The crossfire of commentary about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to review affirmative action makes one thing clear: The Left thinks it owns the concepts of "justice," "equality" and "freedom."
Those who oppose affirmative action are dismissed as "just not getting it." The truth is, we understand these concepts too well.
The case concerns the University of Michigan's policy of giving bonus admission points to black, Hispanic and Native American applicants solely because they are minorities. Whites, because of their skin color, must meet a higher standard. (The case has immediate implications for gender.)
This is discrimination. The question becomes "is it proper discrimination?" Or, more broadly, is it ever proper for a tax-funded institution to systematically privilege one class of people at the expense of another?
Martin Luther King, leader of the '60s civil rights movement, didn't think so. In his justly renowned speech "I Have a Dream" King declared, "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Contemporary "civil rights" leaders are demanding King's grandchildren be judged on the basis of skin color. More than this: They advocate lowering the bar for minorities, presumably because they believe minorities cannot compete on an equal footing with whites (or white males), despite decades of leveling policies such as affirmative action.
Advocates of affirmative action use skin color or gender to create class privileges by harking back to historical inequities. Because some classes were once legally oppressed, it is argued that they must be privileged today. Class privilege becomes good or bad depending on who receives it.
Just one of the problems with this position is the fact that the individuals being privileged today were not the ones oppressed in the past. Moreover, the individuals being legally oppressed today have committed no offense.
My Irish ancestors are an example of the latter. In the 19th century, Americans viewed the half-starved Irish immigrant as less than human. Indeed, plantation owners used the Irish to do perilous work, like clearing swamps, because they were considered less valuable than slaves. The push behind public school and juvenile delinquent legislation was largely a desire to "Christianize the Catholics" -- the Irish immigrants.
Such immigrants had nothing to do with slavery, the theft of land from Indians or any of the historical inequities being wielded like invoices by a bill-collector. The European immigrants of the 19th century fled from societies that legally oppressed them and privileged others. They fled to a place where backbreaking work could offer a better life to their children. And they prospered despite a system that brutally discriminated against them. They prospered because, for most practical purposes, they were equal under the law.
North America was seen as a classless society. It did not live up to that description, but it came closer than anywhere else in the world. For many immigrants, even an approximation of the ideal gleamed like a beacon: A society in which all people -- especially their children -- were equal under the law. And, through the 19th and 20th centuries, America moved closer toward this ideal by recognizing the equal rights of minorities and women.
Affirmative action ignores the immigrants' dreams and sacrifices for their children. Instead, it asks the state to become a remedial historian who searches through centuries of injustices picking and choosing which race and what events are to be placed as burdens on the backs of today's taxpayers and children. The descendants of European immigrants are to be legally disadvantaged because they are white or, even worse, white males.
And, if anyone objects, the first counter-arguments hurled are ad hominems such as "racist" or "sexist."
A system that says the bar must be lowered for me, because I'm a woman, or for my husband, because he's Hispanic, is an insult to us both. I don't need Big Brother or Big Sister to protect me from being judged on my merits. Be my guest and call these beliefs racist and sexist.
They will also be called "elitist."
The Left has accomplished a political sleight-of-hand par excellence. Arguing for a legal system and tax-supported institutions that are color and gender blind is now called elitist. Equality is now defined as privileges based on color and gender.
Throughout history, freedom has grown by collapsing legal privileges that exalt some and leave others in servitude. In England, the Magna Carta deprived the king of exclusive rights and extended them to nobles; the breakdown of feudalism extended property rights from nobles to peasants. In the United States, the demise of slavery extended "property in one's own person" from whites to blacks; the woman's movement extended full legal recognition from men to women.
Freedom means recognizing that every human being possesses every human right in equal measure.
The travesties of the past occurred precisely because this principle was ignored. The solution then was to remove privileges from the law. The solution remains the same.
Those who argue against affirmative action "get" the concepts of "justice," "equality" and "freedom." That is precisely why we say: eliminate affirmative action.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.