So while on my trip, I wound up watching an episode of Law and Order that pissed the hell out of me.
The story involves a prominent black reporter who recently interviewed a fugitive from justice. When a man hunting the fugitive turns up dead, the prosecutors and cops crack down and demand the reporter divulge everything he knows about where to find the fugitive. But it turns out that like Jayson Blair at the New York Times the reporter just made up the whole thing — and killed the victim, who knew the fugitive well enough to see through the bullshit.
Alt.blair’s attorney’s bizarre defense? Society is to blame! Alt.Blair got his job because of affirmative action! So because he was unqualified, therefore he had to make shit up to stay employed! And that led to the killing! Don’t people realize that affirmative action just makes every achievement by a black person suspect? Their qualifications are never taken seriously? Hell, affirmative action is racist in itself—we’re telling black people that all that ever matters is the color of their skin!
I realize he’s the defense attorney and therefore biased, but I can’t believe we’re just meant to see it as a Hail Mary play. Because he discusses the flaws of affirmative action a lot, whereas the prosecutor only gets one counter-argument, tossed off and not even mentioned. So I’m inclined to take it as Western Union. And it’s a telegram I disagree with.
First off, while race may have been a factor in the real Jayson Blair’s rise, it was only one factor. He wrote well (according to the link), he delivered seemingly awesome stories — is it that strange he advanced quickly? Stephen Glass at New Republic made stuff up for years too, and he’s white. So why blame alt.Blair completely on race?
For that matter why assume alt.blair’s unqualified, rather than a talented reporter? Even if race was a factor in hiring him, that doesn’t mean he’s unqualified. I’ve been hired multiple times through personal connections; it doesn’t mean I was the stereotypically incompetent nepotism hire. Why does a black man getting into college partly because of race mean he should be judged more suspiciously than a legacy admission — someone who got into college because his parents are alumni?
Simple. He’s black, therefore everything is suspect. Not because of affirmative action, just because he’s black. If it was before affirmative action, he’d be a token hire. If it was before “token hire” was a concept he’d be just “what the hell is that n-word doing here?” People who doubt a black man’s ability would doubt it just as much a hundred years ago. Or simply ignore or deny it or resent it.
A white guy though? Don’t be silly. Nobody’s going to assume a legacy hire or the business owner’s son might be an inbred imbecile who only got ahead on his connections. Back pre-affirmative action, I doubt the defense attorney would have been worrying “Wow, do you suppose my white doctor’s really good? What if he only got into medical school because they refused some women and black people?” Writing about Trump voters, Ta-Nehisi Coates said that white grievance, no matter how absurd, is still taken as legitimate by lots of people. Likewise white achievement (and male achievement — most of this applies to women just as much) is assumed to be legitimate until proven otherwise. The default assumption is that the white man earned what he got.
Is the lawyer or the episode’s writer suggesting that if we just drop affirmative action, then talented black people will get ahead under their own power? Because that ignores that there’s lots and lots of racism left. White people will get ahead because they’re white, even more than they do already. Nor does the laywer offer a solution — no suggestion that, say, we aggressively punish people who violate the laws on hiring and firing minorities. We should apparently just accept discrimination (as long as it’s not against white people) until that enlightened day when we’re all singing kumbaya.
As solutions (and arguments) go, that one’s less than optimal. So was the episode.