Webb of Deceit: Racism, Affirmative Action and History as Misunderstood by a U.S. Senator

In this summer of white resentment, one would think it sufficient to have to suffer through the daily droning of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of the crew at Fox News, or perhaps the dishonest machinations of professional liar and fear-pimp Andrew Breitbart.

What with their endless claims that the Obama Administration is out to get white people, by way of purposely destroying the economy, taxing the mostly white folks who go to tanning salons, and deliberately refusing to prosecute blacks who intimidate white voters–or with Brietbart’s hatchet-job on Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod–the right has been ramping up the reverse racism trope for the past few months.

But in what can only be considered either the worst timing in history, or the most obviously cynical attempt ever made by a politician to pander to the fears of his mostly white voter base, the banner of anti-white bias has been raised yet again, and this time by a Democrat, U.S. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.

In a July 22 Wall Street Journal column, entitled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege,” Webb–who fashions himself something of an historian–shows his ignorance not only about the history of the country he serves as a lawmaker, but also about its present-day reality.

Denying White Privilege is Easy When You Don’t Understand What it Means

The basic thrust of Webb’s essay–a broadside against government efforts to promote racial diversity in jobs, contracting and schools–is that affirmative action programs have strayed from their original purpose: to help repair the damage done by the system of African enslavement and Jim Crow segregation. While affirmative action’s intended beneficiaries were blacks who had been subjected to those systems and their descendants, Webb claims that in the last forty years these efforts have experienced a form of “mission creep,” which now leads them to support virtually any person of color, including recent immigrants. As Webb puts it, diversity measures help anyone who “does not happen to be white.” He is especially enraged about the way in which white working class folks have been “passed over” by these newcomers to the country, having never benefitted from government programs on their behalf, because they are presumably the wrong color. And this has happened, according to Webb because lawmakers have long viewed whites as a “monolith” of privilege and advantage, rather than a diverse bunch, within which significant class cleavages remain.

Although Webb does not advocate the complete abolition of affirmative action–indeed he suggests it is still needed and valid for African Americans–his call to exclude other people of color from such efforts, and his rhetorical narrative about the “myth” of white privilege and advantage, are both sufficiently problematic to require a response. Indeed, if he is right about the latter, the entire basis for affirmative action, even for black folks, is undermined.

Early on in his screed, Webb exudes a bizarre uncertainty as to whether white privilege ever really existed, when he claims that during the civil rights struggle, the “supposed monolith of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America.” Are we to believe–and does the Senator–that this white dominance was just a figment of black folks’ fevered imaginations, even prior to the passage of civil rights protections?

Given Webb’s emphasis throughout the column on class divisions within white America, perhaps he believes that the existence of white poverty somehow disproves the notion that whites have privilege relative to blacks and other people of color. But if so, this would mean than even during the period of enslavement, there was no white privilege, since there have always been poor white folks: a strange conclusion, but one that Webb would virtually have to endorse if we follow his logic to its ultimate conclusion. Like most white Americans, Webb misunderstands what the term white privilege is meant to convey. It is not meant to suggest that all whites lead privileged lives of affluence and absolute well-being. Rather, it is meant to convey that relative to people of color, being white generally provides advantages, head starts and opportunities not as readily available to others. Just as male privilege does for men, relative to women, even though there are millions of men who are poor. Just as able-bodied privilege does for the able-bodied, relative to the disabled, even though there are plenty of able-bodied people who are out of work and struggling too.

Regardless, even if one accepts that such institutionalized white privilege was real back in the day, Webb insists that now “WASP elites have fallen by the wayside.” As evidence he cites no less an authority than Pat Buchanan and Buchanan’s recent lamentation that if Elena Kagan is confirmed to the Supreme Court there would be no Protestants on the nation’s highest judicial bench. Of course, religious affiliation says nothing about race, and indeed the Court would remain–as is true for every other institution in the country, like say, Webb’s own Senate–overwhelmingly white. To make whiteness about WASPs and WASPs alone is disingenuous and surely Webb knows it. Although some Catholics (Irish and Italian especially) were once the targets of invidious discrimination, over time they matriculated into the club of whiteness and have come out the other end as part of a larger white society that continues to have advantages over people of color.

