Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pursuing the American dream

Pursuing the American dream without racial preferences

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Senator Barack Obama’s rise in the US political firmament has been captivating global audiences, though it is too early to say that he will enter the White House. Many commentators see him metamorphosing American society in the manner of John F Kennedy.

His soaring eloquence sometime echoes Martin Luther King Jr, who audaciously hoped that one day the US would become a just society. But apart from idealism, there are other forces at work. An open democratic society like the US, which thrives on innovation and marketplace competitiveness, needs the best to rise to the top to manage its affairs.

Discrimination on the basis of race and gender are handicaps to a merit-based society and they are becoming less important. No wonder the US is the place to dream impossible dreams and make them real.Everyone talks about the American dream, but what is it? The American dream is a heightened state of aspiration that drives a person to break barriers and achieve his or her goals, regardless of the background the person comes from. The emphasis is upon hard work, ingenuity and education. It is a challenge of the marketplace: to compete and create space for oneself as perhaps it has begun to happen in India to some extent.

You can see it in the life of a man like Andy Grove, who escaped the Nazis and the communists and came to the US as a refugee. He built a microchip empire, Intel, which runs the information superhighway and serves America’s global interests. But he did not do it through the benefits of affirmative action and racial quotas. Nor does Intel, of which he was the CEO, hire people based on quotas, racial preferences, compensatory guilt, or the need for diversity.

The American dream thrives on competitiveness, not on affirmative action.But don’t affirmative action preferences create a just society? It has been argued that the rise of General Colin Powell, who reached the top in the US military with an extraordinary record of achievements and served the Bush Administration as Secretary of State in a very difficult era of US diplomacy, wouldn’t have been possible without affirmative action. Affirmative action might have opened the door for General Powell, but it did not push 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. And preferential treatment demeans the achievements that minority Americans win by their own efforts.”

Consider the achievements of stage-screen actor and author Bill Cosby, pop culture’s global icon Michael Jackson, basketball’s most glorious athlete Michael Jordan, and golf’s incomparable Tiger Woods. Their rise was powered by their guts and talents. Such remarkable achievements would be diminished if they were associated with racial preferences and quotas.What Americans ask for is a level playing field to build their dreams on. As General Powell said, “If affirmative action means programs 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. I benefited from equal opportunity and affirmative action in the Army, but I was not shown preference.”General Powell rose to the top on the strength of his character and intelligence in an institution ~ the US military ~ that thrives on these qualities. But what about those who live in ghettos, inner cities and poor rural areas? “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. Affirmative action in the best sense promotes equal consideration, not reverse discrimination,” wrote General Powell.In spite of the spectacular rise of Mr Obama, race and religion do matter in America.

Prejudice is widely prevalent; sometimes it is the colour of your skin, not the content of your character or merit, which determines where you live and work; and how a policeman treats you in the middle of 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 a Muslim. But these are the imperfections of a dynamic 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 falling into disfavour as 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.

The University of California, Berkeley, and other top schools of the California higher education system no longer admit African-Americans and Hispanics by lowering admission standards. For a long time, the dominant mood in the country has been: end racial preferences because they create reverse discrimination.Why is diversity ~ of race, religion, and opinion ~ important?

Diversity is socially desirable because it breeds new ideas that enrich society; and, moreover, it encourages tolerance and the acceptance of the idea that the US is increasingly becoming multicultural and multiracial. The challenge is to use limited affirmative action to give some deserving people a headstart without creating entitlements, to make possible the rise of people like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and General Powell.

But look at millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. They do not ask for affirmative action or preferential treatment. All they ask for is a chance to work and build a good life for their families and in the process they add to the US’s wealth.That is what Mr Obama has done. He hoped and believed in the essential goodness of the US and is now generating new hope in the hearts of people.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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