Thursday, August 05, 2010

Senator Webb's critique of affirmative action, agreement in Our Time Press, Russo Wrecking, and the disconnect with the Atlantic Yards CBA

What does the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) have to do with Virginia Senator Jim Webb and Our Time Press Editor/Publisher David Mark Greaves?

Well, it serves as an example (in part) of the kind of affirmative action that doesn't address the inequities that prompted the policy.

Webb's argument

In a Wall Street Journal essay headlined “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege”, Webb recently argued:
Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.
And Greaves, whose Bed-Stuy-based newspaper is aimed at black Brooklynites, agrees with Webb, in an essay headlined View From Here: Jim Webb is Right – Diversity Programs Are Too Diverse.

The AY CBA

While Greaves doesn't connect the dots, I'd argue, as I did in March 2007, that the Atlantic Yards CBA, negotiated mainly by black leaders representing (mostly new) groups in Central Brooklyn, has little connection with some of the beneficiaries. (And, of course, Atlantic Yards remains as an illustration of the difficulty of defining who represents the "community.")

For example, a 2/20/07 press release (below) highlights a (white) woman-owned business based in Nassau County:
The developer announced as well that in keeping with the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a voluntary and legally binding agreement signed by eight local community groups and ratified by over 200 community groups and leaders, the first contracts of this initial work, worth more than $600,000, have been awarded to minority- and women-owned (M/WBE) firms. The largest of these contracts were awarded to the woman-owned demolition firm A. Russo Wrecking to remove the MTA bus parking facility on the east side of the track and the minority-owned security firm Eddington & Associates.
(Emphasis added)

The CBA, as I noted way back in October 2005, is supposed "to encourage systemic changes in the traditional ways of doing business on large urban development projects," but was supporting long-established firms, some minority-owned.

And A. Russo Wrecking, which announces on its home page (above) its status as a WBE (Women's Business Enterprise), isn't doing too badly.

The company has been at the same address since 1952. It's been mentioned in three New York Times articles in the past decade (left).

Company executives Ann Marie Russo and Salvatore Russo both serve as representatives of the New York City Demolition Contractors Association on the Board of Governors of the Building Trades Employers’ Association.

From Webb's essay

Webb focused on the injuries to working-class whites:
Lyndon Johnson's initial program for affirmative action was based on the 13th Amendment and on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which authorized the federal government to take actions in order to eliminate "the badges of slavery." Affirmative action was designed to recognize the uniquely difficult journey of African-Americans. This policy was justifiable and understandable, even to those who came from white cultural groups that had also suffered in socio-economic terms from the Civil War and its aftermath.

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.

Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.
The reaction

On The Root, a web magazine oriented toward African-Americans, Terence Samuel responded:
Jim Webb may be right about diversity programs, but his arguments are politically nuanced and historically layered, and as a result will not matter. The discussion of race is America has a long history of impermeability to nuance and subtlety: The history is long and painful, and the arguments on each side are too sharply honed and too well-refined to admit any common ground with the opposition. There remains a huge empathy gap about what is important to the other side.

He acknowledges all the important points his opponents will make: 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 Webb's brief will sound like a counter-narrative, in large part because it dismisses the idea of white privilege.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker, who called Webb's column "fascinating... fodder for reasonable conversation," concluded:
I would choose a different remedy than Webb’s. I would argue that affirmative action programs still have a role to play, but they should be class-based and not color-based.
On Racism Review, a site produced by academics, Jessie Daniels pointed to disproportionate treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system both as perpetrators and victims:
One of the key points that Webb misses (and there are many) is that even in a system in which all poor people are oppressed, some poor people who happen to have black or brown skin are even more oppressed.
And Red Room essayist/polemicist Tim Wise wrote:
Although Webb does not advocate the complete abolition of affirmative action--indeed he suggests it is still needed and valid for African Americans--his call to exclude other people of color from such efforts, and his rhetorical narrative about the "myth" of white privilege and advantage, are both sufficiently problematic to require a response. Indeed, if he is right about the latter, the entire basis for affirmative action, even for black folks, is undermined.

... Like most white Americans, Webb misunderstands what the term white privilege is meant to convey. It is not meant to suggest that all whites lead privileged lives of affluence and absolute well-being. Rather, it is meant to convey that relative to people of color, being white generally provides advantages, head starts and opportunities not as readily available to others.
Wise takes aim at claims the immigrants haven't suffered discrimination, citing several examples, and points to the Homestead Act and federal loan programs that offered preferential treatment for whites.

White women gain

Who's the beneficiary? Wise observed:
But what is most telling about this policy directive, and Webb's larger narrative about the way affirmative action has spread beyond its original intent is what he appears unwilling to say directly. Because if there were any case to be made for affirmative action having undergone mission creep in recent decades, it would not be with regard to the inclusion of people of color other than blacks. After all, it was the recognition that racism remained a real and persistent problem, requiring more than mere civil rights laws, which animated all early supporters of affirmative action. Rather, the only possible case for mission creep would be with regard to the way in which white women have reaped a disproportionate share of the benefits from such efforts. While one can certainly make the case--and I would, and have--that institutionalized sexism against women as women makes sex and gender considerations legitimate within affirmative action programs, this would seem a more logical target for the Senator's ire, if indeed the purpose of his column had been to highlight the excesses of a program gone wrong.
That would lead us to A. Russo Wrecking.

From Our Time Press

So it's clear that different readers find different parts of Webb's essay on which to focus. Greaves chose the issue of contracting, which is the one most relevant to the CBA:
We’re glad Jim Webb said it because he’s absolutely correct. In a former career in the moving industry, we would see government contracts go to large companies owned by white Cubans who qualified as “minority” contractors with economic resources far outdistancing their African-American competitors. Sometimes you would go into a bid conference and see a list of eligible minorities and wonder, “What the hell is going on here?”

This is not redress because someone doesn’t like your color or ethnicity, you have to apply to another door for that. These programs grew out of the theft of services from African-Americans forebears held in captivity and worked as slave labor. These programs are for their African-American heirs, and not every non-white person from across the planet.
Greaves noted:
And despite the headline, Webb does not deny white privilege, he just does not call it that. Instead, he acknowledges the existence of a ruling “white elite”, observing that “the Old South was a three-tiered society, with blacks and hard-put whites both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power. At the height of slavery, in 1860, less than 5% of whites in the South owned slaves.”

...Yes, other discrimination exists, but find other remedies. The government programs for “minority” contractors should be for African-Americans because their ancestors had their human capital taken and invested in building the roads and ports and growing and harvesting the crops that built this nation. That’s the work these programs were supposed to compensate for.
Atlantic Yards Press Release Preliminary Work

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