…and it’s Even Easier When You Refuse to Read Data

To drive home his point that there is no monolithic whiteness and that many whites struggle economically and socially, as with people of color, Webb conjures the historic plight of Irish Protestants (also known as, and referenced in Webb’s highly regarded book on this group as, the Scots-Irish). But to compare the economic condition of the Scots-Irish to that of people of color, requires Webb to utterly ignore the readily available data on Scots-Irish well being, compared to that of blacks or Latinos. According to 2006 Census Bureau figures, whites of Scots-Irish descent over the age of 25 are more than twice as likely as comparable blacks to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree, and nearly five times as likely as comparable Mexican-Americans to have finished college. Compared to African Americans, the Scots-Irish are less than half as likely to be unemployed, less than one-third as likely to be poor, nearly 70 percent more likely to work in professional or managerial jobs, and their families have a median income nearly twice as high. Compared to Mexican-Americans (among those recent immigrants for whom Webb begrudges affirmative action because it ostensibly hurts struggling whites), the hardscrabble Scots-Irish are 35 percent less likely to be out of work, less than a third as likely to be poor, more than three times as likely to work in professional or managerial jobs, and their families have median incomes that are nearly twice as high.

Although it is true that most Asian sub-groups have higher family incomes and lower poverty rates than whites (and perhaps this is what most upsets Webb, if and when Asian Americans benefit from affirmative action, as happens in contracting or employment occasionally), they are not doing well compared to whites once we control for the geographic placement of whites and Asians throughout the country. So, because Asians are concentrated in a handful of states (Hawaii, California, and New York) that have higher incomes than the national average and higher costs of living, aggregate Asian income will be higher than the same for whites, who are spread throughout the United States. But when whites and Asians in the same state or community are compared, whites earn far higher incomes and have lower rates of poverty. Indeed, within the same cities, Asian poverty rates tend to be double the rate for whites. Likewise, when we compare whites and Asians with comparable educations, whites earn anywhere from 14-28 percent more than their Asian American counterparts.

Although Webb insists that “a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers,” he fails to name even one of these policies, let alone demonstrate how it can be blamed for marginalizing whites in the labor market. Given persistent unemployment rates for people of color that are always higher than the rates for whites (even at the same levels of education and qualification), it becomes a bit hard to swallow the notion that whites are being displaced to any significant degree by something like affirmative action. And while there would be nothing wrong with adding economic considerations to affirmative action programs so as to help whites who are economically marginalized, it is surely unnecessary to attack race-based opportunity efforts in order to do so.

Webb then insists that diversity efforts have “allowed” recent immigrants to jump ahead of whites with roots in the nation going back hundreds of years. But in fact, those immigrants of color who have higher incomes and educational attainment rates than whites (largely recent Asian immigrants or African immigrants) typically come with pre-existing class and schooling advantages. It is not because of affirmative action that they are able to “jump ahead” of anyone.

For immigrants generally, and contrary to Webb’s suggestions to the contrary, discrimination continues to limit opportunity, thereby making deliberate efforts at inclusion necessary. For instance, one recent study found that immigrants with the lightest skin shade (typically European) make about 15 percent more, on average, than immigrants with the darkest skin shades, even when only looking at persons who have the same level of education, experience and observed productivity. Similarly, research indicates that hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans and Latinos are discriminated against in the job market each year, and that such folks experience discrimination in about one out of three job searches. Although Webb notes high rates of Chinese American college completion, presumably to suggest that Asians are doing just fine without deliberate efforts at inclusion, he conveniently overlooks the evidence indicating that Chinese Americans with professional status positions still earn only about 56 percent as much as their white counterparts, despite having higher average educational attainment.

Don’t Know Much About History: Jim Webb Misrepresents America’s Past

But it’s not only the current racial reality that Webb fails to appreciate. His understanding of history is equally as blinkered. While the Senator is correct that many advocated affirmative action specifically as a way to respond to the legacy of enslavement and Jim Crow, it is simply false that the only reason for such efforts was to repair the damage done by these historic injustices against African Americans. Both the legislative and legal history of affirmative action efforts make clear that just as important was the sense that in the absence of deliberate efforts at inclusion, people of color would continue to be excluded from opportunity in the present. Old boy’s networks for jobs and contracts were so tightly dominated by whites (irrespective of qualifications), and private sector job selection criteria were so subjective and skewed to the benefit of whites, that both lawmakers and courts realized more would be needed than mere passive non-discrimination.

