Skip to main content

Doing the Work: Why We Need Affirmative Action


ISSUE:  Winter 2004

The arguments about whether affirmative action has run its course, has accomplished its purposes, or now constitutes an enshrined system of discrimination against white people contain so little historical perspective that they are eviscerated at the core. They remind me of trees felled by a hurricane. Most of these arguments seem to locate our entire racial history in a period beginning at about the end of World War II, with the defining events being the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In this picture, slavery is buried so far back in historical mists as to be irrelevant and the actions of the nation in the sixties so powerful as to have settled our entire racial future.

Such a reading of our nation’s racial problem is dead wrong. Racism had been at the core of our culture for more than a century before we became a country. Then as soon as we became a country, Congress enshrined racism in our laws by enacting an immigration law that provided that only whites could become citizens of the United States. And, of course, by that time, slavery was a bedrock of the American economy. So the poison of racism and the damage it would do to future generations of Americans of all colors had shaped and damaged us deeply long before President Washington had completed his first term.

Race consciousness in the eastern colonies surely began on the day in 1607 when the initial group of English settlers of Jamestown first encountered the people who already lived here. Within a few years—and before the first blacks arrived in 1619—Captain John Smith was suggesting that the natives ought to be enslaved and forced to do the drudge work of the colony so that Englishmen could be released to pursue the arts, literature, and other pleasures. The history of blacks and whites on this continent includes approximately 250 years of slavery followed by 100 years of legal and cultural oppression (which sometimes included violence at the hands of ad hoc mobs, lawless peace officers, or terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan). In the 38 years since 1965 there has been something else; not slavery or ocean-to-ocean oppression. There has been real progress. Formal segregation has virtually disappeared and the best-prepared blacks in the country now have access to full, rich lives. Nevertheless, the country is still so full of preferences for white people and profound hurdles for the least fortunate blacks that we can claim nothing that approaches full equality. Thus, the real question to be asked, it seems to me, is whether what this history has done to us—black and white alike (with serious repercussions on Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanics as well)—leaves us all, as a people, in a condition to abandon a program which is prodding us to desegregate some of the gateways to the most influential pursuits and occupations available to American citizens. These occupations if practiced by a richly diverse cross section of Americans might help us see our problems more clearly, know each other more deeply, and therefore heal our country and each other more quickly.

Our national history on this subject is shot through with denials, the two most prominent of which are: first, that the treatment of blacks in this country hasn’t been all that bad and, second, that the medicine required to cure it, therefore, need only be medium strong and administered over a fairly short period of time. The stories of the surges of idealism in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries are instructive. The strong post-Revolutionary impulse to end slavery, propelled by the soaring idealism of the Revolution, had, by and large, petered out by the turn of the 19th century because the invention of the cotton gin had increased the profitability of slavery. The post-Civil War Reconstructionist impulse to raise the newly-freed men up to a condition where they could be full citizens of the nation was brutally crushed by the sordid deal that handed the 1876 presidential election to the Republicans. In the deal, the South got a return to power of the old ownership class and a virtual license to drive blacks back into a condition as closely approximating slavery as possible. In the North, black aspirations to full citizenship were forgotten and blacks were subjected to a somewhat softer but nevertheless comprehensive and painful regime of subordination. The racial idealism of the 20th century became manifest in 1954 and lasted until about 1972 when right-leaning politicians, led by George Wallace, discovered the culturally assured strength of antiblack populism. Idealism faded so quickly that by 1980 (only 15 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act) the nation elected Ronald Reagan, whose campaign began in Philadelphia, Mississippi (famous only as the place where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964), with the candidate reprising the old segregationist cry by assuring the crowd: “I’m for states’ rights.”

