Thursday, April 07, 2011

"B.S., Blowing Smoke", Michael Wolraich, Affirmative Action

Am reading on and off a copy of "Blowing Smoke" by Michael Wolraich that a friend got. It's a decent book, one that started out as blog posts and was rewritten and reworked, with added research, and turned into something that doesn't immediately resemble a blog. Wolraich blogs as "Genghis" for Dagblog. The book goes over lots of current right wing craziness, takes it back to some of its origins, while preserving a sarcastic tone and not just recapitulating talking points, actually putting history in there as well as critical thought.

I would put it as almost the sort of thing that blogging folks would want to aim for. "Almost", because I'm a bastard when it comes to editing, typesetting, and design, at least when it doesn't include my own work....I'm only partially kidding...and I can see "Blowing Smoke" benefitting from being tightened up even more with regards to research and construction, as well as from having the sections in the chapters, and some of the chapters themselves, rearranged in order to form a more coherent argument, structure, and flow.

That said, one of the more interesting sections I encountered on my last reading session was the one talking about the rise of Ronald Reagan and how affirmative action and implicit racism within it was used to woo working class, white, voters. I have to say that it was an interesting discussion, but one thing that gets lost often enough in the mix, in both liberal and conservative writing about the subject, is why exactly are white working class voters complaining about it?

The standard answer is that they're just somehow racist, or that they just don't want their tax dollars going to support people they don't think are productive, but I know from experience, from growing up in Macomb County Michigan, ground zero for the Reagan Democrat movement, that things aren't quite that simple. One of the barbs often thrown at folks who support affirmative action, who are white, is that 'they're middle class so they don't know what they're talking about', my phrasing, because they're comfortable economically. In fact, with regards to bussing in Boston, "Blowing Smoke" quoted a Representative who was anti-bussing saying that the people who support it aren't the ones who will have their kids bussed into Roxbury. Now, what this line of thought indicates to me is that opposition to affirmative action exists for a lot of people not because they're somehow abstractly racist, but because they aren't doing so well on their own, and they see things in a competitive mode of 'us or them'.

If you don't make a lot of money and you're struggling, seeing other people who don't make a lot of money and who are also struggling get money and support no doubt seems unfair, no matter what the larger social issues are. Yet both of you are struggling. My guess is that if, say, in the realm of financial aid for college, everyone got a basic level of help that made it affordable, there would be less outcry over members of minority groups getting further help. If the disabilities that come from being of a particular class were overcome, I would put money on it that those folks wouldn't care as much about folks from a particular race benefitting from programs aimed at countering the legacy (and continued existence) of racism in the U.S.

It doesn't seem to me to be hardcore racism so much as living in a society where you know that things are stacked against you because of your class and you're willing to fight dirty to get what you should get anyways. By making advantages universal, the us-vs-them mentality that the Right cultivates would be undercut significantly.

As it now stands, what affirmative action does and does not do is overblown to a huge extent. The actual existence of it has little resemblance to the big abstraction that it has become, much like welfare. Much like foreign aid, although that's gone down in popularity as one to beat up on now that we don't give much out anymore.

Nevertheless, the way to address the underlying problem isn't to take away aid to people all together, to make it that no one gets help with college, that no one gets help with jobs, or that no one gets help with benefits of sorts that have been racialized and are often included with affirmative action for no good reason. All that does is make society worse for everyone. Wouldn't it better to make it better for everyone instead?

*to add to my 'street cred', I actually saw both Reagan and George Bush I speak as a kid. Both of them came through and spoke at Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights, and my school took us to see them.


Lorraine said...

Well stated. I'm from the west side of Detroit, but my lesbian lover was raised in Warren (in the 'bellwether' Macomb County), and we currently live in her childhood house. As the proverbial white kid in the Detroit Public Schools I had a certain amount of resentment of affirmative action in my youth, but I've outgrown it. My thoughts at the time weren't so much 'this isn't necessary' as 'why must the burden of this particular payback (while just and long overdue) fall on my particular generation of white people?' My reasoning at the time was that any middle aged (at that time, early 1980's) white worker, certainly any such worker with any 'seniority', almost certainly had gotten at least some of their success very directly at the expense of excluded persons.

I've been rabidly pro-affirmative action since about age 18 or 19. I think you're on the mark with: "If the disabilities that come from being of a particular class were overcome, I would put money on it that those folks wouldn't care as much about folks from a particular race benefitting [sic] from programs aimed at countering the legacy (and continued existence) of racism in the U.S." Before about 12th grade, I had the standard middle class (or let's say what I then called middle class) anxieties about college financial aid: "too poor to afford anything, too rich to qualify for anything." Once I found out that I qualified for the Pell Grant and Work Study programs, my attitudes shifted considerably leftward on the affirmative action topic. The aforementioned rabidness set in halfway through sophomore year when I transferred from the University of Detroit (this was before it merged with another institution and became "U of D Mercy") to the University of Michigan, which, being a public school, charged considerably lower tuition. U of D being in a predominantly Black neighborhood, I expected a certain shift in the racial composition of the student body, but I was absolutely dumbfounded by the magnitude of the shift. I also had no idea (before arriving on campus) how rare working-class students were in the so-called 'elite' universities at that time (January of 1985).

Since college, my politics has shifted from liberal to radical, even anti-capitalist. My thinking on civil rights is less 'how can we make a more level playing field' to 'how can we make life less of a playing field,' i.e., less of a contest. In spite of my anti-statist tendencies, what I think is needed is a return to a large or at least economically significant civil service, with provisions that the existence of job openings is part of the public record, signed applications and not resumes are used as documents of first contact, and interviews (i.e. introvert filters) are a late stage in the selection process, after application processing, credential checking and competitive examinations. I’m not above advocating holding private sector human resources practices to similar standards. If that makes me a commie, so be it. I also advocate a database of public record for announcements of vacancies, public and private, or at least a proof-of-publication requirement when new employees are added to quarterly withholding tax returns. These reforms would still leave de facto employees who are de jure “independent contractors” as a loophole. Not sure how to close it, but there's got to be a way. At any rate, I think this is what we should have done instead of affirmative action, but somehow I imagine it would be (even in today's rabidly anti-affirmative-action climate) even less politically feasible.

Lorraine said...

Since we're doing a little name dropping, I saw then-VP GHWB give a speech in front of the Michigan Union in 1987. It was a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the announcement of the roll-out of the Peace Corps in a speech by one JFK at that location. I'm not sure whether that particular public speaking engagement was the infamous "Good Society" speech, but I do seem to recall that's what he was talking about, for the most part.