When Democrats Attack: Jim Webb, Affirmative Action, and Virginia’s 2006 Senate Race

On Saturday, after attending the Richmond campaign event, I had the pleasure of meeting with Jim Webb for about a half-hour. We talked about a range of issues including foreign policy, the Iraq War position, health care policy, Katrina recovery, and even about our families and their histories. He was warm, engaging, and funny, and he never asked for my vote. He is the genuine article and sticks to his principles – no B.S. at all. Far from the typical politician, Jim Webb seems to have an inability to not tell the truth.

As expected, we discussed the recent controversy regarding his not-so-recent writings on affirmative action and diversity programs. Webb was not surprised by his opponents’ tactics; rather, he was disappointed at Harris Miller’s need to attack him in this manner. Last week the Webb campaign stated that: “Jim Webb’s primary opponent seriously distorted his views about race relations in this country, and about affirmative action. Jim fully supports affirmative action for African Americans…The point is, Jim believes strongly that Americans have more in common than they have differences. For example, poverty does not discriminate based on skin color. And in the modern era we are divided more and more along class lines than by race. There are 37 million Americans of all races living in poverty. Nearly one-quarter of all African Americans still live in poverty. To create a program that gives assistance to some poor Americans while excluding millions of other people in poverty can only further exacerbate racial tension in America. This is an issue of fairness, and these programs must be fair across society.”

Race is the eternal bugaboo in American society. From the African slavery that predated the Pilgrims to the destruction of the Native peoples of this land to the scourge of Jim Crow that plagued Dixie (and manifested itself socially in the Northern states), the stain of racism has never been washed out of the American fabric. It has touched the lives of most Americans in some form, and Virginia, the incubator of American slavery has had its fair share of racial strife. My parents, grandparents and most of my in-laws were forced into segregated grade schools and higher education institutions because of the color of their skin. I have had friends and relatives who have suffered from racial profiling, were refused mortgage loans for wanting to buy homes in white neighborhoods, who suffered through the indignity of having their schools closed during Massive Resistance, and who have had job opportunities impeded because of race. As a lifelong resident of Virginia (save 2 years in North Carolina), I have also had my share of run-ins with unsavory racism. Thus, I know the issue from both the emotional and intellectual perspectives.

As Webb noted at his Richmond appearance and reiterated to me later, affirmative action programs were directly intended to remedy the effects of slavery and follow-on segregation on black people, people like my own family members. As a governmental policy, it was designed to provide targeted and effective measures for helping African Americans overcome the legacy of institutionalized bigotry that denied to them opportunities simply on the color of their skin. However, over time, the implementation of affirmative action grew to include any nonwhite minorities, regardless of the degree of legalized oppression that they faced. The most recent incarnations of affirmative action have come under the diversity rubric. On the face of it, extending opportunities to nonwhite Americans seems like a good idea, and on balance, it remains such. However, the status quo of affirmative action created two problems.

First, by expanding the programs to non-black ethnic groups, the impacts of affirmative action policies were essentially diluted for African Americans, particularly the persistent black underclass. Giving it a general “minority” focus shrunk the pie available specifically to blacks for their advancement and for redressing wrongs they suffered explicitly. Second, some diversity programs were construed in such a manner that any nonwhite person, regardless of economic or class status, received opportunities over poor and disadvantaged whites, many of whom are part of the Scots-Irish culture that Webb eloquently chronicles. Admittedly, poor whites do benefit socially by having white skin, but they still face a significant amount of economic distress.

The message that I got from Jim Webb was that, if affirmative action programs are to exist, they should be for their original purposes – to overcome the negative effects of targeted, sustained institutionalized racism sanctioned by government against African Americans. Furthermore, if anti-poverty programs are to truly be diverse and reach all who need them, they must also be open to people based on class and economic status, not simply race and ethnicity. Essentially, focusing on poverty reduction and social advancement for persons of color and for disadvantaged whites (who in fact make up the majority of public welfare rolls) is the best way to remedy deep-seated social (racial) divisions and to open up opportunities to even greater numbers of Americans who have been left behind. Regardless of the red-meat rhetoric used in his writings, Webb does indeed have a very strong argument.

Jim Webb once wrote that “the greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African Americans to the same table, and so to redefine a formula that has consciously set them apart for the past two centuries.” As the birthplace of American greatest political leaders and its most tragic “peculiar” institution, it would be fitting for Virginia to be the testing ground for such a grand experiment. In 2006, Jim Webb believes that he may be just such a leader for the Commonwealth. Quite frankly, I believe that in June, Democrats ought to give him a shot at proving it.