We told ourselves a lot of stories that were injurious to both blacks and whites as we smothered our best instincts over the centuries. The first is based on the idealistic aspiration in which our national founding is shrouded. How could a country which legislated the ideals of the Enlightenment as the cornerstone of its existence be guilty of gross and continuing crimes against humanity? And how could a people who used those founding principles as their secular catechism not be a good people? The questions could be self-answering if only fig leaves of rationalizations were supplied. Blacks were ruled to exist outside civilized Lochean society, so their exclusion from the protections of the Enlightenment garments of governance was entirely justified. Thus, in Hudgins v. Wright in 1806, the Virginia Court of Appeals denied a slave’s claim to freedom based on the Virginia Declarations of Rights. Writing for the court, Justice St. George Tucker explained that the declaration “was meant to embrace the case of free citizens, or aliens only; and not to be a side wind to overturn the rights of property, and give freedom to those very people whom we have been compelled from imperious circumstances to retain in the same state of bondage that they were in at the revolution, in which they had no concern, agency or interest [italics added].” (Note the touch of self-pity that often accompanied slave owners’ discussions of the “peculiar institution.”) The justice’s assertion is simply not true. It is entirely possible that history would have been vastly different without the economic and military contributions made by the 20 percent of the revolutionary generation that was black.

The second story is based on a Darwinian sense of which people were entitled to rule and which were doomed to clean up after them. The condition of black people—imposed on them by white people—was thus used to justify their abominable treatment by those same white Americans. As a matter of fact, even the worst treatment of blacks was justified by their tormentors as part of an effort to raise blacks’ level of existence. Slaves were being “civilized”—and sometimes “Christianized”—by slave owners. Later, the treatment of freedmen as people who were fit to be nothing more than semi-slaves was justified by no less than the Darwinian laws of nature. In 1900, Paul B. Barringer, an eminent member of the faculty of the University of Virginia, told the Southern Education Association that blacks need be given nothing beyond Sunday school lessons as they were fit only to be a “source of cheap labor for a warm climate: everywhere else he is a foreordained failure, and as he knows this he despises his own color.” Presumably, Barringer was not talking simply to make noise, but rather to influence Southern education policies, which largely did follow his prescriptions until the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Thinking like this, passed down though the generations, aided by thick layers of cultural racism in song, vaudeville, and academia, did hideous damage to the psyche and the capacity of black Americans and deeply injured their white brethren as well. By the mid-20th century it came to its logical extreme in the minds of working-class deep Southerners, who by this time had been in the grip of demagogic racist political leaders for at least a half century. Thus, in 1946, Clay Hopper, a Mississippian, who was directed to help prepare Jackie Robinson—selected to be the first black to play major-league baseball—resisted his employer’s orders fiercely. “Mr. Rickey, do you really think a nigger’s a human being?” he asked. In the next two decades, other white Southerners would respond to black efforts at advancement by killing or beating some of those blacks and some of their white allies as well.

The damage to blacks was intentional. Once slavery became central to the economy of the Southern colonies, the process of disabling black people quickly became part of the culture. One hundred years before the Declaration of Independence was drafted and adopted in Philadelphia, the rulers of the Virginia colony, in an effort to shore up their power and stabilize the culture, decided to import large numbers of black slaves from Africa to perform the massive amounts of labor required to grow the principal product, tobacco. The rulers of the colony also decided to cut back on the importation of white indentured servants and to emphasize their common whiteness with the white poor. This would ultimately decrease the number of poor whites who might become resentful of their rulers and thereby form a destabilizing class-based alliance with blacks. Though black slavery had been present to some degree from 1619, the decision to import large numbers of them raised serious practical issues. New slaves were to be debased and permitted no illusions about what their role in the society was to be. Even blacks who were free before 1676 began to experience growing constraints on their lives. No room to hope for equality with whites was allowed.

