America no longer has a race problem--or, at any rate, a racial discrimination problem. And if it does, the group most likely to be discriminated against is: white men.
I don't believe any of that, of course, and it's hard to see how any nonracist American can. But many do. As you might guess, I've been reading my mail again.
The anti-affirmative action mail no longer surprises. What does is the number of readers who weighed in to question Bill and Melinda Gates's billion-dollar scholarship pledge to bright minority youngsters. Surely no idea is more fundamentally conservative than the right of rich people to do what they will with their own money. But listen:
"What would [your reaction] be if someone donated a billion dollars to be used for scholarships for needy white students? . . . Please explain why this situation is acceptable today . . . in such a way that I can feel thankful for the donation rather than resentful."
Or: "Is it true that a poor Caucasian from an economically distressed region need not apply for this scholarship? What percentage of 'minority' blood makes you eligible? I normally feel pretty middle of the road, but this strikes me as wrong and promoting the type of feeling that keeps races apart."
Or: "Had this gift been given only to whites, what article would you have written?"
These writers, and dozens like them, thought the Gates Foundation's gesture was terrific--wished something like it had been available for them. What they resented was that eligibility for the benefit was based on race and ethnicity.
The respondents, it seems to me, acknowledge that poverty or geographical isolation are serious disadvantages but imply that race is not. Most black Americans--and many other minorities as well--would argue that being nonwhite is a special disadvantage all its own. Black folk get it when standup comic Chris Rock tells white people how they really view race: "Ain't one of you would change places with me," he says. "And I'm rich!"
His point (at the risk of overinterpreting a guy whose job is to entertain) is that black people understand without having to think about it the advantage that comes from being white in America--that white people who "don't see race" are in fact blind to their own unearned and heritable advantage.
But Rock's zinger notwithstanding, many white people don't feel advantaged. Indeed, when it comes to matters like the Gateses' billion or affirmative action or various "diversity" programs, they feel disadvantaged. Just the other day, Gwen Ifill, the rapidly rising star of TV news, was telling a reporter how the networks had pursued her because of her obvious gifts, her record and that "bonus of bonuses, I'm a black woman."
There! Isn't that acknowledgment that her race is an advantage? Well, yes--but only in the context of a generalized racial disadvantage. For blacks, that context is so obvious as to be self-evident. If blackness were truly an overall advantage in television, would CNN (perhaps the most "diverse" of all the news networks) be the only one with a black anchor? Would African American and Hispanic civil rights organizations be complaining about the "white-out" or "brown-out" of the current network entertainment season? Would we even be talking about Ifill, the "first" nonwhite to moderate PBS's "Washington Week in Review"?
If Ifill enjoys racial advantage, it is rather like Colin Powell's racial advantage when he was being courted (by both parties) as a possible presidential candidate. Clearly his race made him more attractive--but in a context where being nonwhite is generally an all-but-insurmountable handicap.
One thing more. The letters underscore two distinct views of what race means. For most blacks, white privilege, like black disadvantage, is an umbrella spread over a race. What other conclusion could you draw from the fact that all but a handful of Fortune 500 CEOs are white, as are nearly all the heads of nonminority universities and 100 percent of the U.S. senators?
For my correspondents, those are stories of individual success. The fact that the holder of a particular post is, statistically, likely to be white doesn't mean that any particular white aspirant is likely to get it.
Can they really believe that all discrimination and disadvantage is individual, that racial discrimination is nothing more than a misleading abstraction?
Well, maybe they do.