Archive for August, 2012

I want you to imagine a scenario, and I’m not going to tell you why until the very end of this post.  Some of you might already know where this is headed, because I’ve used this metaphor in conversation before.  To my knowledge, this analogy is my own creation; that said, a quick Google search will pull up similar parables to demonstrate the same point, but I do not recall ever having heard it or read it before I thought of it.  So let that be my disclaimer – I think I came up on this with my own, but it’s entirely possible that someone made this or a similar argument before and I just think it’s mine.  Either way, I think it’s a great way to discuss justice and fairness – and to ask if those are the same thing, necessarily.

A very important race is about to happen – a long-distance relay that carries very high stakes for those involved.  The winning team will be set for life – they will win the Olympic gold, as it were – and will go on to long-lived careers as relay race runners.  We have two teams – I will call them Team X and team Y.  The players – five per team — are spaced out over this lengthy course.  Unbeknownst to Team X, or the final team members of Team Y, the first Team Y runner has bribed one of the officials to rig the race in their favor, and that official has constructed additional hurdles across the way.  In addition, the baton that Team X will be carrying will be heavier than the one Team Y will carry.  The running shoes provided to Team X have less traction and arch support than the ones provided to Team Y.  In addition, the judge has stolen the water bottles that Team X was supposed to have to run this race on what is a very, very hot day.

As the race is about to begin, the official begins counting down the time until the race starts.  He fires the gun to start the race, and the teams are off.  The official immediately stops the first Team X runner, claiming that they jumped the gun, and authorizes a five minute head start for Team Y.  After five minutes, Team Y has developed a considerable advantage over Team X, but Team X begins the race as the crowd watches on.  While the first leg of the race is being run, the later players of Team X recognize that they don’t have any water and immediately send their coach to find more, but that doesn’t help the first runner who is parched, already significantly behind, whose feet are beginning to hurt due to lack of support in the shoes, and who has already tripped twice because of the sabotaged soles.  By the time Team X passes the baton to the second player, Team Y now has an eight minute advantage.

The second runner fares a little better though, since he has some water and he was born a naturally gifted athlete.  He only trips once in his leg of the race, and while he was running, the first player told the coach that their shoes had been sabotaged.  The coach was able to get new shoes for the last three runners who would not be similarly handicapped.  When the second runner passes the baton, Team X is only trailing by six minutes.  In the meantime, an oversight committee has recognized that something is amiss and has removed the bribed officials and replaced them with unbiased observers.  As the race continues, they hustle to remove the additional hurdles that the fourth and fifth runners will face, but do not want to try to dissemble those on the third leg of the race to avoid confusion and refrain from interfering with the runners.

By the time the baton is passed to the fourth runner, all but a few of the extra hurdles have been taken down for Team X, and Team Y only has a four minute lead.   The officials are able to remove all of the superfluous hurdles on the fifth leg of the race by this point, but because the additional weight of the baton is so subtle, they do not recognize that it has been weighted improperly and is contributing even more to the unfair time.  They wish that they could start the race from scratch, but they only have the resources to host the race this one time and it would be virtually impossible to begin anew.  They recognize that the race was rigged from the start, but can do nothing about it except hope that the fifth racer can bridge the gap.  When the baton is passed to the fifth racer, Team X is only three minutes behind.

The fifth leg of the race is, by all appearances, completely fair.  No one – not even the runner – recognizes the extra weight of the baton.  By force of will alone, and because perhaps Team Y has gotten a little complacent in their lead, Team X almost closes the gap.  Ultimately, Team Y wins the race by just fifteen seconds.  The results, however, are not immediately announced.  The officials have convened over in a corner somewhere and seem to be intensely discussing the situation – after all, this race was certainly not one that was equitable for Team X.  After a short discussion, the officials announce that they have decided to award the Gold medal to Team X because of the unfairness, but promise that a Silver medal will be available to Team Y and that they will likely still get sponsored and have long and successful careers.  The final runner on Team Y is outraged – “This isn’t fair!” he says.  He didn’t even know that the first member of the team had bribed the judge, and he just ran his butt off.  His team had a better time and should win the Gold!  The crowd at this point is quite confused.  The family members of Team X are cheering at this unexpected announcement.  Some independent observers, well-informed about the race, recognized the disparity too and are cheering for the announcement.  But by and large, not recognizing the unfairness that existed all along, the crowd is outraged.  They say that the officials are simply discriminating against all of Team Y because of the actions of one misguided first player and a corrupt official.

If you had to pick a runner for your next relay team – who would you pick? Someone from Team X or someone from Team Y?  My bet is that, knowing everything you know about the race, you would pick someone from Team X who had to surpass insurmountable obstacles.  Sure, Team Y had the better overall time, but looking at the situation holistically you have decided that your team will be better served by Team X.  In this one instance, you’re going to ignore the quantitative score and make a more subjective decision based on individual characteristics.  I think that’s what you would do, anyway.  It’s what I would do.  For several reasons, actually.  It is obvious that Team X had to work much harder, and they didn’t finish that far behind.  There is a lot of potential there.  In addition, it’s the only truly just thing to do.  It might not be fair to that fifth runner on Team Y, who did absolutely nothing wrong himself and benefitted from an advantage that he didn’t even know about, but he is a good runner and he’ll probably be okay.