By 1700, Tidewater slavery was in full bloom and the process of disabling blacks became a part of American culture. The largest slave owner in Virginia at that time was Robert “King” Carter, who practiced “seasoning” any members of a newly imported group of slaves who seemed to be natural leaders or who had an air of independence about them. Such people would be dismembered; a toe, a finger, or an ear might be lopped off. This physical disabling was only an outward manifestation of the internal result that Carter and slave owners like him desired. The injured slave—and all those to whom he was an object lesson—was to be deprived of an independent will and be made to substitute his master’s will for his own. Beyond individual initiatives such as Carter devised, the colony itself enacted Slave Codes, which severely circumscribed the lives of the slaves. Among the damaging limitations were those on the slaves’ ability to communicate with each other, on the ability to worship as they chose, on the privilege to receive education, to raise their own children as they pleased, or to enjoy freedom of movement. Obviously, they were strictly forbidden to organize or to do politics. These Slave Codes amounted to an upside-down bills of rights. All that we hold so precious was denied to the slaves. The Virginians amended and polished their Slave Codes at least 10 times before the Revolution. It is little wonder, then, that the template for the Bill of Rights was the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The Virginians knew what it took to disable people in ways that placed citizenship beyond their reach, so it is not surprising that two of their greatest men, George Mason and Patrick Henry (both slave owners), were among the most ardent proponents of including a Bill of Rights in the Constitution in order to protect the freedoms won in the Revolution in which the Continentals vowed that they would not be made slaves.

But as they did this, they did severe damage to themselves. Imagine the calluses that must have adhered to the soul of “King” Carter and all of those like him who were systematically disabling the people they were imprisoning and from whom they were stealing life and labor. Occasionally the pain would leap from the breast and be expressed in lacerating language. For example, George Mason, in his effort at the Constitutional Convention to prohibit a continuation of the slave trade, said of slaves: “They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.”

Indeed.

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, whose life as a statesman-philosopher was made possible by the wealth he derived from slavery, emitted an even more anguished bleat of pain when he wrote:

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

Later in the same passage, Jefferson wrote:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever… .

Mason and Jefferson were brilliant men whose souls burned with the spirit of liberty and who saw clearly the searing contradiction between their ideals and the tyranny that made their lives as rich and important men possible. They carried these contradictions in their souls and their ownership of slaves to their graves. But their pain was slight when compared to the damage they were inflicting upon the persons they were exploiting. The most successful human beings—those for whom the freedom provisions of the founding documents were specifically designed—are people who have confidence in themselves. Their culture leads them to believe that if they apply discipline and will to their given capacities, they can be successful because there will be opportunities open to them when they have concluded their program of preparation. The whole disabling system put into place in slavery and thereby embedded in the American culture from its inception was designed to produce exactly the opposite effect on blacks. Lack of will and submissiveness were required of slaves, who were taught by their masters that they could aspire to nothing beyond the “generosity” of the people who imprisoned them because they were incompetent and repulsive human beings. In Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson wrote a description of blacks which termed them—I’m paraphrasing here—uglier, smellier, dumber, and more mindlessly ardent after their females than whites.

The disabling culture continued beyond slavery. Professor Barringer’s speech was delivered two centuries after King Carter’s day. Though perhaps more erudite than Carter, Barringer’s impact might well have been both broader and more brutal. Or take Senator Benjamin R. Tillman of South Carolina. After President Theodore Roosevelt entertained Booker T. Washington in the White House in 1903, Sen. Tillman spoke about what he saw as the implications of that meal. “As a result of President Roosevelt’s having Booker T. Washington to dinner, we will have to kill 3000 niggers to keep them in their place.” There is no question about Sen. Tillman’s intention or, indeed, the purpose of lynching:It was to keep blacks in the South terrorized and pinned down in their prescribed role as submissive cheap labor available in the warmer climates of the United States. But in the process of encouraging the disabling of black people, both Prof. Barringer and Sen. Tillman were providing very powerful evidence of the gnarled state of their own souls.

