The great man we honored again last week had a dream. It was of a nation where people are “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Let’s measure our progress on the 53-year-old dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In some areas, our progress has been impressive. It’s no longer socially acceptable to express racism. There will always be a few misanthropes of various colors, I suppose, but today they mostly hide their racism.
And it’s not just our social constructs that have become more protective but also our laws. It is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of race in hotels, restaurants, housing or employment. The days of Bull Connor and George Wallace barring blacks from public buildings are gone forever.
Freed of those societal and legal shackles, blacks have ascended to the highest levels of government, medicine, law, education, science and business. We’ve elected black mayors in dozens of big cities. A black neurosurgeon is running (as a Republican!) for president.
And he wouldn’t be the first black president. In a moment I thought I would never live to see, we elected a black president seven years ago. His election spoke to the greatness of the nation and its people (can you imagine this happening in Japan or France?), the progress of blacks within it and his own personal achievement as a black man.
But not all is good. Apart from some notable individual black achievements, progress for blacks in general has been frustratingly slow.
The black homicide rate is seven times the rate for whites. The black abortion rate is four times the white rate. The black unemployment rate is double the white rate. The black illegitimacy rate is now 75 percent. Polls say that race relations are the worst they’ve been since the O.J. Simpson trial.
Why? There may be a clue in the experience of a different disadvantaged minority in America.
In that same 53-year period since King dreamed of a promised land here, a wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia made one. These Vietnamese “boat people” arrived after weeks on small boats with nothing but the tattered clothes they were wearing. Most spoke little or no English. In scarcely a generation, they have succeeded in America.
The reasons are complex, but one difference between Asian-Americans and black Americans lies in affirmative action. That’s the name for programs in which some minorities are favored not on the content of their character but on the color of their skin.
Asians are not one of those favored minorities. In fact, it’s just the opposite. To gain admission to Harvard, for example, Asians need an SAT score about 140 points higher than similarly credentialed whites and 450 points higher than similarly credentialed blacks.
While it’s now illegal and unacceptable to discriminate against blacks in order to benefit whites, it’s now legal and politically correct to discriminate against Asians in order to benefit blacks.
This social engineering has produced some unintended consequences. Blacks whom it was designed to help have often been harmed.
One harm is that blacks are enticed into prestigious colleges where they lack the academic background to succeed. And so they often fail. The black dropout rate at those colleges is much higher than the white rate. That doesn’t happen as often with Asians because they are not admitted to colleges for which they are underqualified.
Another unintended consequence of affirmative action is stigma. Some Americans encountering a successful black man wonder whether he’s one who got there on his merit or if he’s one who is the product of affirmative action doing what it’s designed to do. That’s bad enough for a black man in that second category but is a tragedy for one in the first.
This, too, does not happen with Asians. People know that Asians got where they got on merit, not skin color. Because in the affirmative action color scheme, their particular color clashes.
This contrast suggests that affirmative action, though well-intentioned, is a failure. That’s the opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court. He said the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is not reverse discrimination. Rather, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Morally, legally and pragmatically, Roberts is correct. Two wrongs do not make a civil right.
But neither does one wrong. I think affirmative action is part of the problem, but I have no illusions that it is all of it. Sometimes I wonder if America’s intractable race problem is atonement for her original sin of slavery — a sin for which she’ll never be redeemed.
The greatest country in history might be fatally flawed. Pray for us, Rev. King.
(Published in the Aspen Times on Jan. 24, 2016 at http://www.aspentimes.com/opinion/20230109-113/beaton-still-dreaming)