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Affirmative action

I’ve just finished David Remnick’s The Bridge, a biography of Barack Obama, and it’s a first class read. Not coming directly out of the book, but always in the overall scenario of a black man becoming President, is the cultural and economic straitjacket most Afro-Americans are born to, and have an enormous struggle escaping from. And it made me think of “affirmative action” as a social and economic tool.

When most of us think of “affirmative action” we remember the Bakke case where a white was excluded from medical school because a black with fewer qualifications was given a special spot. This was a hugely important case but it was not decided in the US Supreme Court on the issue of affirmative action per se, but on an interpretation of the Civil Rights case. The court did not decide that affirmative action was, in itself, wrong. And the Justices were all over the lot in their reasons.

Many cases of affirmative action arose out of contracts, mostly in the South, where “Jim Crow” rules gave public contracts, for example for construction, to companies in which most employees were white even though the area itself had substantial, sometimes majority black populations.

I long opposed “affirmative action” on the basis that the most competent should not be artificially shunted aside to make room for the less qualified – but I changed. I changed because I realized the enormous system of mass affirmative action I benefited from and that it had very little to do with talent.

I was born to a white, middle class family in the west side of Vancouver. From childhood on I was with the “establishment” class and their children. One of my brother’s godfathers was later the Lieutenant-Governor of the province. I was educated in west side schools, including four years at St. Georges Private School for Boys, as it was then known. My high school, Prince of Wales, was a small school in the heart of “establishment” Shaughnessy.

At UBC I belonged to Zeta Psi fraternity which was one of two or three whose members came from my background or a similar background in Victoria.

I married into a family where the two boys went to Shawnigan Lake for Boys and the daughter to Crofton House, where my mother had gone to school.

When I graduated in law, I had a large and very important safety net of powerful connections. I must say that over the next 50 years I damaged if not destroyed that net but that was my conscious action. I carried a chip on my shoulder against the “establishment” and refused offers to “article” with one of the established Vancouver Law firms and selected a personal injury specialist Tom Griffiths who was hated by older firms because he used juries to extract large sums from their insurance company clients.

I don’t want to give the impression that I cast aside my birthright entirely because I didn’t. For example, I’ve been a member of the Vancouver Club for 45 years. And I retain many friendships that started when I was a child.

I mention all this personal history only to demonstrate the different start in life I had than, say, someone like Dave Barrett who grew up in East Vancouver and went to schools where then, as now, people in general did not have the same advantages as those who lived west of Cambie Street.

Of course some East End kids cracked the establishment; many found their own establishment in the labour movement and left wing political parties. The fact remains, though, that their upbringing and their friends came from outside the ruling cliques in BC and Canada and they had to work much harder to make it than I did.

As I’ve proceeded through life I’ve come to understand that the simple act of birth created huge advantages for me that I had done nothing to earn. How can I then complain that those born at the wrong end of the playing field are given a “hand up” by affirmative action? How can minorities even get a fair start if they are excluded from the prosperous and influential walks of life because all the spots are occupied by people born to dominate and occupy them?

Indeed there is injustice in someone being shoved aside by another who takes his spot with fewer attainments. But, in a civil society that wants to have the playing field leveled not in a century or two but starting now, some individual injustices must be tolerated to offset the inability of others who cannot get past the door to power and prosperity because they were born outside that door.

5 Responses to “Affirmative action”

  1. Jean says:

    I agree Rafe. I have had a similar argument with my brother who felt that a sort of “affirmative action” can take place with women vs men.
    Mind you when you look at the power structure that still exists in our society….women have not made that much progress. Those who have had it all their way for generations need to suck it up a bit so that those who have had little or no opportunity due to the color of their skin, their sex or whatever can have a fair chance…or at least “fairer” I do think that competency still has to come in to play or you are just giving the have-nots charity…rather than a chance.

  2. Dudley says:

    Since there is no justice no matter where we look, it is important that those on the wrong side of the tracks get a chance to get ahead.