But now let’s pretend this isn’t a relay race at all.  Let’s pretend, instead, that this is actually the story of American history.  Let Team X represent, for the purposes of this discussion, African Americans.  Let Team Y represent White Americans.  The corrupt judge in this instance is slavery, and the five minute head start represents the time during which African Americans served as slaves.  Let the sabotaged sneakers represent the laws that made it illegal to teach blacks to read.  Let the removal of the judge represent emancipation, and the restoration of water the right of African Americans to vote.  Let the passing of the baton represent the passage of time from one generation to the next, and the additional hurdles laws like Jim Crow.  Let the people working to dissemble those hurdles be protestors fighting for and politicians implementing imperfect policies that remove most of the obstacles to success.  Let the family members of Team X represent the African American community, the independent supporters of Team X well-educated activists working for social justice, and the rest of the crowd represent today’s White majority.  Let those final runners be, for example, high school students today.  The runner for Team X is Black, and the final runner for Team Y is White.  Neither is responsible for the actions of their predecessors.  Let the heavy baton represent all of the subliminal messages that African Americans receive – subtle but systematic discrimination, both actual and perceived – that not everyone sees.  Let the gold medal awarded at the end represent admission into a highly-selective University.

And the judges’ decision to consider the totality of the circumstances in awarding that medal to Team X?  That’s the choice – the affirmative action – to try to correct past and present injustice. Knowing that Team X deserves it even if their time (grades? SAT scores? Extracurricular activities?) wasn’t as strong as Team Y on paper.   And sure, that final leg of the race – Team X and Team Y started on almost equal footing if you looked at their race individually.  Sure, it seems unfair that the final runner of Team Y – who did nothing wrong himself, and ran a great race – doesn’t get the medal.  But he’ll be okay in the end.

We need to examine issues of public policy in terms of the entire historical context rather than how things are right now.  And race certainly isn’t the only issue, though it’s one of the factors that has provided the greatest obstacles to human beings in our short history as a nation.  Does that mean that Team X always gets that bonus in their future races?  No.  But until they’ve recovered from that first race, and until that baton is weighted exactly as equal to the other, we need to continue to act within the context of the society in which we live.  When the Supreme Court likely hears a case on Affirmative Action this fall – or when you’re discussing the issue over the water cooler, or in a car ride home from the beach – I hope you really consider whether or not Team X is still very tired from their first race, and if that baton really has been fixed.

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Normally, I’m not a believer in the following logic that seems to be pressing Romney to release his tax returns: “Well, if you don’t have anything to hide, why not show it?”  I just find that line of reasoning dangerous.  If you’re not committing a crime, why not have Government cameras in your house?  Because there is a certain point at which it’s an invasion of privacy.  So the question is: are the repeated calls for Romney’s tax-returns being made public one of these points?

Consider briefly the birth-certificate imbroglio that weighed down the beginning years of Barack Obama’s presidency (and almost his entire candidacy).  I was vehemently opposed to the rhetoric floating around back then, as in my eyes it was clear that people just could not believe that this man — with an exotic past and dark skin — could be President of the United States.  After all, I had never seen anyone claiming that Bill Clinton was born in Kenya.  No one ever claimed that George W. Bush was born overseas.  To my knowledge, no one has claimed that Mitt Romney was born in Canada.  So why was that question reserved for Mr. Obama?  I think the answer’s obvious, but to suggest it is to open oneself up to attacks of “playing the race card.”

So now the shoe is on the other foot, and people are talking about Romney’s taxes.  I don’t think comparing these two questions as witch-hunts and here’s why: almost every candidate for president — since Mitt Romney’s father released an unprecedented 12-years of returns — has released more than a year of tax returns.  Federal law only requires two years, and so far Romney has only provided one year’s worth, with another planned for October.  Do you see the difference?  Almost every candidate has been asked to release tax returns and has done so; Romney has not.  No candidate had been asked to prove his place of birth; Obama was.

There’s all kinds of speculation about why Romney won’t release his returns.  To be fair, McCain only released two years of returns prior to his candidacy, but nobody at the time was claiming that McCain was hiding millions of dollars overseas or failing to pay any taxes at all.  McCain also didn’t fail to disclose to the Federal government that he had a corporation in Bermuda.  Romney states emphatically that he’s paid what is legally necessary — and only what is legally necessary — and the IRS has audited him, so we should believe him.  To be honest, I don’t disbelieve him.  But the reason Romney doesn’t want this as part of the conversation isn’t because he’s done anything illegal (I don’t think), but because it will bring the realities of tax-policies for people worth hundreds of millions of dollars into the forefront again.

We will begin having the same conversations that both the TEA Party and Occupy Wall Street started — except we’ll be having them in the context of a Presidential election.  The question will be simple: “Do we want a leader who has benefited from years of tax loopholes and off-shore accounts and who has promised to maintain those tax breaks for the wealthy?”  That’s a real conversation to have.  Do we continue the idea of “Trickle Down Economics” or do we reform the tax code so that those who benefit the most from the American system also pay the greatest proportion of taxes?  Either way, this isn’t a discussion that’s going to be going away anytime soon.  As Romney’s numbers fall in key swing states, it might be time for him to bite the bullet.  Better now than in November.

Liz Warren sums up my position, but the American people are entitled to see the tax records and have the conversation: