Individual and Group

The general state of race-relations in America has recently been highlighted nationally by President Clinton’s “Dialogue on Race”, and in California by ballot propositions like 187 (limiting government benefits to illegal immigrants) and 209 (eliminating state-sponsored affirmative-action). The desire for an unemotional and realistic conversation on race — where we stand, where we are headed, and where we want to be — is noble and desirable. It seems, however, that our initial attempts have been thwarted as much by the terms of the conversation as by the subject itself: just as the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of historical discrimination were largely defined by its beneficiaries (to whom ‘race-relations’ were a closed issue), the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of the fight against discrimination — and, more generally, of our discussions about race — have been largely defined by those to whom ‘race-relations’ have historically meant ‘race-based oppression’ — to whom ‘race-relations’ were very much an open issue and a dominant factor of their lives. While this is understandable, and perhaps even just, it almost ensures that racial difference is viewed and debated as a chasm to be crossed — or into which to fall — rather than as a boundary to be transcended.

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Prop. 209: The Alternative

If “old civil rights hands” had ever, in the past, exhibited any willingness at all to “look toward possible non-partisan efforts seeking legislative or administrative remedies for such problems as may remain in affirmative action programs” Prop. 209 would never have existed.

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An Appearance of Discrimination

Proposition 209 in California abolished state-sponsored affirmative-action programs; affirmative-action in admissions for the University of California and the California State University had been eliminated earlier by a vote of the board of regents. The first reported results of the new policy were for law school admissions within the UC system, and they showed modest to drastic decreases in minority admissions; later results for other graduate and undergraduate programs showed smaller, but still significant, decreases. While those who unequivocally favor affirmative action insisted that the results proved the folly of proposition 209, I and others believe they are more properly viewed as an indicator of how ineffective affirmative action has been at addressing the problems underlying poor minority enrollment and achievement.

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White Man

The general state of race-relations in America has recently been highlighted nationally by President Clinton’s “Dialogue on Race”, and in California by ballot propositions like 187 (limiting government benefits to illegal immigrants) and 209 (eliminating state-sponsored affirmative-action). The desire for an unemotional and realistic conversation on race — where we stand, where we are headed, and where we want to be — is noble and desirable. It seems, however, that our initial attempts have been thwarted as much by the terms of the conversation as by the subject itself: just as the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of historical discrimination were largely defined by its beneficiaries (to whom ‘race-relations’ were a closed issue), the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of the fight against discrimination — and, more generally, of our discussions about race — have been largely defined by those to whom ‘race-relations’ have historically meant ‘race-based oppression’ — to whom ‘race-relations’ were very much an open issue and a dominant factor of their lives. While this is understandable, and perhaps even just, it almost ensures that racial difference is viewed and debated as a chasm to be crossed — or into which to fall — rather than as a boundary to be transcended.

Continue reading