I guess I touched a nerve.
That much seems apparent from the dozens of responses to my recent column about a hospital in Abington, Pa., where a white man asked that no black doctors or nurses be allowed to assist in the delivery of his child. The hospital agreed, a decision I lambasted. Which has produced the aforementioned dozens of critical e-mails. The tone varies from spittle-spewing bigotry to sweet reason, but they all make the same point: that affirmative action entitles white people to question black people's competence.
As a reader who chose to remain nameless put it, many people wonder if a given black professional "is there because of his/her skills and abilities, or because of affirmative action. Unfortunately, affirmative action policies leave many unanswered questions about a black person's education and training, as well as skills and abilities. . . . How do we answer these questions?"
I will try my best to answer them with a straight face. It's going to be difficult.
Because there's an elephant in this room, isn't there? It's huge and noisy and rather smelly, yet none of these good people sees it. The elephant is this simple fact:
White men are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action this country has ever seen.
That's not rhetoric or metaphor. It's only truth.
THE NATION'S CUSTOM
If affirmative action is defined as giving someone an extra boost based on race, it's hard to see how anyone can argue the point. Slots for academic admission, for employment and promotion, for bank loans and for public office have routinely been set aside for white men. This has always been the nation's custom. Until the 1960s, it was also the nation's law.
So if we want to talk about achievements being tainted by racial preference, it seems only logical to start there. After all, every worthwhile thing African Americans achieved prior to the mid-'60s - Berry Gordy's record label, John Johnson's publishing company, Alain Leroy Locke's Rhodes scholarship, Madame C.J. Walker's hair care empire, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams' pioneering heart surgery - was done, not just without racial preference, but against a backdrop of open racial hostility.
By contrast, nothing white men have ever achieved in this country was done without racial and gender preferences. Affirmative action.
I know that will be hard for some folks to hear. I know it will leave some white brothers indignant. And I expect many recitations of "up by my bootstraps" and "know what it's like to be poor." We all want to feel that we made it on our own merits, and it's not my intention to diminish the combination of pluck, luck, hard work and ability that typically distinguishes success, whether white, black or magenta.
On the other hand, there's a word for those who believe race is not a significant factor in white success: delusional.
UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD
It is not coincidence, happenstance or evidence of their intellectual, physical or moral superiority that white guys dominate virtually every field of endeavor worth dominating. It is, rather, a sign that the proverbial playing field is not level and never has been.
My correspondents feel they should not be asked to respect the skill or abilities of a black professional who may or may not have benefited from affirmative action. They think such a person should expect to be looked down upon. But black people have spent generations watching white men who were no more talented, and many times downright incompetent, vault to the head of the line based on racial preference.
So, here's my question:
Would African Americans be justified in looking down on white professionals? In wondering whether they are really smart enough to do the job? In questioning their competence before they had done a thing?
Yeah, you're right. That would take one hell of a nerve.