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Someone Ate My Bowl of Privilege


New York. -- In boxing, one rule is: Kill the body and the head will follow. With the U.S. Supreme Court's two body blows to affirmative action, we expect to hear those on either side of the question become quite sanctimonious.

Ours is a country in which there is almost always a lot of pompous blather when issues surrounding social prejudice are raised. In this case, one antagonist argues for a "colorblind society"; the other takes the position that the long and wicked course of historical racism and gender prejudice demands legislative policy that will keep the snake of xenophobia and male privilege from biting at will.

It would be pretty to think that either of those sides could be taken at face value. We should know better, because the nature of human relations is far too complex for us to assume that we will ever get closer to realizing the grand dreams of American democracy unless a national sense of our collective fate, as a society, takes precedence over attitudes based on what this or that group thinks its home team ought to get.

That national sense of a collective fate will take more than a little effort because of what has happened to our social and political sensibility in these antagonistic times.

The subject of affirmative action brings this out in full howl. The question is one of victory or defeat, not compromise. Beneath all the foaming at the mouth, we find ourselves battling over the idea of reparations and a variation on the institutionalized feeling of bitterness had by children who feel that their psychological lives have been mutilated by neglect, bad parenting or abuse.

So it is not surprising that those who already have, or hope to benefit from, affirmative action cry foul at the idea that they must lose their legislative leg-up in order to make way for an America supposedly ready to judge an individual on merit only.

They demand that their reparations remain in place, because, like an army, they feel they have defeated all claims that the society is just. That is but part of the brawl ridiculous, because reparations are difficult to sustain if you are not in the majority or lack the power necessary to dominate from a minority position. Waving the bloody flag of "the tyranny of the majority" means nothing if the majority no longer feels tyrannical.

Then there is the fact that density of complaint across all divisions has so increased that we are in the middle of another moment, and that moment says a great deal about what we have become. The inclusive identity that has evolved over the last few decades brings a remarkably troubling tone to the social questions facing our nation.

The upshot is that we have been hearing, for quite some time now, that it's hard as the tail of a brass monkey to get a fair shake if you're a white man. Skin tone and gender now displace the essence of one's skill. Either the dark minorities or the women push you to the back of the employment and promotion bus. We are supposed to set aside the complaints of the dark people and the ladies, or listen to them as insubstantial harmony to the lead-singing blues of white guys.

If one listens long enough to the entire sound, it is easy to believe that whining and wearing the hair shirt of the victim fuse into the truest national pastime. This creates a problem of recognition in unsentimental terms, because everyone, from the bottom to the top and in almost all categories, is ready to parade what are, purportedly, the largest welts, open wounds and scars of injustice.

The demand for reparations is universal. Everyone is sure that he or she has been had or is presently deep in the snake-filled slop bucket of being had. In essence, although suffering has become a commodity in our society, it is now very difficult to pull rank, regardless of the documentation of overt atrocities or the detailing of smarting insults and offhand contempt. I've been stomped long enough to say your whine is no better than mine.

In fact, almost everybody is right. In some sense, they have all had a raw deal, or some long line of unfortunates before them did. But one of the problems a good number of people now have with affirmative action is the inevitable corruption that invades almost any situation, which is due to the demons of human nature, not the intent of the policy.

Civil-rights leadership and other supposed voices of the downtrodden have a special job in our time, which is to reiterate a feeling of collective identity, because ethnic nationalism and self-segregation have backfired by instigating one self-righteously hostile tone of self-interest after another. A fresh direction is needed.

In order to sustain influence on national attitudes and policies, minorities and women have to be more sophisticated, not less. No one particularly cares if legislation only works to the advantage of a group that celebrates its alienation from the national interest.

The way ahead will have to do with something beyond guilt-mongering and the politics of Balkanization. Unless Americans begin to assert the commonality of their fates, the importance of diligently preparing our society at large to compete in a world market, and are convinced that a superb work force can include people from many backgrounds through fair practices, the squabble will continue and the bitterness will deepen in all directions. We will not be able to focus the intelligence, sacrifice and dedication that meeting the many problems of social prejudice and poor preparation demand of us all -- no matter our color, our sex, our religion, our historical misery or our undeniably common case for the sweet favors of privilege.

Stanley Crouch, a 1993 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" fellowship, is the author of the forthcoming book of essays "The All-American Skin Game."

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