The Long View

Prejudices change slowly, but they change.

Anthropologists take the long view. Fads come and go–hula hoops, Heavy Metal–but where it counts, culture change–cultural evolution, really–is slow.

Take racial equality for instance. I am always amazed by people who say that affirmative action has gone on long enough.

The playing field has been leveled, people in power are color blind, years of giving blacks and women a leg up have done their work. Affirmative action can and should in fairness be retired.

But of course, the playing field has not been leveled, either in race or gender. A fourth or more of all African-American young men are either in prison or on parole, race differences in wealth and income are huge, and the much-vaunted “color blindness” actually covers up discrimination.

As for women, the glass ceiling is hard and thick, men still do just a fraction of the child care and housework, and the “mommy track” still forces vast amounts of talent to the sidelines of world progress-to the detriment of the whole human species.

You can argue about how long affirmative action should go on, but actually I know the answer, at least for race: 245 years.

Don’t laugh. This is the right answer, and here is how you do the calculation: The first slave was imported into the American colonies in 1618-two years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Subtract 1618 from 1863, you get 245.

I know, America did plenty of bad things to black people after 1863, but slavery was the thing that set them back so badly politically, economically, and socially that they have still not recovered. They did a lot for America during those 245 years, but America did a lot less than nothing for them.

As for women, you basically have to go back to the hunting-and-gathering phase of history–ten thousand years ago–before you find a world where women were more or less equal. How do I know this? Because the !Kung San (Bushmen) I lived with in the 1970s had roughly equal relations between the sexes–and so do all other hunter-gatherer groups that have been considered possible models for how things were in the long, distant human past.

Women provided more than half the subsistence in these cultures, and their economic contribution gave them social and political power. Add to that the fact that the only decision making body was a collection of all the adults in a small band sitting around the fire at night–basically an encounter group–and you have culture uniquely suited to hearing smart women’s voices.

Male-dominated economic, religious, and military elites would emerge only later, with the evolution of agriculture and cities, putting distance between the seats of power and the ordinary person. Women and minorities have been at a disadvantage ever since. Yes, things are changing. So when I told my two daughters, now successful adults, they could be anything they wanted to be, it was truer than ever before. But it wasn’t as true as it was when I said it to my son.

Which is why the past year-and-a-half has changed history. An African-American and a woman were the prime candidates for one party’s nomination to be President of the United States. Either would have made history, so both did. And when I say history, I am taking the long view. I am looking at ten thousand years.

Only one of them could have become President, and quite possibly neither will in the end. Still, history is made. The world is permanently different.

I personally stood before the Lincoln Memorial 45 years ago–just shy of my 17th birthday, I had to defy my parents to climb on a bus in Brooklyn in the dead of night–and listened to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver the speech that changed the world then.

He had a dream that has not yet come true, but last week it got a lot closer. A woman and a black man accomplished what I for one did not have the courage to dream would have happened in only 45 years.

As for what happens next, no one really knows. An outstanding woman’s defeat helped prove that being a woman is still a disadvantage, and November’s results may yet prove that being black is too. Or perhaps this outstanding man will lose not because he is black but because his politics are not enough like America’s.

But for now, not just Americans but the whole world can celebrate. We have seen not one but two triumphs of hope over habit, fairness over advantage, open-mindedness over millennial convention. Take the long view for just a moment, fellow human, and be proud.

Modified from an Op-Ed piece in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution of January 19, 2004.


  1. Jack Davis says:

    Dr. Konner,
    I’m a big fan of yours (I own two of your books) but this post is intellectually indefensible.
    My objections:
    1. How is it fair to punish me-for example-, a white man with very little money and no power, for the sins of American slaveholders hundreds of years ago? My grandfather emigrated here in the early 20th century from Russia. (I might add he was very far from a rich man). I can assure you with 100% conviction that he was as responsible for the institution of slavery as you or I am. Why should a black person, simply because he’s black , automatically receive a government preference over me? Doesn’t the 14th Amendment provide for equal protection under the law?
    2. The argument that affirmative action should go on for 245 years because of the 245 year existence of slavery makes no sense. By that logic, since women were denied the vote for about 300 years; we should disenfranchise men for 300 years to make up for that injustice.
    3. How does the loss! by Hillary Clinton of the Democratic nomination show progress? That’s setting the bar rather low. Remember Margaret Thatcher? That’s an actual success for a woman (electorally speaking, I’m not endorsing her politics).
    4. You are right when you said “A fourth or more of all African-American young men are either in prison or on parole.” It is an absolute non sequitur to use that as an argument for affirmative action. That fact has two primary causes: 1. our insane and failed war on drugs, 2. a breakdown of the black family, resulting in high illegitmate rates (about 70%). Both these problems need to be addressed, but I fail to see how extending affirmative action for 245 years is going to affect these issues. (I have not, incidentally, heard Obama call for drug decriminalization).
    5. Question: if a right-wing black like Alan Keyes or Clarence Thomas won the Republican nomination would that also be cause for celebrating our great racial progress in this country?

    Respectfully yours,
    Jack Davis
    San Diego, CA

  2. Mel Konner says:

    Thanks for this long and interesting post. I don’t think I’ll convince you, but I’ll try to answer.

    1. My four grandparents came in the late 1800s, and like your grandfather (and you, and me), they were not responsible for slavery. However, they benefited greatly from it, as did all Americans before and since. Unpaid labor helped build the nation that helped them, and us. It’s not punishment, it’s restitution.

    2. 300 years of affirmative action for women sounds reasonable. Remember, affirmative action doesn’t mean you have to hire a black or a woman, it means that you make an extra effort to encourage them to apply, and when all else is equal, you favor them. It is of course often abused and turned into a quota system or worse, and I don’t favor such abuses.

    3. Hillary got 18 million votes, probably more than the man opposing her, and maybe more than any other presidential primary candidate in history. I think it’s a big deal.

    4. I agree with you on drug decriminalization, but the breakdown of the black family is a legacy of slavery.

    5. Yes, just as Margaret Thatcher represented a great advance for women. Personally, I wish Colin Powell had been the first black president.

    If you want to reply again, I’ll let you have the last word 🙂

  3. Jack Davis says:

    Re: point 2, the actual reality of affirmative action in the U.S. has not meant simply favoring a black or a woman when the qualifications are close. According to Michael Lind’s The Next American Nation:
    Between 1985 and 1990 the average LSAT test score for white students admitted to the University of Texas law schoolwas the 92nd percentile, while the average black score was the 55th percentile. That is not a matter of blacks getting a small benefit- we’re talking 37 percentile points. There are numerous other examples of gross inequities in the book (which is by no means a fanatical right-wing diatribe).
    Re: point 3, I still don’t see the great achievement. The wife of a former President broke even with a fairly inexperienced black United States Senator.

    Re: point 4 I don’t see how you establish scientifically that the breakdown of the black family is a legacy of slavery. How could that be tested?
    Re: point 5, Would the election of, say, Laura Ingraham, be a great triumph for women? Why would Colin Powell have made a great President? Are we better off that the affirmative action candidate Clarence thomas has a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. Were we well served by the high position of Alberto Gonzales?

    Jack Davis
    San Diego, CA

  4. Pingback:

Leave a Reply