The past of preference

Tom Wicker

August 16, 1991|By Tom Wicker

AFTER CENTURIES of the most blatant preferences in every aspect of American life -- preferences for whites, males, usually for those of Western European stock, almost always for English-speakers, and all too often for Protestants . . . . In the face of (this) history of discrimination, is rigid evenhandedness now to be the test of a candidate's or a party's devotion to American values?" That question was raised in this space on July 4 -- which seemed an appropriate date. The question seemed timely too, because now "some preferences are called quotas . . . and are extended to blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women."

Thus, because they sometimes "inconvenience or disadvantage a white, Protestant male," such "quotas" are under political fire -- from President Bush among other, mostly white critics.

The argument here advanced was that American life never was "evenhanded, color-blind, non-preferential." So if preferences that might benefit a black or a woman were now to be considered unacceptable, that would not only be "blatant hypocrisy" but the effective result would be "pervasive preference for white males," as was the case in the past.

One of many critics of this view was Russell Nieli, a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. In a published letter to the New York Times, he argued that polls showed Americans heavily favored "a strict meritocratic system" and opposed "racial preference."

No doubt -- but polls also show Americans opposed to many elements of the Bill of Rights; still others oppose current high levels of defense spending. Does Nieli really want to advocate government by poll?

Two respondents spoke eloquently to his other arguments:

Hymen Diamond, an attorney in Monroeville, Pa., disputed Nieli's claim that the American public "understands something about justice and fairness" that backers of affirmative action do not.

How explain, Diamond asked in an unpublished letter to the Times, that "during the first half of this century, racism and anti-Semitism were rampant and competency had no meaning"? Why, then, is competence now demanded and preference denounced?

Preferences for white Protestant males once were commonplace, while Jews scraped for jobs, "black college graduates made a living as Pullman porters" and black ballplayers were excluded from the major leagues "unless they could pass themselves off as Cubans."

Professor Martin Kilson of Harvard wrote that Nieli was "ill-informed" in contending that compensation should be "victim-specific" -- restricted to people who suffered individual bias, like interned Japanese-Americans during World War II.

"Compensatory responses to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust have been quite broadcast," Kilson noted in an unpublished letter, "even with the state of Israel (itself not existing at time of injury) functioning in part as beneficiary.

So, just as Nazi coercion of Jews affected all German Jews . . . American slavery and racial-caste victimization affected all Afro-Americans, not just working class and poor, and this in turn requires that the compensatory policy -- affirmative action policy -- likewise benefit all black Americans."

Kilson also refuted Nieli's argument that only "an arbitrarily selected subset" of Americans paid the cost of affirmative action policies.

All of us pay taxes to underwrite these policies, he noted, just as "the taxes of Germans in general correctly pay reparations to injured (Jews)." This responsibility has a "good legal pedigree -- namely, successor rulers and citizenry to a state deemed victimizer of others . . . also succeed to indemnitory obligations, whether or not (they) themselves were direct victimizers."

Affirmative action policy, he wrote, "is as natural to American culture as apple pie," having been practiced on behalf of "farmers, veterans, businesses . . . regions (e.g. Tennessee River Valley)" and such individuals as black lung victims, not to mention "contracts and jobs allocated by cities, counties and states controlled by white ethnic-bloc political machines."

Thus, to argue now that such aid for blacks is unfair tends to confirm Hymen Diamond's view that white critics of affirmative action "make a pretense of seeking justice and fairness" -- but really want only "to keep minorities 'in their place.' "

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