  3. Randy says:

    This new blog post is personal, nuanced, and respectful, in my humble opinion, a tough balance to strike on such a heated subject. Just mentioning Bakke sends shivers through many.
    I worked for several years in the UN. It might seem that you could hardly find a more diverse and multi-cultural place where any manner of inadvertent slights are possible, and balancing ethnic and gender diversity throughout the hierarchy is intensely political and watched by all. In fact, it is a highly privileged place, where Oxford grads mix with Stanford Phds and neither speak English as their mother tongue. Its diversity is more cultural than economic or class-related, if such distinction is possible.
    The most important lesson I learned–and this was a deeply emotional lesson–was to respect everyone I worked with first as an individual and then as a social being from a sometimes radically different cultural and historical mindset. Of course, they may have turned their back on their culture as likely as being trapped by it. One can never know how this manifests, and culture is so multifaceted that you’ll find radical feminists from South Asia who support arranged marriages.
    But getting to the question of equal opportunity, that moral gold standard that lies at the heart of civil and gender rights legislation globally, the issue is always whether equality is measured as a potential or actual state of being. Horatio Alger taught us that any (white) (male) person could achieve anything. President Obama has perhaps extended that sense of an apparent equality of potential to Americans of African racial heritage.
    But of course affirmative action policies and programs arose because the theoretical equal potential opportunity “under law” of every race, class, or gender was rarely if ever realized when looking at broad sociological data. The evidence of widespread, debilitating, and pernicious discrimination was obvious, and some means of redress had to be identified. Quotas, set-asides, differential standards, and all manner of other tricks were then used as highly blunt instruments to “correct” or “improve” the sociological data. The effort was of course focussed entirely on the data, and never on the people themselves. There was push-back as new winners and losers were created, in an apparently arbitrary fashion. The deck looked like it was shuffled, just a little bit, but it remained stacked.
    While the global response to discrimination that came to be known as affirmative action was certainly understandable and perhaps necessary, it failed in one crucial respect; it did not deal with people in a respectful manner.
    Respect is a tough lesson to teach, and even more difficult to learn, but it is the currency of a socially just society. Without it, we are all just playing games with each other and are the basest of all creatures.
    Respect is the felt acknowledgement that a man or woman may want to take time off work to raise a child or care for a parent. Respect is also the felt acknowledgement that such arrangements will cause significant stress for and impose costs on those who remain at work. Respect is recognizing that there are many ways to accomplish a task, and often the most elegant, sustainable, or money saving ideas come from the weakest, youngest, or oldest members of a team. They might seem to ‘think different’ or to bring the “strength of their weaknesses” to the task. Either way, a task often gets done better if we respect that everyone has something to contribute.
    So affirmative action is really a failure to engage this ‘inner work’ of learning respect and applying it evenly and appropriately, never pandering and always expecting the best. A just society creates true equality of opportunity, equality in outcome, through mutual respect. For everyone else, there is affirmative action.

  4. Stephen Tait says:

    “Blessed are the peacemakers, eh?” Thankfully, Enough People like Rafe are around to keep the faith. Affiramtive action is a response to social justice. Sometimes it takes a little audacity to keep the human world moving forward.

  5. J. David Cox says:

    Strange. I disagree. Well, I agree with it somewhat. The principle, anyway (help the downtrodden with a hand-up). But I do not agree with the practice and the practice, to my way of thinking, is as bigoted and biased as anything ever faced by a minority in this country. Neutrality I agree with. That is as far as I go. Positive-oriented bias is just bias from a different point of view.
    In my own case (which colours me darkly, I know), I was in 13 different schools before graduation. The eastside was something to aspire to. I was the only white kid in an all black school in San Franciso for a year. My parents were so poor that we got C.A.R.E packages once and lived several times in officially ‘condemned’ houses. Twice in a dirt floor garages. I worked full-time after school since I was 11. So there were few if any advantages to being white in my life and I think that was true for many poor people. Poverty and circumstance doesn’t choose by colour.
    As I grew older, I was discriminated against for being male, white and, as I got ahead, so-called ‘establishment’ because I spoke well, read a lot and learned as much as I could. I was also raised to have good manners. And yes, I was invited at one point to even join the Vancouver Club and I responded with a gracious ‘No thanks’. I allied with Groucho on that one.
    The point: skin colour should mean NOTHING. Not good. Not bad. Same with gender. If you can make an ‘action’ policy that is neutral, I am in favour. But favouring one over another for any reason other than ‘worthiness’ (and I count worthiness as opposed to qualifications or connections because ‘good attitude’ is the prime criteria for me) is just that: favouritism.

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