Cultural Affirmative Action

In a way, I prefer the old, overt affirmative action.  While it was government-sanctioned discrimination, at least it was, in some measure, more honest than our cultural affirmative action.  There is such a thing.  It's when people in the market and media privilege others -- sometimes unconsciously -- based upon the latter's identification with a "victim group."

Probably a majority of Americans in some degree or other practice cultural affirmative action. They have the best of intentions, many feeling an obligation to right history's wrongs. And they point to continuing disparities disadvantaging blacks as a group. So they make an extra effort to be sensitive and maybe once in awhile the ones with power even let their thumb rest on the scale when it comes to redressing past grievances

This phenomenon is what Geraldine Ferraro referred to recently when she addressed Barack Obama's meteoric political rise and said, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."  Pundits have condemned her for this unfashionable utterance, but it's no insight.  It's a truth hiding in plain sight. 

What do you think Bill Clinton was referring to when he said that he wanted his cabinet to "look like America," meritocracy or quota orthodoxy?  Yet Clinton isn't alone; he merely gave voice to common practice.  Would Joycelyn Elders (the poster girl for AA) have been Surgeon General if she weren't a black woman?  Would Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O'Connor have ascended to the Supreme Court and Janet Reno been Attorney General if they weren't female?  And, as Ferraro noted herself, she would never have been the 1984 vice-presidential candidate but for her fairer-sex status. 

Cultural affirmative action manifests itself in all arenas, not just politics.  A perfect example is Michelle Wie, the female golfer who set her sights on tackling the men's tour.  Based mainly on braggadocio and a fawning media bent on portraying her as an Amazon golfer who would teach the boys a lesson or two, she was granted entry into numerous PGA tournaments, even though untold numbers of male golfers were more deserving.  Of course, some will point out that she is quite gifted.  Others will say that the market spoke.

That is my point.

Sure, Wie is no duffer, just as the other folks I mentioned have their talents; Ginsberg, O'Connor and Reno know how to negotiate the law, Ferraro understands politics and Elders can provide comic relief.  Yet ability wasn't the factor most relevant to their rise.  As for the market, that is precisely the entity that effects cultural affirmative action.  People glommed onto Wie at least partially because they believe that breaking down sex barriers is healthy and that her success would have represented another step forward in female/male equality.  Cognizant of this "market," politicians, media outlets, and others know that if their hires and appointees don't "look like America," America -- or at least its squeakiest wheels -- will look at them with suspicion.

As for Obama, I personally know of a white man in Illinois who supports him because he " ... always wanted to see one [a black man or a woman] in the White House."  


This may or may not be a wise or just practice for voters. But as with most other aspects of cultural affirmative action, we are not allowed to notice it. It is taboo. The idea that Obama's race is an asset is so true that even the scoffers sometimes unwittingly affirm it.  Writing at, Ruben Navarrette characterized Ferraro's comments as "bitter, envious and foolish" and wrote,

"As Republican strategist and CNN contributor Leslie Sanchez noted, it takes chutzpah for someone who herself benefited from the politics of gender to accuse someone else of benefiting from the politics of race."

Note that Sanchez did not say that Ferraro was wrong; she simply implied it was hypocritical for her to level such an accusation.  

Yet denial of the obvious isn't uncommon.  I heard both Bill O'Reilly and Dick Morris (whose predictions usually don't match the reliability of a weather forecast) both dismiss Ferraro's assertion.  How can politics wonks be so blind?  Or is it that they will not see?

It depends on the individual.  Some people are so imbued with leftist orthodoxy that they interpret everything through the black=oppressed/white=privileged prism and divide their world into victims and victimizers.  By their lights, the idea that a social phenomenon could benefit the former is too preposterous to consider.

They may be doing no favor to blacks with this attitude. Writing in the Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell notes a just-published book:

A very interesting book published this week shows why. In Racial Paranoia (Basic Books, $26/£15.99), the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist John L. Jackson Jr suggests that extravagant theories of white racism - from the widespread Aids rumour to Louis Farrakhan's allegation that the US actually blew up the levees to cause the deadly New Orleans floods during Hurricane Katrina - have their roots in the decorous language that mostly white leaders have invented for talking about race.

The US has not managed to eliminate racism, Mr Jackson thinks, but it has succeeded in eliminating racist talk. Remarks the slightest bit "insensitive" draw draconian punishment. White people, because they feel thoroughly oppressed by this regime, assume that it must be some kind of "gift" to minorities, especially blacks.

It is not. It is more like a torment. It renders the power structure more opaque to blacks than it has ever been, leaving what Mr Jackson calls a "scary disconnect between the specifics of what gets said and the hazy possibilities of what kinds of things are truly meant". If the historic enemies of your people suddenly began talking about you in what can fairly be called a secret code, how inclined would you be to trust in their protestations of generosity?

But then, to paraphrase George Orwell, in every age there is a big, uncomfortable truth that no one dares mention.  In many cases, this simply means lying, paying homage to the dogma of the day so as to avoid becoming anathema.  Yet in other cases the lie takes a more subtle form.

Discerning an unfashionable truth presents one with a dilemma.  He either must profess it, which can mean career destruction and ostracism -- being loathed by others -- or he can refuse to do so, which, if he is sincere of heart, can mean he will loathe himself.  In other words, if he withholds it, he may feel like a phony; worse still, if asked about it, he may feel compelled to lie.  The latter especially makes it hard to like yourself.

So many choose a different route: They lie to themselves.  It isn't difficult; all that is necessary is to deny the matter its day in your mind's court.  If you simply refuse to examine all the relevant facts -- if you avoid searching for the truth -- there is little danger of finding it.  It's that famous human ability known as rationalization.

Perhaps you thought affirmative action was in its death throes, with all the state referenda and court rulings against it.  We have the cultural variety, and it will be with us a while longer. Maybe long enough for people to be able to talk about it.

Selwyn Duke is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.
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