Search This Blog

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Historically Privileged?

I've seen (like everyone else) a lot of arguments for and against affirmative action. I found a very curious comment to a Left2Right post on the subject. Here's the excerpt that startled me:
In my opinion, those that push the "color blind constitution" ideal want to make the competition "fair" now that the historically privileged have been given a head start.
The term "historically privileged" has me somewhat confounded. On the one hand, it should surely seem that I should know what the person who wrote the comment means, but the more I think about it, the more confused I become. The United States is full of descendents of people who came here because history was not particularly kind to them, and when they got here, the current inhabitants of the United States were not particularly nice to them.

Consider my own ancestors' history. While I don't know for sure the history of my ancestors more than four generations ago, being jewish, there's a reasonable chance one could trace at least a tiny fraction of my genetic heritage back to the slaves in Egypt, being conquered by the Romans, and driven to flee to eastern Europe, where living under the various rulers was tenuous at best. At the point where I actually have details to the story, it sounds rather like "Fiddler on the Roof," where the families of the entire village are told to pack up and get out. My family foresaw that sort of thing and so left before actually being forced to, but nonetheless, they arrived in the new world with pretty much nothing but the clothes on their backs, not knowing the language, and coming to a country that had no great love for jews (but at least it wasn't as hostile as from whence they came). Indeed, the only historical privilege that my grandparents had at the time they immigrated as young children was that they were still alive (no doubt there is a lot to be said for that given that the distant cousins who stayed weren't so lucky!).

Some variant of that story is repeated for numerous immigrant groups last century: Irish, Italians, Poles, Asians, Mexicans, you name it. The only historical privilege they had when they arrived was that they were still alive.

Yet clearly I (and many of the rest of the descendents of immigrants) must be classified as "privileged" for the comment to make any sense at all. One of my grandfathers, who arrived under the tenuous circumstances described above when he was three, managed to complete the 6th grade, got a job as a "go fer" at Detroit Steel, and managed to work his way all the way up to become President of Detroit Steel during the heyday of steel in the United States. As a grandchild I didn't see much in the way of an inheritance (the intervening generation is thankfully still alive), but I did have a very comfortable, upper middle class upbringing.

But the privilege was based on being born into a well off circumstance, and had little to do with history. In fact, it seems to me that my ancestors beat the odds given by the cards history had dealt. So if "historically privileged" means born into a well off circumstance, I guess I understand it, but it's still a funny way to put it.

It also seems to defeat the commenter's argument. Because I don't think anyone (serious) is talking about disallowing economic status as a factor in admissions. The poor should be given an advantage. But race? Why should any rich persons of any race have an advantage over poor ones of any other race? If I'm historically privileged, then it seems that someone born into a rich black family is also historically privileged, and, if so, that person really doesn't need preferential treatment based on race.

No comments: