In the Supreme Court decision this week that arguably restrains affirmative action programs in US colleges, Justice (or in-justice) Clarence Thomas actually wrote in a concurring opinion that "there is no principled distinction" between affirmative action programs in US colleges today and the Jim Crows laws in the American South after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Take a moment to read that again without gasping.
Jim Crow laws were, in states of the former confederacy, a method of maintaining racial segregation despite the 13th Amendment ending slavery and early civil rights laws. Jim Crow was finally made illegal under federal law about the same time as affirmative action was instituted. You could even regard ending Jim Crow laws as the very first affirmative action. Unless you are the highly illogical Clarence Thomas, in which case you think affirmative action is Jim Crow.
Read on below the fold to see why Thomas is, sadly and pathetically, saying and doing exactly the wrong things to advance blacks and other minorities in this country -- and when I say "advance," I mean helping them catch up, actualizing rights, privileges and economic opportunities that the rest of the citizenry has long since enjoyed.
Why do we have crime victim compensation laws? Because it became clear that in the case of some crimes, the victims are harmed physically and financially, sometimes for life. It was socially sensible for local and state governments to make early financial restitution, lest victims become wholly dependent on public assistance.
Why, when a runner jumps off his mark before the starting gun, is the race started over? Because otherwise, that runner, who takes off before anyone else to gain a lead and momentum, has an unfair advantage.
And why, when your car suddenly skids into the on-coming lane, do you reflexively steer in the opposite direction? To avoid a crash, of course. It's simple physics to recognize that equal and opposite reactions counter-balance and cancel out. If you don't want to go west, turn north or south!
Those analogies ought to make clear why affirmative action is necessary. It's not discrimination, it's anti-discrimination. It's redress. It's corrective action to prevent an unfair advantage from persisting, from retarding equal opportunity evermore. Does a racer left behind at the starting line need to be put out in front and given the same unfair lead as the guy who originally jumped his mark? No. But Thomas is wrong in imagining that is the outcome of affirmative action. Rather, the point is to re-balance the original disadvantage, moving toward neutrality.
Will such affirmative actions always end up precisely reaching that state? Of course not. Humans are complex, and so are their circumstances. But that's no excuse not to try, especially in the face of obvious discrimination. Good intentions are useless, unless they are backed with action. And what benefits the vast majority of cases ought to be the goal, not examples showing that the efforts don't work 100 percent of the time on an individual basis.
Nevertheless, in Thomas' odd mind, turning in a direction away from segregation creates segregation. Helping the victims of segregation creates segregation. So why, apparently, should we even try? Call it a day, and let them duke it out on their own. Or, at least it seems that's his, ah, racial preference.
Moreover, Thomas has argued that college affirmative action programs can have the effect of putting disadvantaged minorities into no-win situations, where they are actually under-equipped to succeed. I've got to agree with this reasoning at some base level, since Thomas himself seems a prime example of a minority who, as a result of affirmative action, got in over his head at university and ended up failing upward to the US Supreme Court, where he has yet after many years become a wise, logical, empathic jurist. He is, despite all that, useful, but only to those forces that favor retarding civil rights in this country; only to those who could champion his own elevation to the nation's highest court as "most qualified" in the first place.
The views of Clarence Thomas are not just color-blind in our richly colorful society, they are blind, period. I am reminded of "The Lathe of Heaven," the science fiction novel by Ursula Le Guin in which a man gains the power to work miracles. At one
point, faced with the fact of racial discrimination, the character wishes it away, and the result is that the skin tone of every living human instantly turns to gray. There, fixed that for ya! Except of course in the novel it was no fix. Likewise, in real life, regarding everyone without any consideration or respect to their racial or ethnic status is to close your eyes to injustice. In other words, what you don't know about can hurt you. Or, to borrow a line from a certain conservative darling of a president: Trust, but verify.
Affirmative action is, in reality, a general term for a set of various federal efforts to promote policies in public and private institutions that achieve non-discrimination. These are often criticized on the political right on the basis that they achieve non-discrimination only through (another gasp, here, but only if you're right wing) a counter-balancing designed to ensure minority participation.
Cry the conservatives: Quotas, favoritism! But the white children of rich white parents get favored all the time, even favors that let them pass more easily into institutions like Harvard. So are favors really so out of bounds? Yes, but mostly only for minorities. Wealth can be favored, even though its possessors are already ahead; minorities cannot, even though they remain behind. It's the American way, in the Thomas mind-set.
Bottom line: Affirmative action is the only solution that doesn't require forever. So if you've got a better way of actualizing racial equality besides soothsaying or what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "benign neglect," please phone Clarence Thomas immediately, because he needs a better argument.
Affirmative action policies don't ensure success, only measurable opportunity where little or none has previously existed. That, by the way, is the same impetus behind the Voting Rights Act, which Thomas and the Supreme Court's conservative majority have in almost the same breath just wrecked. Their argument: Voting rights are now firmly in place, so no special conditions, no actual laws with teeth, need be imposed on states with past trouble managing fair voting standards. Maybe, but what about states with continuing trouble? If you're five conservative justices on the court, you simply ignore that while declaring the problem fixed.
These conservative justices (and they are all guys and white except for the proto-white Thomas) need to better understand actualization and the concept of "de jure" in law-making. Simply saying something is so doesn't make it factually the case, but of course an earlier conservative majority didn't consider that distinction in the Bush v. Gore decision, either.
All of which is why Thomas proves himself a pathetic, misguided figure. By his own reckoning, he must be regarded as the product of affirmative-action policies which segregated him from society and continue making him an ideological slave. To whom? The progressives and liberals who champion affirmative action? Nope, to conservatives, who pretend this America is the best of all possible worlds and needs no further remedies against social injustice.
Thomas himself isn't pretending, though. He seems to really believe that if you simply proclaim that a citizen must be treated equally, you needn't ever actually enforce that proclamation, because individuals have the power under said proclamation to do all the rest themselves.
If so, let Thomas and the court next strike down laws against murder, ruling that they aren't necessary because as of now there is no such thing as murder in America any more. Thus, citizens will have no choice but to stop committing murder, because that will now be outside the box of permitted behavior and thinking; everyone will adjust their behavior instantly and properly, without need of any actual laws punishing the now banned act, even its very mention, as well as the removal of any policing apparatus that watches for such behavior or any preventive measures, such as gun control. What a happy, well-adjusted and very gray world that will be!