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Jim Webb (AP)

Sen. Jim Webb: Poor Whites Ignored By Gov't Diversity Programs

Jul 23, 2010

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Frank James

The week started with the issue of race being front and center and an end of the week opinion piece bu Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) keeps the issue on many minds as we enter the weekend.

In a piece in The Wall Street Journal, Webb called for an end to government diversity programs, opining that they unfairly give preferences to non-white immigrants but withhold them from non-privileged whites.

Webb argues that while the nation still owes a debt to some African Americans because of the slavery and, later, Jim Crow segregation, not enough attention has been paid, especially by the federal government, to the lack of opportunities for many disadvantaged white Americans, especially in the South.

An excerpt:

Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.

Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.

The clearest example of today's misguided policies comes from examining the history of the American South.

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 ends his piece with this:

... Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.

Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white. The need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible, both in our markets and in our communities. Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners. It can do so by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes.

Memo to my fellow politicians: Drop the Procrustean policies and allow harmony to invade the public mindset. Fairness will happen, and bitterness will fade away.

Webb's argument isn't unique. For decades, some critics of affirmative action, even a few African Americans, have argued it's past time for such programs to stop using race and instead use income as a way of determining who gets to benefit from such diversity programs.

What makes Webb's piece worth noting is that his opinion could wind up alienating some of the voters whose support swung a very close election his way.

Webb won in 2006 by 9,000 votes, beating then incumbent Sen. George Allen, a Republican, who had irreparably harmed his candidacy by referring to an Indian American as "macaca." Allen is expected by many to run again against Webb in 2012.

The negative reaction from L. Douglas Wilder, who made history as Virginia's first black governor, is an indication of what Webb could face from some of those who supported his Senate campaign. An excerpt from an Associated Press story:

"If it's not for the civil rights movement and diversity programs, he would not be a United States senator today," Wilder said, referring to minority support that helped Webb beat Allen byabout 9,000 votes.

"Things are tough enough without having people you thought were friends do things like this," Wilder said.

Sam Fulwood, a former columnist with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who's a fellow at the center-left Center for American Progress, who like Wilder is African-American, writes:

Maybe Sen. James Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia, didn't understand that what he was saying made him sound like a mossback from the last century. In a bizarre and unfortunate opinion article published in Friday's Wall Street Journal...

... If he thinks this is a necessary step toward racial healing, especially after the week the nation's just had, then he's even more misguided than his article reveals. Somebody, perhaps one of his congressional colleagues, needs to tell Sen.Webb to get his head out of the last, sad epoch of covert racist talk and join the rest of America in the 21st century.

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