Tuesday, July 11, 2006

It is good to be an American

A just society

ND Batra
From The Statesman

The American dream is some kind of El Dorado, a state of immense wealth and achievement which when attained, enables a person to exclaim, “Ah! It’s good to be an American.”

You can see it in the life of a man like Andy Grove who survived the Nazis and the communists and entered the USA as a refugee. He worked so hard that he had no place to go except up and up until he reached the stratosphere. He built a microchip empire that runs the information superhighway and serves America’s global interests. But he did not do it through the largesse of affirmative action and racial preferences. Nor does Intel, of which he was the CEO, hire people based on quotas, racial preferences, compensatory guilt, or the need for diversity.

Multinationals thrive on competitiveness, not on affirmative action. But do affirmative action preferences create a just society? For about 40 years, US society has been helping African-Americans and other minority groups to cross the race line by creating for them preferences for jobs, contracts and admissions to universities. In the case of higher education, the original intent was to desegregate and diversify the student population by requiring colleges and universities to lower the admission criteria for minority students. The policy might have worked in some cases.

It has been argued that the rise of Colin Powell, who reached the top in the US military with an extraordinary record of achievements and served the Bush administration as the secretary of state in a very difficult era of American diplomacy, would not have been possible without affirmative action. Affirmative action might have opened the door for Mr Powell but it did not catapult him to the top and make him one of the most esteemed Americans living today. In his book, My American Journey, he wrote, “Equal rights and equal opportunity... do not mean preferential treatment. Preferences, no matter how well intended, ultimately breed resentment among the non-preferred.”

Consider the achievements of Hollywood star Bill Cosby, pop culture’s global icon Michael Jackson, and basketball’s once supreme athlete Michael Jordan. They rose to the top on the basis of their guts and talents. Such remarkable achievements would be diminished if they were correlated with racial preferences and quotas. As Powell said: “If affirmative action means programmes that provide equal opportunities, then I am all for it. If it leads to preferential treatment or helps those who no longer need help, I am opposed.” Powell rose to the top on the strength of his character and the power of his brain. But what about those who live in ghettos, inner cities and rural poverty? “If a history of discrimination has made it difficult for certain Americans to meet standards, it is only fair to provide temporary means to help them catch up and compete on equal terms,” the General added. But there are other voices.

Race, as Prof Cornel West of Princeton says, matters a lot in America; prejudice is widely prevalent, and it is the colour of your skin, not character and merit, that determines where you live and work, and how a policeman treats you in the middle of the night when he sees you at a street corner, or when you go to the airport and you are “randomly selected” for special inspection because you look like an Asian or an Arab-Muslim. But these are the imperfections of a great society. Decades of affirmative action policy, which in reality amounted to creating preferential quotas for minorities, have not created a colour-race-gender blind society. No wonder affirmative action has been getting into disfavour as a public policy. In 1998, California voters ended preferential treatment based on race and gender for public employment, education and contracting by approving a ballot initiative.

Berkeley and other top schools of the California Higher Education System no longer admit African-Americans and Hispanics by lowering the admission standards. For a long time, the dominant mood in the country has been: end racial preferences because they create reverse discrimination. But the question still remains: does diversity of race, religion and opinion matter? Diversity is socially desirable because it engenders new ideas that enrich society and encourages tolerance and acceptance of the USA, which is increasingly becoming multicultural and multiracial.

The challenge is to use affirmative action to give some deserving people a head start without creating entitlements, to make possible the rise of people like the secretary of state, Ms Condoleeza Rice, General Powell and Andrew Grove in the future.

Ironically, millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere do not ask for affirmative action or preferential treatment. All they want is a chance to work and to build a good life for their families and in the process, to add to US wealth. Those who cannot stand the idea of the American dream want to blow up the USA as Islamic jihadists want do.


  1. Prof Batra
    If I am rightly informed, the Afro-Americans and the Hispanics outnumber the WASPs in California. If California voters ended preferential treatment based on race and gender it necessarily means that the beneficiaries of the system opposed the system. Is it really so? Rather incomprehensible it seems to me.

  2. African-American (6.1 %) and Hispanic (34.5) constitute 40.6 % as against White 45.7 %.
    Asians 12 % are not regarded as a minority.
    It is a matter of principle. Quotas and reservations are bad for a society, though every effort should be made to include minorities.