Just when it looked like Washington, D.C., was about to blast off for another planet, something happened to bring it back to earth. Democracy and states’ rights won one at the expense of affirmative action.
What the Supreme Court ruled was that the people of Michigan had the right to put a clause in their Constitution forbidding racial and gender preferences. The vote wasn’t even close, with six justices voting in support of the will of the people.
Predictably, the left, which increasingly sees itself as the exclusive arbiter of what the will of the people should be, had a collective meltdown, starting with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who accused her fellow justices (including, irony of ironies, Clarence Thomas) of not knowing how bad racial and gender discrimination is in this country.
Well, how bad can it be when a brown-skinned female of Puerto Rican descent, a graduate of Yale Law School, and a successful lawyer, judge and political activist, is on the Supreme Court? And sits alongside a black man raised in segregated poverty in Savannah, Ga.? At the same time that a mixed-race but self-identified black man is president? As is the Attorney General of the U.S.?
It’s almost beyond parody. I’d love to see Saturday Night Live’s take on it, but I won’t hold my breath.
Are we to believe that these people are nothing more than tokens, elevated to their positions to assuage white guilt? I don’t think so. My differences with their politics are substantial, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are highly accomplished individuals, and the color of their skins and the arrangement of their private parts has nothing to do with it.
And there is the real difference. Liberalism is tied to the mast of group identity — you and I and they are seen first, foremost and almost exclusively as members of a particular group, sliced and diced as finely as needed to achieve whatever the policy goal of the day is.
Thus I’m a stodgy old white guy, a member of the oppressive white male patriarchy, unless and until it becomes convenient for me to be an Appalachian white male, itself an oppressed and disadvantaged class — and let’s not get started about the little bit of me that’s Cherokee.
Conservatism, by contrast, is tied to the mast of individual identity. Each of us is seen first and foremost — but not exclusively — as an individual, with our group characteristics being either secondary or inconsequential.
So Sonia Sotomayor, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, arguably the most important court in the world, sees herself as a Latina woman first, foremost and almost exclusively, and obviously sees the world around her through that lens.
Conservatives, on the other hand, see her as a highly accomplished American — and also a woman and a Latina, characteristics that, while not unimportant, certainly nothing to be ashamed of, are secondary to all the rest.
Being American is a privilege given to only a small percentage of the world’s population, and something for which we Americans should be very grateful. As for the other distinctions — well, they’re nothing that entitles anyone to any special privileges.
And there is the heart of the argument against affirmative action. The color of one’s skin, or one’s gender, or any number of other group distinctions, does not — or, at least, should not — entitle an individual to any special consideration. Yes, yes, yes, in the past, that was the case — to be a white man was to be specially privileged, and anyone who denies it is ignorant of history; but one does not right that wrong by specially privileging another group instead. All that does is create a whole new set of prejudices, resentments and slights, and unnecessarily sets up the next round of social upheaval.
Equal treatment under the law cannot be achieved through unequal treatment. But that, sadly, is exactly what affirmative action does.
The good people of Michigan, having recognized this, said, we went down that path, where it led wasn’t good, and we’re not going there anymore. And the Supreme Court said, OK, it’s not our place to prevent your making that choice. In a democracy, that’s your right. But it’s also your responsibility, and you’ll get what you deserve.
I think Michigan chose wisely, but the knowledge of just how good we humans are at shooting ourselves in the foot argues for taking a wait-and-see attitude. Will we learn the lesson and move on to a place where each individual is judged on the content of his or her character and demonstrated abilities, rather than skin color and/or other extraneous factors?
Thanks to a wise ruling by the Supreme Court, we’re about to find out.
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is president and general manager of Accurate Machine Products Corp. in Johnson City.