The impact of these men and other leaders who shared their views was enormous. In the early part of the 20th century, blacks were still frequently lynched in the South. There are grisly photographs of lynching scenes with laughing white crowds looking at the charred and hanging remains of a lynched black. Some of the white people in these pictures are grinning and some of them are holding the hands of little children. Some of the children are grinning and laughing too. This is the culture that shaped Clay Hopper and his attitude toward Jackie Robinson, so before one blames him it is necessary to understand the damage inflicted on him from birth.

Obviously not all whites were monsters during any period of this sordid chronology. Even in the prerevolutionary period there were a few whites who opposed slavery and believed in racial equality. There were some whites in the period of the founders who freed their slaves at a high economic (and social) cost to themselves and their progeny. In the pre-Civil War period, there were fierce abolitionists, and after the war many whites flocked to the South in an honest effort to help the freedmen and—women. And in the 20th century there were brave white freedom fighters, from the distinguished socialists who helped found the NAACP down to the legions of young college students and other white people who struggled for a just society during the civil rights movement. Some of those people paid for their idealism with their lives. But up through the 1960s, there were also monsters, some of whom simply killed blacks. There were others who profited politically from the rankest and most destructive racist pandering and still others who enforced the color line by using blunt-force economic power to intimidate would-be activists and to discourage them from struggling to better themselves and their people. There was also a silent majority that simply went along ignoring the massive injustices done in their society, presumably to revel in the comfort and joy of having been born on the winning side.

Millions of blacks over several generations were disabled by the intense Southern effort to keep them trapped in Southern poverty to benefit the South’s economy while millions of other unskilled workers—these from all over Europe—were taking advantage of the industrial revolution in the North. These white immigrants were getting on the ladder that would propel many of their children into the middle class and beyond. And, true to George Mason’s observation in 1787, whites continued to despise labor when performed by blacks, and Northern laboring immigrants quickly picked up the deep cultural habits of their new land and became virulently antiblack, particularly when it came to protecting the white sanctity of the Northern workplace. Blacks lucky enough to escape the South thus found the fiercest racist hostility from the newest Americans. Antiblack violence often occurred at Northern factories. America had clearly become the “land of opportunity” for the underclasses of Europe and the land of opportunity denied for the black working class of America.

As the 20th century rolled on and violence and terrorism against blacks abated a bit, the American practice of disabling blacks—now more than two centuries old—continued to grind on, just as the sentences about disabling which you are reading do. But it is necessary for them to grind on in order for me to convey the dreadful weight and power of the cultural forces marshaled by the United States against the minds and spirits of each and every black person born in this country in the three and a quarter centuries after white supremacy became one of the central building blocks of our culture. These massive and uninterrupted jolts to the soul were and are now so powerful that disabled black parents have been passing their injuries on to their children for centuries. Thus, the fear, the timidity, the self-hate, the shame, and the resigned acceptance of the status quo, induced by a deadly future, crash through lives and spirits, doing damage through generation after generation.
Though I believe that all native-born blacks suffer real damage, black people do not share exactly the same histories. Some blacks were free at the time of the Revolution and others earned their freedom by fighting in the Continental Army. Some blacks took their freedom before the Civil War and escaped to the North and others were freed by their owners. Some blacks left the South in the “great migrations” of the 20th century and some remain trapped in poverty on Southern farms today. I was one of the lucky ones. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1932 rather than in Holly Spring, Mississippi, which might well have been the case. My good fortune began when my grandfather was run out of Mississippi in about 1900 just ahead of a lynch mob. He and my grandmother settled in St. Louis, but she died soon after bearing her third child (my father) in 1905. The children were taken to St. Paul, Minnesota, by my great-aunt, who raised them with her husband and sent them all to the University of Minnesota. My parents met there, married, and settled in Kansas City. They were the beneficiaries of integrated educations in Minnesota early in the century, as was my uncle, Roy Wilkins, who became a major civil rights leader in the 1950s and ’60s. We were all very lucky.

