a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Natalie Davis on DWB and affirmative action

Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 27th, 2003

If you care about either issue — and in America, you should — you should read how Natalie Davis connects her opinions about being pulled over for DWB (driving while brown) …

I swallowed my sudden feelings of anger and humiliation and handed him the crumpled item, which he examined. At that point, I couldn’t bear anymore, and tears began to roll down my face.

The cop opened the foil, saw the remains of a partially eaten hamburger, grimaced, and then turned his attention to the quiet, weeping woman before him.

“All right, ma’am, you can go,” he said. “I won’t write you up, but you should get that light fixed right away.”

Tell me that demeaning encounter wasn’t about or didn’t involve DWB — the dreaded “driving while brown.”

…and affirmative action (aka “AA”):

This member of the one race — the human race — does not want to be judged by melanin for any reason: not for “racial” profiling, not for college scholarships, not for preferential or derogatory treatment of any kind. And that is why I can not support affirmative action: If pigmentationism is immoral in cases of “racial” profiling, then it is always immoral, in my estimation.

Responding to a comment, Davis goes on to write:

…I believe focusing on economic disadvantage is the only decent way to achieve all of those things. Few favors are done for those who don’t have the ability to achieve and learn in college. No favors are done for melanin-enriched people who earn their accomplishments but are saddled with the hideous AA specter. No favors are done for the majority-group people who pay unjustly for previous generations’ sins.

Ms. Davis’ post generated a good discussion, including Tony “Ampersand” Deutsch’s comment:

I certainly favor economic AA, but I don’t think it’s a substitute for racial AA. There are at least three problems that economic AA cannot address (limiting myself to black/white examples to keep the discussion simpler):

1) Racist favoritism of poor whites over poor blacks.
2) Racial discrimination against middle-class blacks.
3) The effects of the enourmous disparity in wealth between whites and blacks at every income level (every economic AA program I’ve ever seen proposed is based on income and ignores wealth).

In the end, racial AA doesn’t ask us to make a choice between pigmentationism and non-pigmentationism. It asks us to make a choice between unmitigated pro-white racism (no AA) or partly mitigated pro-white racism (some AA). The choice we’d all prefer – no discrimination at all – just isn’t on the menu. So, for me, saying “we shouldn’t favor racial AA because we favor no discrimination” doesn’t hold water, because it suggests that “no discrimination” is an option when it isn’t.

I suppose none of this is news, but the arguments are well laid out by Davis, Deutsch and others, so go have a look. I think Deutsch’s objections to “economic affirmative action” are less telling than he does; race-based favoritism and discrimination could and should be fought as such, as matters of criminal prosecution and administrative decisions, rather than compensated for with race-based preferences. So I prefer the “economic assistance” model Ms. Davis does — although I also intuitively like schemes like scholarships for the top percentiles from each high school — schemes which are attractively agnostic about what accounts for disparities between high schools.

But these may be easier issues for me to theorize about than they are for Ms. Davis. So I respect her all the more for taking the position she does — and I won’t do her the disservice of considering the case closed just because she happens to agree with me. I’m just not sure enough of my position for that.

EDIT, 8/29: last paragraph rewritten, see comments.

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