On Main Streets of America, bias without malice


ANNAPOLIS -- As everybody with white skin knows, affirmative action is no longer needed. The country's enlightened and colorblind now, in case Bill Clinton hadn't noticed. All he had to do was walk along Main Street here, and look at a piece of America when it's left to its own benevolent devices.

Last week the president said affirmative action's been "good for America." Everyone with white skin knows this is a lie. It's been good for black people maybe, because they've gotten jobs that were denied them for their entire lives, but white people will assure you the country's changed now, we're all pure at heart and we don't need the government forcing any more enlightenment down our throats and taking away white people's jobs in the process.

Thus, the president should come to Main Street. It's temporarily a mess, but it's on its way to being something beautiful. The whole street's being torn up and its storm lines reconstructed and then the road repaved, in a $5.5 million program half financed by the state and half by the city of Annapolis.

"It's a little rough at the moment," says an Annapolis shop owner, peering out from his store, "but it's gonna be real nice when it's finished." That's important. Annapolis is a place of many charms, including the various shops and restaurants along this street just above the city dock.

But here's the rub. At the moment, which is last Thursday afternoon, there are maybe 20 construction workers laboring on that Main Street project. Two are black. And you can step into the various commercial enterprises of the street, 25 or 30 of the jewelry stores and hat shops and banks and T-shirt shops and furniture stores and restaurants, and what you see is a total of three black people who work here. (With one exception: Burger King, where four of the six employees working the afternoon shift are black.)

Understand a few things: This was not a scientific survey, only a single snapshot on a Main Street of an American city. And this particular city, Annapolis of 1995, is not Selma, Ala., of 1965. This city's politics are fairly middle-of-the-road, its citizens generally moderate and fair-minded, as these things go.

But the way things go in America, there's still not much job equality for black people. Joe Baker, chief of engineering and construction on the Main Street project, says there are more than two blacks working, depending on the different work being done. OK. Owners of the various shops would say: We're only small business people, we don't hire a lot of help, and often we simply hire people we know. OK. And maybe the restaurant owners would say, hey, you didn't check all the black help we've got back in the kitchen. OK.

But, somewhere along the line, patterns become clear. Nobody means anything harmful, but the numbers manage to pile up anyway. You walk down to the market by the city dock, and there's a group of maybe 30 black kids at the various food stalls. But there are only three black people working at any of the stalls. Again, a snapshot of a single moment. But, again, there's an undeniable pattern.

Those who condemn affirmative action say people should be hired on the basis of simple qualifications, which seems fair. But, which qualifications? How hard is it to sell T-shirts? How hard is it to work behind a food counter?

And, not to be overlooked, who determines these qualifications? White people, of course. Despite all the efforts to bring blacks into the economic mainstream, it's still white men who hold the vast percentage of management positions and make the decisions on hiring.

(Recent figures from the U.S. Commission on Minority Business Development: Blacks own 3.1 percent of all companies; Hispanics, 3.1; Asian/Pacifics, 2.6; American Indians, 0.2 percent.)

Yes, affirmative action's a mess. Everybody, including this president who champions it, admits it. It isn't fair for minorities who already have money to get government help when poor people of any skin color can't get it. It isn't fair that white people, who have gone to school, who have families to support, who have worked hard but been laid off in tough economic times, and who never committed discrimination of their own, should be punished now because the government's trying to overcompensate for past sins -- any more than blacks should be pushed aside as they have.

But, when left to their own devices, the people in economic power tend to hire those who look like them. Main Street's no aberration, it's just America. It's a microcosm of that perennial and unofficial game of affirmative action white people have always enjoyed, which is called the Old Boy Network.

So nobody likes government affirmative action, and everybody knows its flaws. Ask any white person. You can find them on any Main Street in America. They're the ones with jobs. It's nothing personal. There's no malice intended. It just works out that way, despite everybody's assurances that things are getting better, any day now.

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