The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Trevor Phillips, head of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality, has caused a small furor by floating the suggestion that black boys should be taught in segregated classes for their own good.

I have no opinion in this matter, except to note that Mr. Phillips is at least focused on the correct problem: increasing performance, rather than mandating acceptance.

Before the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960's, there is no question that blacks were actively discriminated against; that is, from an economic point of view, they were offered lesser positions than their qualifications would have merited. Today, with affirmative action widespread, I think it is universally accepted that blacks will often be offered better positions than merited on the basis of qualifications. The debate over affirmative action is a disagreement over whether this is a good thing.

In attempting to correct negative discrimination, the Civil Rights movement was swimming downstream -- they were bringing causes (the offer of a university place or a good job) into line with effects (intelligence, training and diligence), when the two had previously been separated by racism. In going beyond that, today's affirmative action proponents are attempting to again separate the two.

But people are not so easily fooled. One of the highest hurdles for a black man or woman to overcome, when entering the workplace, is the widely held suspicion that perhaps he has been the beneficiary of placement beyond his qualifications. This prejudice is going to be even harder to eradicate than the racism of fifty years ago, because it has an ineluctable truth behind it -- and even if that cause is removed, the suspicion will taint every potential past beneficiary for a generation. The government lacks the power to make people ignore this -- it is swimming upstream, and the current does not slacken.

Such is the lasting legacy of affirmative action.