Monday, April 07, 2003

Soon we will be hearing from the Supremes. Not the musical group, but the court. Perhaps they will rule affirmative action as we know it illegal. Perhaps they will merely rule affirmative action as Michigan University knows it illegal. Perhaps they'll even uphold it. There's been plenty of speculation on that - and plenty of people asking if fairness to certain groups requires or forbids affirmative action. I won't add to either side of these questions. Instead I want to ask another question. Is affirmative action a compelling interest not just of individual universities but of the country as a whole? Of course a few benefit clearly and directly and a few are harmed clearly and directly, but what happens to the majority of us?

It's worth noting that nations often fragment along racial lines. Not that every civil war is primarily about ethnic loyalties, but many are. Of course the United States is nowhere near that point. Those who have spoken of a division do not truly seem to take themselves seriously in preparing to give up their jobs (and lives) for the cause. Yet I suggest there is a continuum. Historically organized crime usually seems to be, umm, organized on predominantly racial lines. The advantages of this - for the criminals - are not hard to see. If a criminal gang is dominated by an ethnic group of people who don't tend to do as well on the average in getting legitimate jobs, it's easy to detect recruits. There is a group loyalty that comes from an element of shared culture - and a feeling of having been screwed by the same enemy. The most intelligent and determined members of that ethnic group may feel the deck is stacked against them in the legitimate world, so that this criminal enterprise is the only place they have a hope of getting to the top. Even if a member wants to go to the police, they suspect they won't be trusted.

Of course, many people from every ethnic group have done very well in the United States. I am not speaking of wrongdoing - few with this difficulty have done better than the United States, a great many have done worse. Yet I don't think that since the world began you have had a country where citizens of one ethnic group were consistantly worse off than citizens of other ethnic groups, and there has not been violence in proportion to the difference. Let's be pragmatic. Even above and beyond the fact that the desperately poor are more prone to violent crime for gain than other groups, those who have reason to believe that an external factor they were born with and can never change contributing to the problem seem to have a special risk factor - and when groups of the band together, homeless cats and dogs can become wolves and lions. It is a compelling interest, not just for individual universities, but for the nation as a whole. Of course there are some who would turn to crime regardless, and some who will do right no matter how much it costs them, but for many in the middle a little bit of reverse discrimination to counter all the ordinary discrimination which nobody can ever prove in individual cases although scientific studies have shown it statistically might go a long way.

Of course there are other problems as well. What about those who succeed without any benefit of affirmative action - and then have people fail to respect their success because they erroneously assume it was helped by affirmative action? Yet somehow nobody discounts the children of the rich and priviledged because they believe their family names helped them get into good schools. Somehow people don't seem to resent that in the same way. If we as a nation can come to accept that this is for all of us, perhaps the anger and fear that provoke people to feel their jobs and scholarships are being given to 'them' will fade.

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