Rabbi Avi Weinstein

A Jewish Look at Affirmative Action

In affirmative action, Parshat Noach, Santomayor on June 9, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Judge Sonia Satomayor’s nomination to the Supremes has raised the hackles of conservatives, and they point to her dismissive response to a lawsuit where a white fireman was denied promotion after having passed the required exam. The reason given was that no minorities had passed, so because of concerns for diversity in the department, nobody was promoted.

It is clear to me that anyone who believes in fair play should have a problem with what can only be construed as reverse racism. Because of advances in race relations, I do believe that such a decision would no longer fly, but years ago, when whole groups were closed out of certain professions, redress for past wrongs was a much more resonant justification than it might be today.

The Biblical Noah, was called “A righteous pure man of his generation…” The Talmudic commentators wondered why was it necessary to say “of his generation”? One opined that it was only in such a wicked generation would he have been considered righteous, while the other disagreed saying that if Noah could maintain his morality among these folks, any other generation would be a breeze.

If a child goes to school hungry every day, and on his way to school passes two crack houses, maintains a good attendance record and a “B” average, that is a feat of profound commitment, at least according to the second opinion. He has exhibited exemplary character, and should be given “extra credit” for overcoming the obstacles of poverty, and crime. He should be given credit for the tested content of his character. According to the opinion that praises the good man in a morally challenged neighborhood, where one begins is more important than where one ends up. We are interested in the whole trajectory of achievement and not just the bottom line.

In other words, we reward on merit alone, but the definition of merit has to reflect the entire reality, and not just test scores. How many suburban kids with all their advantages would have fared as well in these circumstances.

Redress for past wrongs encourages bitterness among those who feel guiltless. My being white does not make me responsible for past injustices of other groups, but my advantages over one who is disadvantaged, should matter, if we are to be a fair society.

For a look at the two opinions and their intriguing metaphors, click here.

  1. I like this post, but you do something subtle that I find disconcerting, or at least confusing. In the first sentence, you say, "Judge Sonya Santomayor's nomination to the Supremes has raised the hackles of conservatives …" In the second paragraph, you say, "It is clear to me that anyone who believes in fair play should have a problem with what can only be construed as reverse racism."

    You go on to discuss a narrow context in which what might be viewed as reverse racism may actually be the appropriate thing to do. I would argue that you make the case for taking specific circumstances or perhaps socioeconomic class into account, not race, but all in all you offer a nuanced discussion of a charged and complex issue.

    So why is it only the conservatives whose hackles have been raised? (Your implication seems to be that (all) conservatives have been overly sensitive or acted in a knee-jerk, ideological fashion, unlike you.) To put it another way, why HAVEN'T the hackles of non-conservatives been raised? Why haven't YOUR hackles been raised?

    Reasonable people can disagree as to whether Judge Santomayor belongs in the Supremes. Your discoure suggests that a yellow flag, if not a red flag (along with some hackles) should be raised — and yet you use your first clause to take a potshot at conservatives.

    Ron Weiner

  2. Hey Ron,
    Once I call it reverse racism, I think my hackles are with the conservatives, as far as the fireman goes, but on the airwaves, it was the conservatives who raised the issue, and not the liberals. I wasn't chastising them, I was saying that they brought the issue to my attention–the liberals would have let the sleeping dog lie. My point is, that the Torah would redefine merit in the interest of fairness, and that reframing would not fit in the liberal or conervative camp.

    I believe once I declare the fireman issue "reverse racism" I am sympathetic to the conservative claim, and see their point–and I do. One of the recurrent themes I am exploring is the mindlessness of these artificial labels. Liberals should have been outraged, but few of the spokespeople know any firemen. (Except for Maureen Dowd and Barnicle–Barnicle was actually sympathetic once the issue was brought to his attention.)

  3. It's "Sotomayor"

  4. Thank you, Avi. As I said I was either (provisionally) disconcerted or confused. Now I can declare that I was, officially, the latter. In addition, I am no longer confused and, with Andy Bachman's correction (and apparently her first name is spelled "Sonia"), I am pleased that all is right with this little corner of the world … other than not being able to post without using Anonymous.

    Ron Weiner

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