Racism was and is a part of American culture. Most of us have probably heard or even said a racist quip or a derogatory comment on the street, in the locker room or at the water cooler. “Oh, he’s black, he must have voted for Obama.” “You know what they say, white men can’t dance.” “What do you expect? Asians can’t drive.” Sadly, the list goes on. Often, these racially charged aphorisms are not meant to be malicious or hurtful and usually they aren’t uttered by racial supremacists but rather by ordinary, well-meaning individuals. However, there are at least two unhealthy implications behind their words that ought to be questioned.
Foundational to these ethnically charged one-liners is the idea that race is a shortcut to knowledge. They incorrectly assume that an individual’s ideas, abilities, and choices are determined by the color of his or her skin. Unfortunately, this association of membership in a racial group with possession of certain character attributes still exists in American culture’s lingo despite a myriad of counterexamples that refute this notion.
Perhaps an even more egregious error of race-based jibes is their assumption of a collective racial identity. These phrases essentially define individuals by their particular ethnic group membership and presuppose not merely a list of character attributes but also a list of merits and demerits. For instance, a quip that claims black people collect welfare disproportionally to other races often will contain a moral judgment along with it. Unfortunately, the condemnation associates innocent individuals with the demerits of other members of a group. In this way collective racial identities erase moral responsibility from an individual and project it onto an entire race, most of whose members do not deserve such judgment.
By the same token, many of those ordinary people who innocently pronounce and accept such race-based maxims may genuinely desire to help improve race relations and correct the wrongs of their country’s racist history. Many even support certain political measures such as affirmative action policies in order to promote tolerance and harmony in the classroom and office. Good intentions aside, the question that remains is whether affirmative action is in fact the best method. One University of Texas applicant is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether or not it is the best this spring. Rather than wait for the judges’ ruling, we should explore affirmative action’s deeper implications and motives ourselves.
A company that practices affirmative action might purposefully hire a female Asian candidate on the assumption that because she is the member of an ethnic minority, she has a point of view that will benefit the business because it is different from the point of view of white males. When the company considers not just her resume or the white males’ portfolios but also her ancestral lineage and physical characteristics, diversity is achieved, but at what cost? Isn’t using race as a standard of a candidate’s value exactly the sort of thinking that affirmative action is meant to combat? Diversity-oriented policies like these depend on the same racial stereotypes and race-consciousness as the ethnic slurs that are widely condemned. They use knowledge of the candidates’ skin color as a shortcut to knowledge of their value.
Unfortunately, encouraging businesses and universities to evaluate applicants based on their respective ethnicity operates on another unhealthy premise, sometimes even more explicitly. Its supporters voice this idea when they contend that today’s white generation must pay for the sins of white generations past, by giving today’s black generation what black generations past were denied. The very idea of punishing an innocent individual for the crimes of other guilty individuals, under any other circumstances would be damned as unjust, and rightfully so, but affirmative action’s advocates blur the facts using language like “reparations for segregation,” “preventing future injustice,” or “erasing historical…inequalities” so that the concepts of unearned punishment and unearned rewards are squeezed out of the debate arena.
However, essential to their entire argument is the assumption that members of an ethnic group share a collective identity: each shares in the successes and failures of the others. This question is then swept under the rug time and time again: Is a man guilty of another man’s failures by association of race or are a man’s failures his and his alone? Affirmative action policies effectively maintain that there is no individual, only a group, and that the group’s shared achievements and faults rub off onto its members. But how can we hope to progress beyond judging individuals based on race if the alleged solution to racism detaches merits and demerits from individuals and lumps one’s moral status with a group’s average?
The antidote to our culture’s race-consciousness is not affirmative action but rather a reorienting our minds toward judging others based on their values, desires, and accomplishments. Every person has a unique, independent intellect capable of success and shortcomings. The female Asian candidate and white male candidates from the previous example ought to be judged on what they bring to the company in terms of skills and merit. When race is thought to define values and character—when ancestry and biochemistry are the criteria for an individual’s worth, not one’s thoughts and actions—racism wins. Affirmative action is merely a symptom of the problem of racism not the solution to racism.
There is no hope to diminishing the use of derogatory one-liners, ethnic profiling, and discriminatory actions of an entire society by encouraging the use of race as a standard in the corporate and educational sectors. The answer to discrimination is much deeper, yet much simpler than a political policy. By challenging our own and others’ racial stereotypes we challenge the very premise that individuals must be grouped based on physical characteristics. Instead, we must do our best to judge others as human beings who have independent ideas, desires, and accomplishments. By recognizing this philosophy of individualism, we can progress beyond skin-deep differences peacefully and productively.