"Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch...And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time..."
But two wrongs, don't make a right, so let me try to explain why I don't think affirmative action is a wrong.
Forty-years of "advantage" cannot begin to reverse the 500 year head-start white people had (see post: Academic Admissions), or erase the economic and psychological mars that oppression has left on >40% of this country. There are still severe inequalities that prevent otherwise-qualified people from coming to the interview with a fair shot. We have a responsibility to rectify the discrimination in the classroom and in the workplace, as well as the historical head start white folks have had.
Applications for medical school are a tough business. What does it take to get in? It takes top notch grades for sure. Last year's Ohio State class had an undergraduate GPA averaging 3.7. The next biggest thing is the MCAT--OSU's average is a 33. So lets assume anyone with those numbers is fit to be a good doctor. Then what? OSU says you will need clinical and research experience, 'leadership,' 'volunteer service,' and 'extracurricular activities.' What exactly does all that mean? And how much is enough? who knows.
Maybe a candidate has a 3.7 GPA AND was a member of the biology honors society, phi beta kappa, and graduated magma cum laude. But so what? Those accolades are largely redundant. We already said a 3.7 makes you a good doctor, so stick to that qualification, and accept a student who brings other qualifications in addition. Once we have determined when a student is academically smart enough to become a doctor, lets make another priority be that she is culturally smart enough to be a good doctor. If this were more a part of our rubric, I actually think a lot fewer white people would qualify.
Too many employers stop at the 'cast the net wide' part of creating an open interview process. They figure they will advertise widely and then just choose the best candidate. But this strategy ignores the systematic advantages that white people have to making it through the interview process (or even TO the interview process).
Many studies show that when resumes are close or identical in their content, black candidates are more likely to loose out on the job. White folk have the right hair, the right cloths, the right accent. How must it feel to worry whether wearing your hair the way God put in on your head will keep you from getting a job?
Notice that, after it was brought to their attention, the Apostles recognized and acknowledged that an injustice was occurring. They didn't dismiss the complaint, or claim that the Hellenistic Jews were just trying gain an unfair advantage. They didn't blame the victim, or claim it was a "Greek problem" to be solved by the Greek community. They stepped up a fixed the situation. And what happened? "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith"
UPDATE (05/13/11)--Ta-Nehisi Coates articulates some good points in this article Black Privilege for The Atlantic:
There are some legitimate criticisms of Affirmative Action. I think this is one of the dumbest: the underlying premise is that society is generally fair, and no one receives a leg up ever, except black people. Or it assumes that such advantages exist, but negritude, in the nation of white leagues, black codes, and red lines, imparts the sort of boost heretofore unwitnessed.
But the history of America, itself, is, in no small measure, the history of an Affirmative Action program for white people. Mitt Romney was born in a Detroit neighborhood where the deed read:
"Said lots shall not be sold or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race. But this shall not be interpreted to exclude occupancy by persons other than of the Caucasian race when such occupancy is incidental to their employment on the premises."
In other words, the neighborhood, like virtually every nice neighborhood in Detroit, and many throughout the country, was a giant set-aside for white people who didn't want to compete with blacks. But no one feels that Mitt Romney achievements--or the achievements of white people in general--are tainted by red-lining. No one says, "Would Mitt Romney have succeeded without race preferences?"
...I've talked repeatedly about my concerns with race-based Affirmative Action. But none of those concerns involve ill-gotten goods. Who is the successful human who can claim that they have never, not once, been advantaged by society? And who, with honesty and intelligence, would seriously claim that, among those advantages, black privilege is king?