Monday, 7 May 2012

Affirmative Action

The subject of affirmative action is inevitably a touchy one, as any substantive discussion inevitably invites charges of sexism and racism.  The successful racial vilification case against conservative commentator Andrew Bolt has warped the parameters of the debate in Australia, leaving many individuals wondering where exactly the boundaries of acceptable discourse lie.

Just how Mr. Bolt's offending articles qualified as 'racial vilification' is difficult to ascertain.  He was using his public platform to question the appropriateness of so-called 'white' indigenous Australians, who were relatively well off, benefiting from affirmative action which was originally intended to help their more disadvantaged brethren.

The plaintiffs took issue with a number of factual errors in the articles, and fair enough.  There were certainly sufficient grounds for a defamation action.  But racial vilification?  Apparently it is now racist to argue that government benefits for the disadvantaged should actually reach the genuinely disadvantaged.

This issue has recently exploded in the American media, as it has been revealed that the Democrat challenger for Scott Brown's Massachusetts senate seat, Elizabeth Warren, may have benefitted from affirmative action throughout her career.  The blonde, blue-eyed former Harvard professor claims to be 1/32nd Cherokee, though she has been unable to provide much evidence when pressed by the media.

There is currently not enough information available to make a judgement in this case, and Mrs. Warren may not have benefited from her alleged heritage at all.  But the episode does highlight a particular dilemma, the same one that Andrew Bolt was silenced for raising in Australia.

There is an inherent problem with any race-based policy of affirmative action - to put it bluntly, how black must you be?  Should you qualify for benefits if, for instance, you have just one black grandmother?

Or to raise another issue, what if your entire family is black, but is also extremely wealthy?  Should you still qualify for affirmative action based solely upon your race?  Should a privileged indigenous Australian receive preferential treatment over a poor, disadvantaged white man?

James Taranto of the WSJ, considering the question of affirmative action, quotes Ann Althouse:

In the 1960s, she observes, "there was an opportunity, as a culture, to adopt the mental discipline that is colour-blindness."  Everyone agreed "that discriminating against black people was terribly wrong."  But some believed it was necessary to discriminate in favour of blacks in order to overcome the legacy of the past.
"We went down the affirmative action road," Althouse writes.  "We are very far down that road.  To say 'let's start being colour blind now' feels completely different.  Many, many people who think of themselves as good people, certainly decent people, think they've been doing the right thing and worry that those who are pushing for colour blindness are not the good people.  It's at least terribly complex."

This entire conversation is fraught with racial tension, so much so that in Australia one must apparently weigh up the legality of certain arguments.  The status quo is firmly entrenched.

Surely a more sensible policy, however, would be to provide benefits based purely upon need, rather than race.  By all means, develop policy to help the millions of Americans living in poverty - including the tragic number of African Americans.  Do everything humanly possible to boost the chances of those Australians who are fundamentally disadvantaged - particularly Aboriginals living in remote areas.  But base any policy response on need, not race.

Racial divisions will continue to exist until our society becomes completely colour blind, something that demands neither abuse nor preferential treatment based purely upon the colour of one's skin.

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