Ah, America: Rich or poor, bright or dull, we all get to be victims

September 15, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- It is generally wrong to assume that any government policy, however preposterous it has become, has hit bottom. In today's government, the bottom is a downward-moving target.

The New Republic calls a new wrinkle in affirmative action from the Small Business Administration ''the reductio ad absurdam of victimhood politics.'' But a late entry in the absurdity sweepstakes is a theory discussed at the Commission on Civil Rights.

The new nuance in the SBA's racial spoils system concerns set-asides for federal contractors deemed ''socially and economically disadvantaged.''

Since 1987 the presumption has been that contractors are ''socially disadvantaged'' if they are black, Hispanic, Native Americans, Asian Pacific Americans and Subcontinent Asian Americans. Now the golden door to the advantageous status of ''disadvantaged,'' and to set-asides, has been opened wider.

Isolated environment

One ''distinguishing feature'' that the Small Business Administration will now assume to have contributed to social disadvantage will be ''long-term residence in an environment isolated from the mainstream of American society, or other similar causes not common to individuals who are not socially disadvantaged.'' That isolated-environment criterion makes members of Congress or the Harvard faculty eligible for ''socially disadvantaged'' status if they decide to moonlight as contractors.

Furthermore, set-asides shall be available for those who have had ''personal experiences of social disadvantage'' that have been ''substantial, chronic and long-standing.'' Furthermore, when parceling out set-asides the SBA will consider ''education, employment and business history to see if the totality of circumstances shows disadvantage in entering into or advancing in the business world.''

The New Republic notes that almost every entrepreneur can be stuffed under the shelter of those capacious criteria of victimhood. The magazine reports that a federal judge has even ruled that white men are socially disadvantaged, and thus eligible for affirmative action, if they have been denied contracts because of affirmative action.

What could be more absurd? Perhaps this:

Recently the Civil Rights Commission discussed ''ability grouping'' of students on the basis of aptitudes.

Honor groupings

Why is this considered a problem, let alone a federal civil-rights matter? An answer was supplied by Commissioner Yvonne Lee, a Clinton appointee, who began by noting that ''within the Asian-American community you do see an overrepresentation of Asian-Americans in certain so-called honor groupings or advanced classes.''

That, she said, ''discriminates against the students'' by preventing them from ''being exposed to other courses of studies.'' She said the discrimination problem of ''ability grouping'' does not involve only ''students who are stuck at the bottom rung. It also affects students who get labeled as whiz kids and they get stuck in the upper rank and never get exposed to other opportunities.''

Commissioner Robert George, a Princeton professor of government, was politely nonplused. He asked if Ms. Lee really was saying ''that ability grouping is inherently discriminatory'' and is particularly discriminatory against Asian--Americans because, by grouping them at the top of certain categories, ''it deprives them of other opportunities.''

Ms. Lee, who runs a San Francisco public-relations firm, said yes, she believes ''Asian-Americans are overrepresented in middle management, technical, professional ranks because throughout their educational ladder they've been shifted toward that area because they were thought to be smart in math and all the technical areas.''

Thus ''they were shielded away from other social studies and other courses.'' Ability grouping put them ''in a certain track,'' thereby denying them ''the opportunity to be exposed to other aspects of education.'' Asian-Americans ''are being hurt in later years when you see the other aspects of development that they did not have in their social interaction.''

Stuck at the top

Getting ''stuck in the upper rank'' is a ''civil-rights problem'' that millions of young Americans are studying diligently in the hope of acquiring. But Commissioner Lee sees people through contemporary liberalism's lens -- as members of grievance groups, but essentially passive, and who need to have their consciousnesses raised. She thinks they are victims who are ''shifted'' here and ''put'' there, allowing themselves to be stigmatized as ''whiz kids.'' And they are improperly concentrated (''overrepresented'') in the academic and vocational areas they choose to be in.

The implicit premise, central to the logic of contemporary liberalism, is that their choices result from social pressures and stereotypes and other facets of victimhood, and therefore are not really free choices. Therefore their choices need not be respected, and can be considered ripe for remedial government action.

Thus is the government, locked in the logic of group preferences, drawn toward the receding bottom of a bankrupt policy. Its descent is rationalized by a new social science, victimology.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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