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Jewish World Review/ Feb. 2, 1999/ 16 Shevat, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez Look who supports a people-of-color tax

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) I'VE BEEN DEBATING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION for more than 20 years, so it's difficult for my opponents to come up with any arguments I haven't heard before. What's more, I've learned to remain calm and cool even when an opponent resorts to personal attacks. So I was a bit surprised last week when I felt my hackles go up during a discussion at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on the future of affirmative action.

One of the other participants, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, nonchalantly said that he regarded affirmative action as a "tax" on whites, which he was happy to pay given the sorry history of discrimination against blacks in this society and the privileged position that whites enjoy because of that discrimination.

What bothered me in his formulation was not just the knowledge that this 'tax' is almost never borne by the Halberstams of the world --- Harvard class of '55 and all the wealth and fame that goes with having written more than half a dozen best-sellers. More often than not, this 'tax" falls on the working-class policemen or firemen who have been denied promotions because of an affirmative-action plan, or their children who have been kept out of top-ranked state universities because of a race-based preference in admissions.

But my anger was probably more personal than principled. I resented Halberstam's description because it seemed infuriatingly patronizing. Here was yet another guilty white liberal out to do me and all my black and brown brethren a huge favor.

"Has it ever occurred to you," I asked him, "that some of the intended beneficiaries of your noblesse oblige may not want to bear the stigma that goes along with being judged by lower standards than whites?"

Proponents of affirmative action don't want to talk about the stigma of affirmative action, and some even deny it exists. But its effects can be every bit as pernicious as old-fashioned racial prejudice. If ever there was a case study in the destructive possibilities of affirmative action, it is a new book by Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Barrett, The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America.

The book tells the story of Lawrence Mungin, who, as a child of the New York City housing projects, studies hard, excels in school, graduates from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and ends up practicing law in Washington, D.C., only to find himself denied a partnership in his large, Chicago-based firm.

Although one usually slow to blame racial discrimination for his problems, Mungin ended up suing his firm, alleging that it discriminated against him because of his race when it failed to consider him for partner in 1994. In painstaking detail, Barrett describes Mungin's rise and fall, a good deal of which he observed first-hand, having been Mungin's roommate at Harvard and, later, having watched Mungin's suit against his former law firm wend its way through the courts.

Although Barrett is careful not to make judgments about whether the law firm did or did not discriminate against Mungin, he paints a devastating picture of the firm's senior partners treating Mungin as an affirmative action charity case, rather than the competent professional he surely was.

But Mungin was not totally blameless in his predicament, either, a point that comes through in Barrett's book despite his hesitance to make it directly. Mungin earned his way into Harvard College based on competitive grades and test scores and a personal history of overcoming adversity, but he admitted that affirmative action got him into Harvard Law School, since his undergraduate grades and law-school aptitude test scores were below Harvard's demanding standards.

Moreover, Mungin freely touted his minority status when applying for the job at the law firm he later sued. And the firm's partners -- self-identified liberal Democrats -- liked to think of themselves as committed to affirmative action, at least so long as it didn't interfere with their firm's profits.

Like many liberals, the partners were happy to embrace affirmative action -- so long as someone else was paying affirmative action's "tax on whites." But they could never consider an affirmative action beneficiary their equal. They wouldn't entrust him with important work at the firm and, consequently, he could never prove himself to their satisfaction.

Don't tell me affirmative action doesn't carry a stigma. And all the well-intentioned motives of liberals in promoting it can't make up for the very real damage it inflicts on the Lawrence Mungins of the world.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.