The number of this year’s Academy Award contenders and recipients belonging to minority groups are hailed as progress toward addressing previous “underrepresentation.”
Responding to a chorus of demands, the Academy nominated six black actors for Oscar glory. For his role in “Moonlight,” Mahershala Ali took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, being not only black but also the first Muslim to win the prize; “Moonlight” also became the first LGBT film to win Best Picture. Viola Davis’s win for Best Supporting Actress in “Fences” made her the first black actress to earn an Emmy, a Tony, and an Oscar: a rare triple crown; Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor in the same movie. Best Documentary went to “O.J.: Made in America,” O.J. Simpson being the subject of the film.
So this year’s nominees and winners recognized more black people than ever before. “Lion’s” Dev Patel was the first actor of Indian descent in 13 years to receive a nomination and the thirteenth Asian actor to get notice overall. Rodrigo Prieto was the Latino nominee of the night for his work on “Silence.” Producer Joanna Natasegara became the first Oscar winner of Asian descent to win a competitive Academy Award and one of only four women outside the acting categories to take home an award.
Race (black), ethnicity (Indian, Latino, Asian), religion (Muslim), gender (women), gender preference (LGBT) all in one fell swoop. What are we to think? What are the recipients to think?
Today’s group-identity inspired accolades and privileges from whatever source are patterned after the 1960s Affirmative Action laws, their alleged purpose being to redress discrimination that had persisted in spite of civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees. From the start, the concept stirred controversy. Many applaud programs that elevate individuals to positions via quotas and percentages by believing that they offer so-called underrepresented people a chance. Others decry artificially created rather than individually earned places and prizes because they pass over individuals of merit in favor of those receiving privileges not based on ability.
Begun in universities, minority-classified students who fell below the median level of ability were not only admitted to certain schools but also given scholarships because of their low-income family’s inability to pay tuitions. Some flourished but others suffered as they struggled to meet average standards of achievement. Some dropped out, but many others who graduated also suffered from underachievement in the outside career world. Rejected non-minority students of high merit still complain and sue.
The Department of Labor also initiated affirmative action to compel federal contractors and subcontractors to “recruit and advance minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and veterans.” Their policy includes “training programs, outreach efforts, and other positive steps . . . [that] should be incorporated into the company’s written personnel policies.” DOL monitors companies for compliance.
As these official Affirmative Action programs spread out into private business communities and the culture as a whole, some results were positive: energetic recipients of special benefits with new knowledge and skills rose up the promotional ladder; others were negative: local fire and police departments adopted hiring quotas resulting in grave consequences from underperformance.
Eventually, as the perceived inequality of these policies — group-identity preference over individual merit — became more unpopular with the general public, the term morphed into more palatable calls for “diversity” and “inclusion,” terms that continue today as in Hollywood’s call for “diversity” in bestowing awards.
Yet, although the words are different the problems stay the same. Aside from the discontent of those passed over for positions, frustrations arise within the minority groups themselves. Because of a prickly awareness of resentment or distrust toward them from others, privileged but meritorious individuals can begin to suffer undeserved inner self doubts as to their abilities.
On the opposite side, privilege to underachievers can stimulate an inflated sense of self worth that doesn’t match ability, causing different troubles. Inevitably, no matter the particular circumstance, group identity leads to group stereotyping. This robs both minority and non-minority people from objectivity in judging the merit of others and of themselves as unique individuals, which, demonstrably, is unhealthy for an authentically equitable and cooperative society. Group-identity-group-think practices create tribal mentalities, obliterating the value and significance of individual identity. Instead of creating societal diversity, these practices create divisions between competing groups.
Legalities regarding this subject are no less thorny. Since the 1970s, Affirmative Action cases have received ping pong verdicts in various states on up to the Supreme Court. Recent examples: Michigan’s 2006 Proposal 2, known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, amended their state constitution to end preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, or gender, but last year (2016) the federal Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions program is constitutional.
So now, jumping into the decades-old fray, ultra-politically correct and ever-vocal Hollywood finally got around to demanding more awards to minority-group-based people in the film industry. The Awards committee complied. Mission accomplished.
Unfortunately, even though the myth persists that Tinsel Town inhabitants who make their living pretending to be others possess an elite status when it comes to smarts, bright and shiny Hollywood is not exempt from the shadowy question that forever stalks affirmative action practices: Were all those Oscars (suddenly, all in one year) that incorporated diversity in race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and gender preference into the mix of deciding who won which category given to recipients of merit? Or, especially because of all the rancorous demands, were they awarded based on group-identity diversity and inclusiveness rather than on individual achievement? Who can know?
[First published at Newsmax.]