Overcoming Racial Prejudice in America
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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.