I have encountered many white people who assume that I, and fortunate blacks like me, escaped the disabling (though they wouldn’t have known enough to call it that). It is surely true that I was not injured as I would have been had I been born to tenant farmers in Mississippi in 1932 rather than to college-educated, middle-class professionals in Kansas City. And there is no question but that virtually all of what is good in me came from my parents and my live-in grandmother. But in my generation, nobody got off scot-free. And even good parents couldn’t help passing on some of the damage that had injured them. I remember listening evening after evening as they sat on the porch with friends and talked about life as they knew it. I now understand that much of what I overheard was therapeutic talk because the conversations seemed always somehow to wind around to some mad quirk of racism, some painful slight or ambient rudeness, or some massive, life-chance injury inflicted on one of them or upon someone they knew. Although these conversations were laced with inventive, mordant humor, they conveyed to the four-to-eight-year-old eavesdropper a vivid sense of the ceilings pushed down hard on the aspirations and expectations of the strongest adults I knew. I learned to fear the Deep South for its quixotic physical violence and to quiver in the presence of local whites because of what I had heard of their quixotic psychic violence. Even in their silences, my parents were complicit in delivering disabling strokes. We didn’t talk about slavery or our Mississippi roots when I was a child. Once, when I was a middle-aged writer, I asked my mother a few questions about our family history and she gave me some interesting answers.

“Why didn’t you tell me those things when I was growing up,” I asked with a touch of anger in my voice. My mother looked pensive and a little sad as she answered.

“Oh, Roger, in our family, I guess we didn’t like to clank our chains.”

As I say, I was one of the lucky ones. Yet here was my Phi Beta Kappa mother—an enormously successful person—acknowledging that shame about slavery, our enslaved ancestors, and Africa had rendered her mute. And in my parents’ silences, I had absorbed the lessons taught by our culture, so I too became ashamed. The shame was not just about those people “back there,” but about what I was taught by the culture I was because I was descended from them. I grew up being ashamed of myself.

The world painted by our culture was a world littered with “you can’ts.” Even with my parents’ strong support and love, I absorbed from them and from the culture a good healthy dose of comparative self-doubt when I contemplated the white world. Thus, segregation (often bulwarked by the threat—and occasional use—of violence) became the predominant mode of disabling in the 20th century. It did not affect all blacks in the same way because, in part, the severity of segregation varied from region to region and, therefore, the situation of blacks also varied significantly from place to place. But wherever you were, humiliation could be inflicted by almost any white person in a bewildering variety of circumstances. One time in the fifties, we stopped, three student couples, to eat at a restaurant attached to a bowling alley in a little town a few miles outside of Ann Arbor. Two of the couples were black; one was white. We waited for service a long time and when the white male demanded service he was told he would never be served as long as he was with niggers. My date, the girl I would one day marry, broke down and sobbed as if she could never stop. The town was called Hell, Michigan.

I have heard some white people toss off segregation with a flippant: “Oh, yeah, the back of the bus.” Ah, if it had been only that. Segregation was a brutal ocean-to-ocean and border-to-border shunning of black people. In Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court held that separate treatment could be equal and that any implication to the contrary was simply a figment of the black imagination. The fact is that even had all facilities been created equal—which virtually never happened—there couldn’t have been equality because the fact that the separation was established by one group with the governmental power it held and directed toward the other, weaker group sent a simple but devastating message: “There is something so wrong with you that we will make it illegal for you to mingle with us or to share in any of the best things this society has to offer—from jobs to homes to schools to positions of power and prestige. And in case you don’t get the message from our having relegated you to the tasks of cleaning up after us, just look at our movies, read our books, listen to our radio shows, all of which attest to our superior intellects and beauty, and then go search our newspapers in a vain effort to find any mention of your insignificant existence. You are, by nature, our inferiors and the laws simply recognize that fact.” Thus, the deep meaning of being bussed to a segregated school way across town did not have to be explained. I absorbed it completely long before I learned my multiplication tables.

