Overcoming Racial Prejudice in America

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WASHINGTON – “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This sentence spoken by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, during the much celebrated March on Washington, was and to this day remains the best guiding principle that should help the American society deal with and finally go beyond its legacy of racism.

Indeed, the only way to finally “resolve” the painfully complicated race issue in America is to finally become a truly color blind society. The day in which anybody’s race (and also gender, socio-economic background, faith, and more) becomes totally irrelevant in evaluating a person’s abilities and morality, then and only then we shall be able to say that America managed to overcome this horribly divisive race problem. 

Still striving

However, reaching this essential goal is realistically very difficult. Like it or not, consciously or unconsciously we are all prisoners of cultural stereotypes that we acquired over the years. These stereotypes color our perceptions and unfortunately our opinions.

However, as difficult as this colorblindness goal may be, this is the only way to arrive at the healthy conclusion that all human beings are essentially equal, and should be treated as equals. Of course that does not mean that we are all the same. We differ in terms of qualities, abilities, preferences and moral traits. But our judgment on these traits should not be clouded by our prejudices based on lingering racial stereotypes.

That said, we know that as a society we did not try hard enough to become genuinely color blind. We tried instead with other remedies aimed at fast tracking needed equality where there used to be none. Of course, we had to begin with the landmark civil and voting rights legislation of the 1960s. They were essential milestones. The new laws positively affirmed the equality of all, while explicitly making all segregation measures illegal.

Affirmative action

But then we added affirmative action: essentially set asides and quotas reserved for minorities, so that African Americans could more easily access opportunities from which up to that point they had been excluded –purely on account of race.

In principle it seemed only fair to give a bit of a head start to millions of African Americans who, although nominally US citizens, in practice had been totally excluded from most opportunities when it came to education, housing, quality health care, certain jobs, government contracts, and more. If we look back at the policy goals, affirmative action legislation was intended as a tool that would give a chance to those who had been historically discriminated against. Quotas were aimed at insuring that at least some Blacks and other minorities could make it within a reasonably short period of time. Quotas were about providing access. Fair enough.

Unintended consequences

Still, the unintended consequence of affirmative action seems to be in the institutionalization of minority status that automatically entitles a person, purely on account of race, to preferential treatment. And as affirmative action programs became entrenched, they naturally created a constituency that saw them not just as a temporary measure to help redress decades of undeniable injustice; but as permanent programs.

The unintended consequence of all this is that in order to justify special quotas for injured minorities today the proponents must argue that the old race-based injustice lingers on. In fact they argue that, decades after the end of legally sanctioned segregation, racial bias is still a permanent feature of the American society. Therefore, given this reality, affirmative action programs, viewed as measures to mitigate the ugly impact of ongoing racial discrimination, have to be kept –in perpetuity.

When it is good to be a minority

In other words, even today, a reasonably well-educated Black person has every interest in preserving his/her “Black identity” in order to benefit from a system that, in the name of overcoming past injustice, allows him or her to have an extra advantage in the competition for limited places in a good university, or in bids for government contracts that establish quotas for minority owned businesses. 

Which is to say that, paradoxically, in an affirmative action context, being Black or other Minority in many instances may be in fact an asset rather than a liability. But this realization of the advantages of racial minority status also justifies continuing belief in the old assumptions that justified the creation of affirmative action programs in the first place: “I deserve special treatment today. This is a totally legitimate way to redress past and present discrimination. Affirmative action is the appropriate remedial tool to counter the deleterious impact of lingering racial prejudice”. 

Reinforcing racial identity

Which is to say that the remedies included in affirmative action legislation, even if sincerely aimed (at the time) at kick starting the creation of a level playing field, created a new culture of entitlement. These programs in reality encouraged “Minorities” to think of themselves not as citizens like everybody else but as a perpetually aggrieved group. And this is because it is this status and only this status of discriminated against minority –therefore entitled to redress– that allows them to claim special treatment when it comes to competing for a place in college, getting a job, or being awarded certain types of government contracts.

Racial prejudice still exists

That said, it is only fair to admit that racial prejudice is still alive and well in America. Unfortunately, even today, some African Americans are denied jobs, credit, low interest mortgages, and a lot more simply because they are Black, and therefore assumed to be “untrustworthy, lazy, unproductive”, and what not. Of course, none of this is done overtly, because it would be illegal to do so. But it happens nonetheless.

Quotas fuel prejudice

However, it is also true that affirmative action provisions (today they blend into “diversity” requirements) aimed at overcoming the consequences of old, groundless prejudice tend to reinforce rather than melt the racial divide. Blacks see them as necessary redress for past discrimination and present bias. But in so doing they keep thinking of themselves as a perpetually discriminated against “Black Minority”, rather than US citizens, as everybody else.

Many whites, in turn, see affirmative action as special favors bestowed for political reasons on otherwise undeserving people. To the extent that Whites believe that Blacks get jobs they do not really deserve only because of quotas, this helps reinforce rather than dilute racial prejudice.

“I am an American”

How do we get out of this unproductive way to frame the problem of prejudice and constructive ways to overcome it? It is only by doing our best to follow Martin Luther King’s advice. Look at the person; not at their race.

In a talk show featuring several conservative Blacks, (admittedly a small minority within the larger minority), it was refreshing to hear that most of the participants rejected the “African American” label for themselves. “I am an American”, they said. “I happen to be Black. But I am an American”. And so they are.

I call this rejection of (perpetually) aggrieved group an important step forward. In the end, when both Whites and Blacks will finally reject race as an issue likely to influence one way or the other any type of judgement on any individual, we will be able to say that America has successfully overcome its ugly legacy of slavery and discrimination.

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