08/04/10: Sen. Webb’s diversity diversion

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE FIRST shot was recently fired in the 2012 campaign for U.S. Senate from Virginia. Sen. Jim Webb, in a column for The Wall Street Journal, made a claim on the territory of his expected opponent, former Sen. George Allen, while simultaneously attempting to shore up his support among the Democratic base.

In the column, “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege,” Webb puts forth the idea that diversity has gone too far, although not for blacks.    He writes, “The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed. But the extrapolation of this logic to all ‘people of color’ — especially since 1965, when new immigration laws dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the U.S. — moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites. It has also lessened the focus on assisting African   Americans, who despite a veneer of successful people at the very top still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup.”

This threading of the needle by Webb is not new. It is a position he held when he ran in 2006, although it was not widely known. Webb has an affinity for his — and my — kin, the Scots-Irish, best expressed in his book, “Born Fighting.” It is from this perspective that his article flows: The Scots-Irish were not the slave owners of the past, and far too many of them remain poor today.

This affinity, though, borders on pandering, as Webb needs their votes in the upcoming election.

Citing statistics on years of education and college degrees, Webb lays the blame for the poverty on government programs, which he says didn’t cover the white poor. “Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith.”

Webb has this wrong: The poverty programs of the 1960s didn’t distinguish between black and white. The two groups share a lot of the reasons why poverty persists — high rates of drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup, among them — that   should bring the groups together. It is politics — and columns like his — that keep the white poor and the black poor at odds, a point demonstrated by the response of the Virginia NAACP and others.

I can only assume that King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia Conference of the NAACP, never got past the column’s headline or the first paragraph. It’s hard to do when the opening line is, “The NAACP believes the tea party is racist. The tea party believes the NAACP is racist.” Talk about drawing lines in the sand! Khalfani fired off a letter to the senator, in which he compares Webb to Rand Paul, who made headlines when he said he wasn’t sure if he would have voted for the 1965 Civil Rights Act.   Part of Webb’s message — that we have “continuing obligation to assist those African Americans still in need” — was completely lost on Khalfani.

But Webb is not wrong about the expansion of diversity. The word shares the same Latin root as diversion — diversus — and   while not synonymous, the two terms are linked. By including every nonwhite group in diversity programs, a diversion has been created, taking our attention away from issues unique to black America, as well as the overriding issues of poverty. When Webb says “generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight,” he is absolutely correct.

All in all, Webb’s effort to explain his position was clumsy and comes off as an attempt to score political points. In his desire to help the white poor, he failed to acknowledge that the largest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women, some of whom undoubtedly come from poor backgrounds.

In the richest country in the world, there shouldn’t be poverty. We can only hope that Webb uses his position to help eradicate it.