But, as I say, I was one of the lucky ones. I was brought out of segregation early and when it was time, I was sent to a good integrated northern university in Ann Arbor, Michigan. On my first day at Michigan, accompanied by my mother, my grandmother, my little sister, and my stepfather, I put my things in my dorm room and we all then went over to the Michigan Union to eat. While we were waiting in the cafeteria line, an employee came over and whispered in my stepfather’s ear. “Come on,” Pop said quietly to us, “we can’t eat here.” As we left the line, we saw the external manifestation of the internal devastation of segregation and a racist culture. A black freshman male, alone and a little bit behind us in line saw what happened to us and he dropped his head and his shoulders slumped as he stepped out of line with a whipped look on his face. My stepfather moved quickly to him and said, “It’s OK for you, son. It’s women they don’t serve here.”
That was 1949 and that fellow (who became a good friend) and I would soon learn that though we could eat in the cafeteria, we could not get our hair cut at the Michigan Union, that 90 percent of the private rooms for rent to students were unavailable to us, that we could not eat (or when we became 21, drink) at the legendary Michigan watering hole The Pretzel Bell, and that the girl friends whom we had yet to meet could not try on clothes as the white girls could at the State Street shops. And, of course, we were barred from the white fraternities and sororities where, as it seemed then, all the best college lives were lived. Though blacks played football and ran on the track team at Michigan in 1949, the university had never had a black basketball or baseball player. That changed during our time, but the message we got as we attended athletic events was clear. Thus, even before we entered the classroom, the culture at our university reminded us that for us there were no safe harbors in America. But the worst was yet to come.

In my seven years in Ann Arbor I never had a black professor—or a professor of any color other than white. I never had a female professor either. I was never assigned a book, an essay, a play, a short story, or a poem that was written by a black writer or that suggested that any black person had ever done or thought anything worthwhile in the entire history of the world. I remember only one exception to this pattern. In my junior year in law school in Constitutional Law, we studied Brown v. Board of Education, which had come down the previous spring. Thurgood Marshall had done something admirable.

The most insidious thing about all of this is that by and large we accepted it. It simply confirmed what the culture had already taught us. White males were entitled to define the parameters of all the knowledge that was fit to learn. Though white women couldn’t teach, they were entitled to share in the privileges of whiteness and to set the standards of beauty for our country. And the lessons-absorbed consciously or not by both blacks and whites—were that blacks were very fortunate to attend the university under these conditions since, after all, they were secondary people, peripheral to the main thrust of American life, and would return to their ghettoes after graduation. We were peripheral to campus life. Needless to say, there were very few close interracial friendships.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that my life at Michigan was more integrated than that which I have just sketched out. I was a major campus politician as an undergraduate, serving as an officer of the student government in my junior and senior years and as president of my undergraduate class: the Literature, Science and Arts class of 1953. But I was a wild exception. I don’t remember any other black serving on the student legislature in my undergraduate years, and I was only the second black president of a class (the first, Val Johnson, having also presided over his LS&A class the year before I got to the campus).

In a sense, my story about my political life at Michigan makes my point. I had attended an otherwise all-white junior and senior high in Grand Rapids, Michigan—a deeply troubling emotional teenaged passage. But however painful that passage was for me, it reduced my discomfort around white people and made it possible for me to risk friendships across racial lines more easily than it was for most of my black college friends, most of whom had come from much more segregated backgrounds in Detroit and other large cities of the Midwest. And though I was a standout of sorts, the exceptional treatment I was accorded often demonstrated how large a gulf there was between blacks and whites in the middle of the 20th century. I was constantly reminded one way or another what “an exception” I was. It was supposed to be a compliment. And then there was the blizzard of unguarded or innocently ignorant remarks. My favorite, which I shall never forget, was from a sweet, sweet and quite brilliant white girl who said: “And, of course, your family was never in slavery.” She was shocked and embarrassed when I told her otherwise and somehow our friendship was never quite the same after that.