And although blacks certainly have faced different obstacles than other persons of color, it is simply historically illiterate to suggest, as Webb does, that those injustices have “no parallel in our history.” Indigenous North Americans would likely beg to differ, though the Senator shows no indication of having given first nation’s peoples even a fleeting thought in his condemnation of diversity efforts. Even Webb’s insistence that “those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government,” is so utterly inaccurate as to call into question his basic understanding of the nation’s past, to say nothing of its present.

First, these immigrants did face discrimination in the sense that they were routinely blocked from even entering the country, because of blatantly racist immigration laws, in place from the 1880s to 1965. Secondly, Mexican Americans are descended from those who had half of their country stolen by the United States, in a racist war of aggression that we started on false pretense. During the Great Depression, as many as a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans (60 percent of them citizens of the United States) were forcibly expelled from the country so as to free up job opportunities for whites. In the 1950s, tens of thousands more were removed from the nation under “Operation Wetback,” including thousands of children whose birth in the United States made them legal citizens. From the 1940s to the 1960s, millions more were exploited by agribusiness interests under the “bracero” program which allowed migrant labor to enter the U.S. from Mexico but then paid lower wages than had been originally agreed to, and refused to pay workers the money that was withheld from their paychecks for mandatory savings accounts.

Likewise, Chinese labor was used, exploited and often worked to death in the United States, brought in to help construct the railroads without which the transcontinental economy could never have emerged. Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps during World War Two, and Southeast Asians who fled to the U.S. in the post-Vietnam War era watched as this country dropped millions of tons of bombs on their nations, poisoning their countrysides with chemical agents and killing millions of people in the process. That we might owe a debt to those whose nations and communities we have helped to collectively wreck over the years seems to escape Webb, though it would likely register fairly clearly on the moral scales of most philosophers, or merely those with a more developed ethical code than that which is typical for far too many lawmakers.

Even worse is Webb’s suggestion that whites, unlike these newcomers of color, have never been the “beneficiaries of special government programs.” The level of historical ignorance necessary to render a judgment such as this is stunning, and should forever disqualify Senator Webb from being taken seriously by anyone with an interest in truth. Whites, of course, have benefitted more from “special government programs” than members of any other racial group. Indeed, for most of our nation’s history it was whites benefitting from these efforts to the exclusion of persons of color.

Among the “special programs” about which Jim Webb appears to know or care nothing, one might include the Homestead Act (which gave out over 200 million acres of virtually free land to whites, beginning in the 1860s), several key programs of the New Deal, from which blacks were mostly excluded for years, but which saved millions of struggling whites–such as the Federal Housing Administration loan program, which by 1960 was being used to finance 40 percent of all white housing–and the GI Bill, which in theory was meant for all returning veterans, but which in practice favored whites, since segregation was allowed to trump the “right” of black and brown GIs to use their job or educational benefits under the program. These and other programs suggest the greatest irony in critiques of affirmative action: namely, that the nation has been engaged in affirmative action for whites virtually forever. But only now has the specter of “preferential treatment” become a problem.

Conclusion: The Best Evidence That Webb’s Column is Political Hackery

Based on his faulty understanding of history and apparent inability to decipher the ongoing evidence of racism in the contemporary period, Webb concludes that although the nation has a “continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.” But what is most telling about this policy directive, and Webb’s larger narrative about the way affirmative action has spread beyond its original intent is what he appears unwilling to say directly. Because if there were any case to be made for affirmative action having undergone mission creep in recent decades, it would not be with regard to the inclusion of people of color other than blacks. After all, it was the recognition that racism remained a real and persistent problem, requiring more than mere civil rights laws, which animated all early supporters of affirmative action. Rather, the only possible case for mission creep would be with regard to the way in which white women have reaped a disproportionate share of the benefits from such efforts. While one can certainly make the case–and I would, and have–that institutionalized sexism against women as women makes sex and gender considerations legitimate within affirmative action programs, this would seem a more logical target for the Senator’s ire, if indeed the purpose of his column had been to highlight the excesses of a program gone wrong.

By remaining entirely silent on this subject–and thereby making sure not to anger up to half of his white voter base (a far larger segment of his constituency than Asians and Latinos)–Webb shows himself to be an opportunistic political hack, exploiting white fears and anxieties about “reverse racism,” all the while glossing over the enormous dividends paid to white families via affirmative action, by opening opportunities to white mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.

He should be ashamed. But he won’t be. Fear pays, and Jim Webb has plenty of inventory.

Tim Wise is the author of five books on race. His latest is Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010).

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