When Affirmative Action Was White.

Over the weekend, Adam Serwer did a Bloggingheads with Amy Wax, author of Race, Wrongs, and Remedies and professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. At the core of her book is a challenge to liberals who believe that government action is necessary to alleviate economic disparities between whites and African Americans. By her lights, the state is incapable of changing the destructive culture that she sees as inhibiting black success. In the end, she argues, only blacks can help themselves achieve equality, through a dramatic change in habits and cultural patterns.

I actually don't recommend that you watch the whole segment; Wax is clearly uninterested in having a discussion with Adam and spends the vast majority of her time interrupting him with points like "white immigrants have a superior culture." The dialogue is an hour long, but you never get a sense of Adam's points because Wax never gives him the space to make them. Which is a shame, since Adam's main counterpoint -- that government can and does impact cultural patterns -- is a really good one. Wax clearly doesn't like this, but the simple fact is that after the World War II, the federal government embarked on a huge effort to integrate whites and white ethnics into a coherent middle class. The GI Bill, for instance, gave billions in home, business and educational loans to returning veterans and their families, giving them tremendous opportunities where none previously existed.

Officially and unofficially, these benefits were denied to black veterans and their families. Whereas white families began their migration to the suburbs, black families were confined -- by law and custom -- to urban centers and rural areas. Millions of white veterans took advantage of the GI Bill's generous education loans to attend college. By contrast, discrimination in higher education kept black veterans restricted to a small and scattered number of HBCUs. Thanks to government sanction and indifference, whites were kept from competing with blacks, and blacks were kept from competing at all. And it's not just the GI Bill; the Federal House Administration, the Social Security Act -- these brought millions of whites into the middle class, while specifically excluding African Americans.

If Wax were actually interested in grappling with the relationship between government and culture, she would have to deal with the fact that government action set the conditions for a wholesale movement of white ethnics from the working-class and into the middle class. She could still make her argument -- maybe some cultures are too resistant to change -- but it would be a little harder. Having watched the entire Bloggingheads segment, something tells me this is why she couldn't be bothered to listen to Adam.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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