -- can a University use race as a factor to achieve cultural diversity in admissions? -- may depend on the frame of reference in which affirmative action is discussed. Angry White Guys For Affirmative Action offer a special set of arguments, a new focus that could change the very nature of the controversy.
For over 30 years opponents of affirmative action for women and people of color have overlooked a key American reality -- the role of affirmative action in the lives of white men. Opposition to affirmative action is based on selective inattention to the social props on which white men themselves depend. It is not affirmative action itself, but affirmative action for African-Americans and Latinos, that is under current attack.
Many of us recall our first heated arguments over preferential programs that took place over thirty-five years ago in the teach-ins about the war in Vietnam. In the 60s, the first big affirmative action debate was not about minority programs. It was about college students who were getting draft deferments during the hated wars in Indochina. How easy it is to forget that minorities were over-represented on the involuntary battlefields of Asia. Black and Brown kids from working class neighborhoods were being sent to die abroad, while primarily white college youth were building their careers through one form of affirmative action -- college draft deferment. Some professors, judges, and journalists who oppose affirmative action today took advantage of affirmative action (draft deferment) in college years ago.
Minority programs are only a small part of the spectrum of preferential policies in the U.S. It is time to consider the extent to which white males are intertwined with policies of preference for themselves. Tax breaks for corporations, subsidies for middle-class homebuyers, mass transit subsidies for white suburbs, bank bailouts for profligate bank executives, selective allotments for refugees, price supports for corporate farms, are all shot through with considerations of need and preference. Special considerations may be valid or invalid, but preference for those perceived to be in need is a basic concept of American society.
White Male Beneficiaries
In the last seventy years of social engineering, the vast majority of direct beneficiaries of affirmative action policies were not minorities; they were white males. Preferential social policies for those in need were not invented by civil rights leaders. Under Franklin Roosevelt, whom most white Americans still revere, the New Deal embarked upon a massive affirmative action approach to social crisis. With the critical exception of segregation, Americans approached their social problems -- unemployment, poverty of senior citizens, re-entry needs of veterans and GIs, farmers needing price supports -- through planned social engineering. The post World-War II Marshall Plan, a plan that provided billions of dollars for training and jobs, was a massive affirmative action plan for Europe. Former enemies got free training programs in Europe that were denied Black GIs at home in America.
The New Deal concepts became unpopular only after they were applied to the crisis and effects of segregation. It was not affirmative action itself, but the extension of affirmative action to minorities and women, that caused the backlash.
As white men whose own families got free medical care, unquestioned access to higher education through the GI Bill, who shared in the social uplift of the New Deal and Fair Deal, members of Angry White Guys For Affirmative Action support affirmative action for those who are still left out.
There is a normal tendency in most of us to overlook the social props, the network of special benefits on which we and our families depend. The late Mitch Snyder, advocate for the homeless, once gave an address to an affluent, white audience. He asked members in the auditorium: Who lives in federally subsidized housing? No one raised a hand. But then he asked homeowners to identify themselves. All hands went up, after which he pointed out that homeowners are subsidized. The Treasury gives up $46 billion each year to homeowner deductions in a system that predominately benefits people who earn more than $50,000 a year.
Tax breaks for home buyers may not be wrong. What is wrong is the smug psychology of the Bushites, the Rehnquists, who take advantage of all kinds of breaks for themselves while denying affirmative action for the most oppressed areas of society.
Affirmative action is already part of the fabric of American life. We are all bound together in a vast network of affirmative action, of mutual support systems we take for granted. It is hypocritical and profoundly wrong to call affirmative action for minorities racism in reverse, while treating affirmative action for bankers, farmers, white men of power, as entitlements.
There isn't a white judge on the U.S. Supreme Court that hasn't benefited from affirmative action.
Paul Rockwell is a writer in the Bay Area firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in In Motion Magazine March 11, 2003.
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