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7 responses to “When Democrats Attack: Jim Webb, Affirmative Action, and Virginia’s 2006 Senate Race”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    I guess we can expect a Jim Webb banner on here soon.
    Just a note: If Bacons Rebellion is going to plug candidates instead of hacking policy-Remove them from RSS feed. I can read this stuff at Raising Kaine.

  2. T.Jones Avatar

    I respect your opinon Conaway, but you are wrong. To compare my black history with the scots-irish is offensive to me. While you may support Jim Webb, I agree with Sen Marsh and the other black leaders who are not buying into Webb’s rhetoric.

  3. SouthoftheJames.com Avatar

    Anon: Jim can correct me if I’m wrong, but this is also a blog about “Virgina politics” (see the header), where writers from various political spectrums give their views. I’m sorry that you feel I “plugged” Webb; I was simply sharing my experience in meeting the man face-to-face instead of simply attacking him sight unseen.

    T.Jones: Sens. Marsh, Lambert and other black officials are absolutely entitled to their opinions, and I will not disparage them out of respect for the years of hard work that they and others have dedicated to making sure that younger blacks like me have essential freedoms, including the right to express viewpoints contrary to those very leaders.

  4. Charles Avatar

    CH: However, over time, the implementation of affirmative action grew to include any nonwhite minorities, regardless of the degree of legalized oppression that they faced.

    This didn’t just happen “over time”. Well, ok, the “other non-white minorities” were an added feature, but from it’s inception affirmative action was aimed at an arbitrary genetic artifact (skin color), regardless of “the degree of legalized oppression that they faced”.

    Worse, even those that had some sort of connection to this legalized oppression were often far removed in time and space from the oppressors and the oppressed.

    I have no idea what treatment my great-great-grandparents may have received in their homeland, what oppression they may have endured, what legalized discrimination may have faced them either where they came from, or even where we came to in this country.

    But since I’m white, nobody cares about what hardships my family had to overcome so that I could attend college. I didn’t have the right genes for people to care.

    If Webb truly supports affirmative action and isn’t just changing his position to appeal to his new-found party, then he is simply wrong now, and was right before.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    No, we won’t have any Jim Webb banners on the Rebellion, and I can hardly chastise Conaway for plugging Webb in the final sentence of a fairly lengthy exposition of the issue of affirmative action. Conaway’s missive may be the most thoughtful piece on race and affirmative action yet to appear in this blog.

    I don’t agree with everything that Conaway said, but I do think he raised a fascinating point regarding the extension of affirmative action to non-black minorities that never experienced slavery or legally sanctioned segregation.

    Perhaps I would feel differently if I were a white person living in California where, presumably, there has been discrimination against Hispanics and Asians. But this is Virginia. Until recent years, we have had very few Hispanics or Asians living here. Our history has been blighted by slavery and Jim Crow. At the same time, whites and blacks have lived side by side in Virginia for nearly 400 years. As a white person, I feel an obligation toward blacks that I do not feel toward any other minority. It strikes me as a travesty that “minority” protections are extended, for example, to Indians (as in Indians from the sub-continent from India) when Census figures show that Hindus have the highest per-capita income of any religious category, even higher than Episcopalians and Jews.

    It would make an interesting research project: How many of the so-called “disadvantaged” minority companies benefiting from preferential state and federal programs are owned by African-Americans, and how many are owned by Hispanics, Indians or East Asians. Just a thought…

    As for Jim Webb’s idea of bringing the Scots-Irish and African Americans to the same table… It’ll never happen. Not because the Scot-Irish are racist but because they are incorrigible invididualists. They don’t perceive themselves as a victimized group. They see themselves as individuals who rise and fall on the basis of their individual merits.

  6. SouthoftheJames.com Avatar

    Conservative one: “Worse, even those that had some sort of connection to this legalized oppression were often far removed in time and space from the oppressors and the oppressed.”

    I dare say that white Southerners, even poor ones, were “far removed” from blacks who faced legalized segregation.

    “from its inceptions affirmative action was aimed at an arbitrary genetic artifact (skin color)”

    That arbitrary genetic artifact was the source of justification for slavery and then segregation. However, the effects of those institutions was far from arbitrary.

  7. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Affirmative action as in outreach is commendable. Affirmative action as in quotas – for anyone – is odious.

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