There are a number of things about Senator Jim Webb's op-ed "The Myth of White Privilege" to dislike, starting with the fact that one of the awesome things about the existence of white privilege is that you can be part of a body like the U.S. Senate, which has a total number of zero elected black members, and write something titled "The Myth of White Privilege" without anyone batting an eyelash. That said, Webb's op-ed is considerably more nuanced than the title, acknowledging that "The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history," although he makes the same mistake as Ross Douthat in repeating the conservative frame of zero-sum competition between whites and people of color.
For some reason, Webb sees the existence of poor whites as proof white privilege doesn't exist, when it's largely a non sequitur. The existence of Southie or Appalachia does not change the fact that a white man with a prison record has an easier time than a black person without one. But what I find really remarkable is this:
The old South was a three-tiered society, with blacks and hard-put whites both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power. At the height of slavery, in 1860, less than 5% of whites in the South owned slaves. The eminent black historian John Hope Franklin wrote that "fully three-fourths of the white people in the South had neither slaves nor an immediate economic interest in the maintenance of slavery."
Webb cites President Franklin Roosevelt's study of poverty and the region and notes, "Generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture." How true. The gaping hole in Webb's argument, however, is that, as Ira Katznelson has written, the entire force of the American state spent decades helping the white people of the region to the exclusion of African Americans, at the behest of their representatives in the Democratic Party. The Social Security Act's three major provisions were constructed to deliberately exclude blacks, and previous programs with federal money aimed at the relief of poverty also gave discretion to the states for how to spend them precisely so Southern states could make sure they weren't being spent on black people. The National Labor Relations Act was constructed to exclude blacks, the GI Bill gave fewer benefits to black soldiers than to white soldiers, and the Federal Housing Authority's discrimination helped build the modern wealth gap between blacks and whites. These efforts "treated whites as a fungible monolith," to borrow Webb's own language, and in concert with other economic factors, helped speed the integration of white ethnics while maintaining a caste-system based on skin color. As if it isn't also obvious, the price for maintaining a system of apartheid in the South was diminishing the potential economic impact of these programs by excluding a large part of the region's residents.
I'm not uncomfortable with the government using its power to help poor people of any color, or people who are discriminated against. But to write about the poverty of the South without acknowledging the decades of massive government effort geared exclusively toward aiding white people is rather astonishing. More astonishing, perhaps, is that Webb, like all affirmative-action opponents, seems to forget the rather large number of white people helped by affirmative action. Webb notes that Johnson's "initial program for affirmative action" was grounded in the 13th Amendment. Sure. But arguing that Johnson meant for affirmative action simply to address the unique history of discrimination faced by African Americans is incorrect. It was Johnson, after all, who included "creed" and "national origin," along with "race" and "color," and in 1967 expanded his original executive order to include women. It's one thing for Republicans, who oppose government efforts to help the disadvantaged on ideological principle, to focus on race in arguments about affirmative action (or FinReg, or Health Care, etc.) because they think that this is the quickest way to get white people angry. But it's surprising to hear from a Democrat, especially one so clearly concerned with the stark racial injustices of the U.S. prison system.
Johnson's decision hints at affirmative action's real purpose, one that has been muddied by the legal arguments that have been necessary to keep it alive. The purpose is not merely the "compelling state interest in diversity," it is to help correct the societal biases, conscious and unconscious, that continue to curtail opportunity for certain groups of Americans. The fact that affirmative action, which is a relatively mild form of government action compared to the Democratic Party's deliberate creation of a modern whites-only welfare state, arouses so much anger is evidence of how powerful such biases continue to be.
In general, the argument over affirmative action is broad and non-specific, and we don't discuss whether we mean college admissions, employment, or allocation of government contracts. I'm comfortable with moving to a more class-based system of affirmative action in college admissions, and I think a more aggressive class-based system might actually work better at creating diversity. But the fact remains that no one knows a white person is an Irish Protestant or a Baptist when they walk into a job interview. They do know when someone is black, and they know when someone is a woman, and we all know that still matters.
Finally, Pat Buchanan did not get into trouble merely for "pointing out that if Elena Kagan is confirmed to the Supreme Court, there will not be a single Protestant Justice." That remark was received in the context of Buchanan being someone whose definition of whiteness excludes white Jews and whose definition of Americanness excludes anyone who is not white. He believes any social advancement for people of color or non-Christians is necessarily to the detriment of white Americans, who are the people to whom America truly belongs. That perhaps, explains why Buchanan didn't resign from the Reagan administration in protest when Justice Antonin Scalia was picked because Reagan thought, "We don't have an Italian American on the court, so we ought to have one." After all, if there's any lesson from history in all this, it's that certain forms of affirmative action aren't very controversial.