The insult of flattering minorities
THE AD IN USA Today wasn't headlined "For blacks and Hispanics, these kids are pretty smart" -- but it might as well have been. The full-page layout trumpeted the 32 college students selected as finalists in the American Advertising Federation's annual "Most Promising Minority Students Program." That program, the AAF says, "connects the advertising industry with the nation's top minority college seniors."
In the world that affirmative action has made, there are rich rewards to be reaped from being designated a "top minority." The students featured in the ad were flown to New York for a long weekend, flattered at a Waldorf-Astoria awards luncheon, and introduced to recruiters and executives from leading media companies and ad agencies. They repeatedly heard themselves described as accomplished, talented, the best and the brightest. And presumably none of their hosts or sponsors was tactless enough to mention the gulf that separates the nation's "most promising minority students" from the nation's most promising students.
William F. Buckley once remarked, upon being told that Lillian Hellman was America's finest female playwright, that this was on the order of celebrating the tallest building in Wichita. Perhaps the 32 students hailed in the ad really are gifted whiz kids with a genius for advertising -- but when the competition excludes more than 70 percent of the field, how would one know?
It doesn't seem to have occurred to the American Advertising Federation or its corporate sponsors that it is insulting to tell a group of students that, for minorities, they are hot stuff. It doesn't seem to have occurred to the students, either. No wonder: They're winning at the game of racial double standards that for years has reinforced the stereotype of black and Hispanic inferiority -- the degrading myth that members of certain racial and ethnic groups can succeed only if the bar is lowered for them.
The ad industry's "most promising minority students" campaign is an example of what Yale law professor Stephen Carter, in "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," called the "best black" syndrome.
"We are measured," he wrote, "by a different yardstick: first black, only black, best black. The best black syndrome is cut from the same cloth as the implicit and demeaning tokenism that often accompanies racial preferences: `Oh, we'll tolerate so-and-so at our hospital or in our firm or on our faculty, because she's the best black.' Not because she's the best-qualified candidate, but because she's the best-qualified black candidate. She can fill the black slot. And then the rest of the slots can be filled in the usual way: with the best-qualified candidates."
Once upon time it was racists who insisted that "nonwhite" was a synonym for "intellectually deficient." Today that attitude is promoted most emphatically by the defenders of affirmative action, a system rooted in the belief that blacks and certain other minorities can't hope to win if they have to compete on a level playing field. And so racial preferences are used to tilt the field in their favor: lower admissions standards at colleges and graduate schools, minority set-asides for government contracts, unofficial racial quotas to benefit those applying for jobs. Racial preferences are clearly a boon for some minorities -- particularly those from upper-middle-class families who know how to leverage them to get into a good school or land a good job or get in on a good investment. But they do no favors for minority groups as a whole. Preferences stigmatize them as less able than other Americans to stand on their own two feet. Many end up resenting those who believe they need such a crutch -- and resenting those who would take it away.
The notion that certain minorities are of a lower caliber than "real" Americans is as old as America itself. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin scorned the German immigrants then flooding into Pennsylvania. "Those who come hither," he claimed, "are generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their own nation."
A century and a half later, Francis Walker, the head of the Census Bureau (and later president of MIT), lamented that the immigrants of his day weren't nearly as impressive as the German immigrants of old. He disparaged the Poles, Italians, and Jews then surging in as "beaten men from beaten races," totally lacking in "the ideas and aptitudes such as belong to those who were descended from the tribes that met under the oak trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chiefs."
Fortunately, there was no affirmative action at the turn of the 20th century to give members of "beaten races" a leg up in the competition for education and jobs. They had to rise on their own merits if they were to overcome the stigma of inferiority -- and rise and overcome they did. Black and Hispanic Americans would rise and overcome as well if only they could be liberated from the condescending mind-set that thinks it's a compliment to tell a group of college seniors that they show great promise -- for minorities.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.