The New York Times, in an editorial, “False Equality in Michigan,” Oct. 14, correctly noted the abuse of ballot initiatives, in this case the passage of an amendment to the state constitution banning race-conscious college admissions policies (here arising from U. of M. Law School case), even though in violation of a US Supreme Court ruling sanctioning such policies, therefore bringing the issue once again before the Court. This compelled me to rethink the question of affirmative action, not on such legal grounds as the position’s validation via the equal protection clause, but in terms of the limitations imposed on social policy by a society increasingly authoritarian and militaristic in its political-historical development and cultural values. The context: despite gains earned through the civil-rights struggle and a numerically significant antiwar movement (both given ample justification by the persistence of racism, on one hand, and consecutive interventions and a global counterrevolutionary posture, on the other), efforts toward structural democratization have a) fallen short of achievement, b) been checked by a systemic core of corporate power, and c) reflect a half-century and more (starting with post-World War II McCarthyite anticommunism and the purging of dissent, and continuing through successive pressures toward conformity and consumerism) of a Rightward shift of the political-ideological spectrum in which Centrism itself has objectively moved several notches to the Right. This is essential to an understanding of Affirmative Action, and equally, the wall of opposition to it.
In such straitened circumstances, democracy is stifled, gasping for air, with the result that any positive gain is magnified out of all proportion, pronounced “radical” simply for having succeeded or even gotten off the ground. So with affirmative action. It appears terribly advanced (to both sides) for a society used to relegating race to the margins of public policy—proponents satisfied that a bold step had been taken, opponents, in typical psychological falling-domino mindset, fearful of the end of (white) civilization as they know it. Stepping back, one sees that both are wrong, that, in fact, affirmative action is a band-aid, a “solution” to racial inequality and discrimination entirely within the framework of the status quo. For what it does at the outset, as though done with foresight (although I reject conspiracy-theories of all kinds and chalk this up to a common awareness of outcomes), is give minimal ground to racial minorities in the hope of channeling them into safe institutional pathways and thereby keep the social peace. The result appears, even to radicals, salutary, and given the opposition, as witness the Michigan amendment and contemplation of similar action in other states, it is. But it is not good enough, and, if anything, blinds one to the necessity for further action pointing in the direction of genuine societal transformation (not the Obama ballyhoo and slogan-mongering about change and transformation—outright deception in the service of ruling groups).
The Times editorial made me realize, because of its sincere liberalism and well-intentionality, precisely how inadequate such a position, mine included, has always been: a battlefront which resolutely remains on the surface, permitting society in all essential things—including hierarchy, class-differentiations in income, wealth, and power, a gigantic war machine and military ethos, abject failure to confront major problems from job creation to climate change—to stay unchanged. The nub of the matter is this: Unless there is structural democratization of the social order, such that society’s resources are directed to the security, well-being, and education of every individual, and most important, the child, then affirmative action is hollow because it leaves the myriad inequalities and degradations of society otherwise intact. This raises a further question—the nature of American society, and inevitably, the social priorities inherent in capitalism, nominally a political economy, but in reality inseparable from America itself.
America lacks nationhood. It is composed of corporate satrapies moving ever further toward a unified, consolidated ruling class, a cohesiveness of power, impregnated with military aspiration and purpose, that rejects equality as the root-condition to be satisfied in any meaningful conception of democracy, equality qua the inherent dignity of every human being. Period. No fudging, no outs. Instead, what we find is the tremendous misallocation of America’s resources, to the detriment of its potentialities as a humane society, and the deprivation of life’s opportunities to a large proportion of its citizens (which, through curtailing their growth, and the subsequent enrichment to be shared, denies full growth to the privileged as well). Why? Wherefore? Only an hegemonic compulsive-obsessive framework, rejecting the moral-social obligations of government to its people, would encourage, require, and mandate the sacrifice of whole segments of its population—hence, the absence of true nationhood—on the altar of militarism.
There is no reason, given America’s wealth, that every school in the nation should not have the support necessary to ensure every pupil at every level the learning experience to qualify for and receive a college education. No, the results would not be identical; not everyone is an Einstein. Not everyone has the same inclinations and aptitudes to, say, be a history professor at Harvard or Yale (Heaven forfend!). But at least he and she will have the advantage, with society an enormous cheering section at each child’s back, to form and develop an individual identity, as opposed to now, where military recruiters hover over high-school graduating classes waiting to pounce. That, of course, is the least of the military’s sins and those who act as enablers—POTUS, Congress, the business and banking communities, etc. Thus, if America were instilled with the spirit and reality of nationhood, none would be marginalized as a “bad” investment in the future, none called to do battle for General Electric or Boeing or JP Morgan Chase, all treated as worthy of attention and respect, so that every applicant for college admissions, enjoying the same starting point by virtue of society’s prioritizing its raison d’etre to be, not global superpower #1, but the elevation of each individual to citoyen #1, with every right society has it within its powers to bestow, then perhaps affirmative action would go the way of the dodo.
Can capitalism afford to invite full human emancipation through the reduction of the military to an absolute minimum? I think the answer is plain. Even when war, intervention, forcible trade-and-investment penetration and ideological influence are not necessary to domestic and global profit-maximization, the military establishment is the excellent conduit for siphoning off the national wealth so that the US does not have to have, among its many other current deficiencies, from the deterioration of infrastructure to the stagnation of wages and income among the bottom-half of the population, the means of educating each pupil to the highest standards possible. In that light, affirmative action is the trickle-down paradigm of giving an inch rather than building a democratic society at its foundations.
My New York Times Comment to the aforementioned editorial follows (Oct. 14):
“…race-conscious admission policies may further a compelling governmental interest in educational diversity.” Emphatically Yes. But something more has to be said. Affirmative action lets government off the hook by ensuring a universalization of admissions, while not fulfilling its societal obligation of constructing, financing, staffing, promoting an educational system in which disparities of educational achievement no longer exist. Hence, true equality, from the standpoint of education, at the foundation of American society.
This would require the bold commitment to authenticating the value of diversity in ways never achieved or even seen. Perhaps the New Deal style of approach: a national commitment to educational excellence for all, as opposed to the underfinancing of ghettoized schools. By New Deal I mean, not be fearful of cries of socialism when addressing the general welfare. But I also would take the further step: Recognize how the military budget is eating out the vitals of American society. Not guns vs. butter, but global hegemony vs. the stunting of American youth.
Our social priorities are way out of joint. It is heartbreaking to see youngsters knowing their dreams of self-fulfillment, a decent career, family security, may never open because of the structural-cultural valuing of sheer power and wealth over human betterment. If I were in that position, forehead pressed to the window, I know I’d be resentful. Beyond the social peace–justice to all.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch in the fall of 2013.