Affirmative Action and Collective Responsibility
It is not surprising that affirmative action is under attack: along with welfare, it benefits a section of society with very little political clout. It is a convenient place for the displaced anger of working-class white men who have seen their real wages decrease for the past thirty years. It stirs up feelings of racism that politicians are quick to publicly denounce but even quicker to exploit. There is, however, very little serious discussion about affirmative action underway; more often it is supplanted by buzzwords such as "quotas," "set-asides," and "reverse discrimination." A serious discussion of affirmative action must begin by addressing the question of collective responsibility.
Affirmative action opponents firmly reject the notion of collective responsibility, claiming that it is unfair to punish those alive today for crimes committed by their parents. One letter to the editor received by The Progressive Review reads: "I never owned slaves, and have never discriminated against anyone. Why should I have to pay for someone else's sins? Slavery ended over a hundred years before I was born, and over seventy years before the first of my ancestors arrived in the United States." Unfortunately, responsibility for the effects of slavery and discrimination cannot be so easily shirked. Even if our direct ancestors did not participate in the slave trade, we are nevertheless members of a society that did; part of the "individual responsibility" so fervently worshipped by neo-conservatives must include taking responsibility for things done by our society. When a person becomes an American, he or she must accept not only the glory and honor of our history, but also the shame of our shared crimes. By the logic of affirmative action opponents, Germany should not have been forced to pay reparations to Israel after the Holocaust. Japanese-Americans interned during World War II did not deserve the meager compensation they finally received: their compensation unfairly "punishes" people alive today who were not alive when they were interned. The newly freed slaves did not deserve forty acres and a mule, since the forty acres would have come from publicly owned land and thus penalized people who were not slave owners. All of these redistributive programs are examples of societies paying for historical crimes. In no way are any of these programs different from affirmative action: each one takes money away from people alive today and uses it to compensate the victims of historical crimes or their descendants. Anyone who opposes affirmative action on the grounds that it unfairly punishes white men for something their ancestors did must also opposed Holocaust reparations on the same principle.
Compensation for historical crimes, however, is not the sole justification for affirmative action. It is also a method of countering the benefits that racism and sexism continue to provide to every white...