So what do we do, in a world where people are both routinely denied laurels and special recognition because of how they are different (and different for reasons not of their choosing)... but where they are also often the recipients of the same, and for the same reason?
How do I feel about this?
In high school my friend John used to complain about what he called "inscrimination", where people who were different were the recipients of awards, or applause, or (worst of all) outward and too-enthusiastic shows of friendship from their peers. In my friend's view, such positive attention was as offensive as negative attention. Because it wasn't genuine. Because it was an artifact of the very difference that we, as good enlightened late-20th century high school students, were supposed to ignore. This thinking is at the heart of one of the pillars of anti-affirmative action thinking. The other is the factor that, in jobs and college admission offers-- as in awards like Homecoming Queen-- we are dealing in zero-sum games. When someone is the recipient of preferential treatment because of the way they are different or disadvantaged, that cuts against someone who is not so preferred.
What John wanted was admirable, and it's the same thing that Ward Connerly and other affirmative action foes want. A truly open and free and fair society, with neither preference or discrimination for those outside the norm. A high school, a culture, where difference really doesn't matter.
But life, I'm afraid, is not that simple. These old ways of discrimination have a way of outliving anyone who would openly endorse them. And the stark question remains: what if denying this preference really does ensure that these people will have no opportunity to excel at all? Affirmative action foes want to keep the conversation centered purely on principle. But what about the consequences? What if ending widespread affirmative action means that black college attendance rates become extremely low-- as evidence from the California public education system seems to suggest they might? Can't even the most hardened anti-AA warrior concede that there are practical public disadvantages to having college attendance-- and effectively, participation in the American middle class -- be drawn along racial lines? I know that many would say quite openly that they don't care if any black people at all go to college, as long as the selection is based on equitable and fair criteria. For myself, I think the existence of a permanent black underclass has been a major detriment to a just and secure American society, and I can't imagine a way in which ending affirmative action-- without some concurrent effort to ameliorate black poverty and joblessness-- could have a positive effect on that reality.
What happens when we know that not giving some weight to the conditions of difference that certain among us have ensures that they won't achieve things like winning Homecoming Queen? Click through. Look at her smile. Could I deny her that moment? Could you?
And, of course, while it may be true that she only won because she has Downs syndrome, this is also true: the fact that she has Downs syndrome is precisely the reason why skeptics would be skeptical of her winning in the first place. Saying that it's unfair for her to win because she is the beneficiary of Downs syndrome ignores the fact that it is the physical and mental disability that she has suffered as a result of that condition that makes us so certain that her victory was the result of "incrimination". Not giving her the crown out of a strangled sense of obligation to what she has had to overcome does not, I'm afraid, teleport us into the level-playing field my friend, and so many others, have imagined, any more than giving her the crown somehow elevates her outside of the social un-personhood that intellectual disability sadly can create in peer groups. One way or another, her disability remains; I've long imagined that it's our deep discomfort with that inescapable reality that compels us to practice "inscrimination" in the first place.
With black and other racial minorities, too, we must remain cognizent that both our efforts to help them overcome prejudice, or our refusal to do so out of the principle that doing so only exacerbates that prejudice, does not change the fact that we have this thing called race, and it is complicated. This isn't to analogize being black with having Downs syndrome. Black people of course don't face the real physical or cognitive challenges those with Downs syndrome face. But whatever happy notions of a post-racial age the Obama candidacy or our continued fight against racism or simply living in the 21st century might give us, we must remember that there is such a thing called race, though we will of course have severe disagreements about what that racialization means. I've noticed that many white people become uncomfortable in class settings when race is discussed, and I believe it's because it's only when we talk about race that white people feel racialized, whereas most non-white people feel racialized far more often. It's important to remember that, I think.
That's not to say that we should feel guilty, for not being racialized, only that we should try to remain cognizent of that difference, as I do believe mutual understanding-- or at least the attempt at such-- is a key to maintaining a working society. People freak out when they feel they are being prescribed guilt; I think that's handicapped many liberal social projects. The point isn't to feel guilty about the existence of race but to not allow ourselves to fall into the pleasant fiction of the raceless world. This campaign has given us many reasons to cheer where we have gone, but it should also remind anyone who would care to look that race is still with us. Being black still means something. I now support class-based affirmative action over race-based affirmative action, out of political pragmatism more than anything else. But remember: neither affirmative action or the end of the same will change the fact that being black, being a racial minority in white America, means something, and will for a long time.
What do I do with this girl? Do I cringe at the condescension? Or do I thrill to her opportunity to experience this moment? I am disturbed by the over-earnestness of the gesture, but god, I am put off by some of the commenters on Jezebel who are criticizing this-- they are too smart by half, too self-satisfied in their certainty that this is the wrong thing.
Could they pass the ultimate test of whether they really think that this is an injustice? Could they tell that girl, to her face, that she doesn't deserve what she has won?