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Eugene Robinson

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Opinion columnist Eugene Robinson took questions on politics and his latest column.

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Posted at 01:47 PM ET, 12/15/2011

Opinion: Chelsea Clinton’s affirmative action TV job

Chelsea Clinton wasn’t that bad. She is educated and knowledgeable and has all kinds of access. Her first segment for NBC’s “Making a Difference” brought needed attention to a deserving Arkansas woman mentoring low-income children in ways that don’t involve cleaning toilets. (Sorry, Newt, but I could not resist.)

Like other broadcast beginners before her, Clinton will gradually become more at ease in front of the camera. I even forgive her for running to become part of the media she ran away from on the campaign trail for her mother in 2008.

But, let’s be realistic, she didn’t have to do much running to get her newest gig. Like other NBC and MSNBC employees before her -- Jenna Bush Hager and Meghan McCain, to mention just two -- it probably took only a phone call to get her foot in the door, which is 90 percent of the game. They snagged their high-profile jobs for many reasons other than a sterling professional resume.

That’s the way it is in America. So let’s just call it what it is: affirmative action. I know that term has been corrupted in the public realm as shorthand for being on the receiving end of unearned privilege. Someone beats you out for a job, a spot in Yale’s freshman class? Blame affirmative action. The ones doing the blaming usually aren’t referring to women or veterans or people with disabilities or students with a building on campus named for dad, mom or other generations that made their mark. It’s those minorities – you know, because minorities have always had it so great in America.

Actually America has never been a meritocracy, not since the land-owning, white male Founding Fathers set the rules. I have nothing against those guys. I revere the vision they showed in writing down the words in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that made room for ideals far beyond their imaginations.

I also have no problem with affirmative action used to broaden the pool of candidates for those jobs and those spots at Yale – like a George W. Bush, joking about how far you can rise as a C-student. Every class needs some C-students, as well as the athletes, musicians and folks from far-away states who get consideration, too.

Chelsea Clinton’s transcript was probably more sparkling than most. She’s seen the world – courtesy of a White House address – and I’m not mad at her. In her shoes, I would have traveled the globe and taken plenty of notes on the way. She’s young and trim and blonde with a killer last name (see the two ladies mentioned above) – never a hindrance. That’s fine, too. Television wants ratings and the curious will tune in both to compliment and snipe; but they will tune in. Clinton knows that her name carries a burden, as well – people will judge based on what they think they know about her family -- and she’s willing to do some good with it.

In America, the tangible privileges of inherited wealth and name and connections, embodied in the phrase “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know” are in no danger of disappearing. Those without will have to perhaps live with having their own hard work dismissed with whispers of “affirmative action,” usually by others fighting for what’s left and willing to pounce on any whiff of unfairness. They don’t demand that same standard to those privileged by blessings most can only dream of, the ones for whom affirmative action is the only kind of action they’ve ever known.

We all work with what we’ve got. It’s called life.

By  |  01:47 PM ET, 12/15/2011

 
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