Still haunted by the ghosts of slavery

Not so long ago I found myself in a curiously heated exchange with an American academic. We had just listened to his wife, who was head of one of the country's most prestigious women-only colleges, deliver a pep talk about why we should all be giving donations to her college: it was pursuing policies of "affirmative action" and "diversity", she said, amid a plethora of similar buzzwords and PC-speak. White males have no place in today's society, seemed to be the gist of what she was saying.

Doubtless because I'm one of those dreaded white males, I reacted viscerally. I asked Mr Academic if he agreed with what Mrs (or do I mean Ms?) Academic had just said: "Of course," he replied. It so happened that he was just about to take up a visiting professorship at Oxford, the culmination of a distinguished scholastic career of which he was justly proud. "So you," I went on, "would be quite willing to give up your Oxford professorship to a woman or black man even if they were less academically qualified than you?"

I've never seen anybody so angry: it had simply never occurred to him that policies he decreed to be good for society should apply to him as much as to anybody else.

I recall this encounter not because it was funny, nor because I found it gratifying to see this man's progressive credentials explode in such a flurry of self-interest. Rather I recount it because it illustrates the confusion America is experiencing over its affirmative-action policies - started by LBJ more than 30 years ago and further solidified by Richard Nixon's Labor Department after it found that blacks were being denied lucrative construction jobs in northern cities because of their colour.

But now - like bussing before it - a policy that has been seen as unquestionably progressive and enlightened is being challenged both legally and politically, by the left as well as the right. In last month's elections, a little-noticed referendum - overlooked in what is being seen as the great rout of the Republicans - was overwhelmingly carried by the voters of Washington state. Initiative 200, as it is called, effectively outlaws affirmative action there; it became the second US state to vote to reverse the generally accepted wisdom of three decades, Californian voters having passed Proposition 209 two years ago. The day after last month's vote, the University of Washington announced that it was immediately taking measures to halt admission quotas based on racial or gender differences.

Bill Clinton says merely that "we must mend, not end" affirmative action - without saying quite what he has in mind. Strictly speaking, affirmative action is meant to benefit the minority - specifically blacks, Hispanics, Asian/Pacific islanders, American Indians and females - only where qualifications are equal to those of competing whites. But hardly anyone, especially among the angry new middle-class whites, believes that this is how the laws have been applied; the voters of Washington state are 90 per cent white, and polls show that by a ratio of six to one whites believe they are being discriminated against in the job market, and their children in education.

The intensity of the white backlash is, indeed, frightening. Last weekend the Washington Post ran a story which said that more and more high-school pupils are refusing to specify their race when providing personal information for the standardised academic tests that decide college places. The clear implication (though, characteristically, not spelled out): white kids fear that they will be given lower marks if they reveal they are white.

The huge irony of this mess, with its ugly racist overtones, is that affirmative action no longer appears to be helping those it was designed to help: the descendants of the American blacks who (let us never forget) the Supreme Court ruled in 1857 could not count as US citizens because they were "subordinate and inferior beings".

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act effectively made it mandatory that immigrants benefit as much as Americans from affirmative action. Now that there are no fewer than 25 million immigrants in the US today, Latino and Asian newcomers are rushing to fill minority quotas at the expense of the blacks who have been here for 300 years.

This means that in racial melting pots such as Los Angeles, struggles already rage between the black minority (who currently hold 30 per cent of municipal jobs) and what in many areas is already the Hispanic majority. The 1991 riots in LA, when American's second largest city was out of control for three days, were triggered by police treatment of a black driver, but it was the simmering animosity between upwardly mobile Korean immigrants and blacks that really fuelled them. Astonishingly, Asian-Americans - with an average annual income of $43,000 - are now the most prosperous racial grouping in America, including whites.

So when middle-class whites congratulate themselves that progressive policies to reverse discrimination are working, they have to ask: for whom? America's racial landscape is changing at a dizzying rate. And the sad truth is that the racism exemplified by that grotesque Supreme Court ruling is so deeply embedded in American culture that the white majority still prefers to see Asian and Latino newcomers accelerate ahead of native blacks. Lynchings may be no more, Jim Crow laws may be history: but affirmative-action laws have not succeeded in the way that was intended either.

The ghosts of slavery and oppression continue to haunt America - and one day they will have to be exorcised, once and for all.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!