No great surprises here, but if anyone had any doubts, this debate with Rachel Maddow ought to eliminate them. Pat Buchanan went off on a bizarre anti-affirmative action rant, which included this choice excerpt:
“White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks.”
(There is a full transcription here, if you’d prefer to read it.)
There’s been a lot of coverage of this debate in the media (for example, on Huffington Post and Gawker.com), but not a lot of explicit defense of affirmative action (at least as it is practiced in the United States), so I’d like to offer up some justification for the practice here.
It’s easy to understand how, in a country that prides itself as being a relatively pure meritocracy such as the modern-day United States, any actions seen as privileging particular groups are met with hostility. One must understand that the belief supporting affirmative action is that treating unequals as equals perpetuates the inequality. Affirmative action seeks to redress imbalances that are the consequence of deliberate, discriminatory, disproportionate representation of entire sections of society in governmental, educational and industrial institutions. Such negative, oppressive discrimination has usually been made over historically meaningful periods of time on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.
The claim that one can not redress one form of discrimination by introducing another is a facile play on words that uses the word “discrimination” to refer to two different things. Racial, ethnic or gender-based discrimination is usually based on unfounded, irrational prejudices. The discrimination that results from affirmative action is a response to a statistically observed inequity in representation, that can be reproducibly demonstrated by social scientists.
Opponents of affirmative action such as Pat Buchanan frequently assume that affirmative action implies the preferential selection of underqualified candidates over qualified candidates (he cites several examples, including that of Frank Ricci). The truth is that most supporters of affirmative action oppose such preferential selection and instead promote the idea of preferential selection among equal or comparable candidates.
Affirmative action exists to redress systemically entrenched inequalities. Imbalances in representation have been repeatedly observed to perpetuate themselves in the absence of affirmative action. I guess it’s too much to ask someone like Pat Buchanan to stop whacking his knee with a rubber mallet for long enough to soberly consider the merit of such an approach.
There was a postscript on the Rachel Maddow show where she dispelled some of the factual claims Buchanan made in the debate (including the ones made in the scare quote), just in case you were tempted to take them at face value.