White men can organize, but only to apologize.
Thanks to a group of disgruntled firemen, the question of what it means to be white is back in the news. By late June, the Supreme Court will decide whether the city of New Haven, Connecticut was right to throw out the results of a promotions test for lieutenant and captain only because the top scorers were white. The city badly wanted blacks, so it has left the jobs unfilled rather than promote any more undesirable white men. The city argues that since the scores of test-takers–black, white, and Hispanic–were all thrown out, there can have been no discrimination.
That argument reminds me of the one Bob Jones University made when the Supreme Court lifted its tax-exempt status in 1983. Bob Jones was letting in students of all races but banned interracial dating on Biblical grounds. It said this could hardly be discrimination, since the ban applied to all races, who were equally benefitted (or inconvenienced, depending on your point of view). Somehow, the justices did not go along, though they failed to explain what was wrong with an argument that, for a private religious college, seems pretty close to airtight. We shall see whether the court buys the argument that since New Haven threw out the scores of the black losers as well as the white winners there was no discrimination.There is nothing new about what happened to these firemen. Ever since the 1970s, whites have been the only people you can discriminate against legally and openly–and you can claim to be fighting discrimination when you do it. But it may be that after 30 years of this, even the white worm has begun to turn. In a letter about the firemen that the New York Times published on April 22, someone named Audrey Abramov seems to have stumbled onto the view that “it appears that being white not only is no longer an advantage, but is now a liability.”
The Times should know better than that. It has long agreed with black columnist William Raspberry, who used to say that “it’s always illegitimate for white men to organize as white men,” and that is exactly what the New Haven firemen are doing, even though they brought one Hispanic into the suit for protective coloring. Another black columnist, Shelby Steele, has described accurately the kind of ideological foreclosure that has informed racial discourse in America since the ’60s: “eyond an identity that apologizes for white supremacy, absolutely no white identity is permissible. In fact, if there is a white racial identity today it would have to be white guilt–a shared, even unifying, lack of racial moral authority.”
White men can organize after all, but only to apologize.