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Shelby Steele -- Affirmative Action Doesn't Solve the Real Problem

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Disparate impact and racial preferences represent the law and policymaking of a guilty America, an America lacking the moral authority to live by the rigors of the Constitution's "equal protection" -- a guarantee that sees victims as individuals and requires hard evidence to prove discrimination. They are "white guilt" legalisms created after the '60s as fast tracks to moral authority. They apologize for presumed white wrongdoing and offer recompense to minorities before any actual discrimination has been documented. Yet these legalisms are much with us now. And it will no doubt take the courts a generation or more to disentangle all this apology from the law.

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But fortunately race relations in America are not much driven by the courts. We argue over affirmative action and disparate impact because we don't know how to talk about our most profound racial problem: the lack of developmental parity between blacks and whites. Today a certain contradiction runs through black American life. As many of us still suffer from deprivations caused by historical racism, we also live in a society where racism is simply no longer a significant barrier to black advancement -- a society so sensitized that even the implication of racism, as in the Henry Louis Gates case, triggers a national discussion.

We blacks know oppression well, but today it is our inexperience with freedom that holds us back almost as relentlessly as oppression once did. Out of this inexperience, for example, we miss the fact that racial preferences and disparate impact can only help us -- even if they were effective -- with a problem we no longer have. The problem that black firefighters had in New Haven was not discrimination; it was the fact that not a single black did well enough on the exam to gain promotion.

Today's "black" problem is underdevelopment, not discrimination. Success in modernity will demand profound cultural changes -- changes in child-rearing, a restoration of marriage and family, a focus on academic rigor, a greater appreciation of entrepreneurialism and an embrace of individual development as the best road to group development.

Whites are embarrassed to speak forthrightly about black underdevelopment, and blacks are too proud to openly explore it for all to see. So, by unspoken agreement, we discuss black underdevelopment in a language of discrimination and injustice. We rejoin the exhausted affirmative action debate as if it really mattered, and we do not acknowledge that this underdevelopment is primarily a black responsibility. And yet it is -- as historically unfair as it may be, as much as it seems to blame the victim. In human affairs we are responsible not just for our "just" fate, but also for our existential fate.

But continuing black underdevelopment will flush both races out of their postures and make most discussions of race in America, outside a context of development, irrelevant.

Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author of "White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era."

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