One of the things that segregation did was to make us strangers to each other—white and black. Thomas Jefferson and George Mason lived far more integrated lives than we do. They lived lives surrounded by black people. When they woke up in the morning, black people took care of their needs, and when they ventured out into their fields, they observed scores of black people working away and they surely talked things over with them—things that were of great importance to the masters of the plantation. And when day was done they didn’t get in their coaches and drive to monochromatic suburbs. They went into their houses where there were black people to look after them. Blacks and whites knew each other in those days—intimately. And the thoughtful among them knew things that we refuse to learn. Listen to Jefferson again: “The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.”

Some years ago, a superb and engaging white male student took every course I taught and earned a high A in each one. The last course was on race and culture in America. At the end he told me it had been the hardest course he had taken.

When I responded with surprise, he said, “It wasn’t the material, professor. It was that I learned that my two heroes—my parents—are racists. I can’t watch football with my father anymore because he will always say: ‘I don’t see why they huddle; they only have three plays, nigger go left, nigger go right, nigger go up the middle.’”
Then he talked about his mother. “I used to enjoy doing the dishes with her, but now I notice that always, before we’re done, she starts complaining about THEM and how THEY always ruin everything.”

Jefferson would have understood my student’s distress. He and his thoughtful contemporaries knew that slavery injured both the slave and the slave master, and they knew that these damages were passed on through the generations. Though privilege for whites and unequal opportunity for many, many blacks are still salient features of American life, many whites either are oblivious to the true state of things or explain the current inequities as results of innate flaws in the afflicted people themselves.

Post-slavery segregation pushed us apart, and even now at the dawn of the 21st century what we know about each other we have learned largely at a distance. What we really “know” about each other are the stories the culture has told each group about the other—the tales told from generation to generation supported by “evidence” from the world of current events that we select to support the bits and pieces about the other side that we want to “know.” There are now far fewer racist monsters poisoning our culture, but the residue of what has been done to us over the centuries continues to haunt our relationships. The tepid integration of our time does not provide enough sustained real life experiences for the two groups to get to know each well enough to share our democracy and our economy in ways that would make our citizens happier and our nation stronger and more peaceful.

The continued existence of privilege for whites (fiercely defended as color-blind fairness) spread broadly across the national landscape and insidious feelings of inadequacy that still haunt so many black Americans mark a still-anguishing racial divide, a central part of our cultural heritage. My memory carries vivid examples of each. When I first joined the editorial board of the New York Times in 1974, the first black selected for that group, one of my new colleagues was incensed by my presence. After I had been at the paper for about a year I attended a staff cocktail party. The man’s wife—after consuming a few drinks—told me his initial reaction to my appointment: “Isn’t it a shame, honey, that just because of some stupid quota, we have to hire unqualified people.” When he said that I was 42 years old and he had available to him my fairly thick resume, which included a substantial amount of public service and private work, which included two years as an editorial writer at the Washington Post, for which some of my work received the Pulitzer Prize. It is clear that what was in the mind of my white colleague was that I had trespassed on his privilege and was thus unqualified to do any work that he was qualified to do.

On the other hand, I have served as a member of the Board of Education of the District of Columbia and I have seen children from impoverished areas of the city performing listlessly in classes led by overworked and underpaid teachers. I have seen the parents of these children—some of them stretched thin by scrambling to support a family on poverty wages and others simply defeated by the loads of woe and hopelessness that were piled upon them at birth. Not all of the poor parents I have seen suffer in these ways and not all of the children do. But far too many of these children are being disabled from birth, and then they absorb a second shock because our country won’t invest the resources or the emotional and intellectual effort required to give them a decent chance in the world.

If we were truly a color-blind society or if our civil rights advances of the mid-20th century had been powerful enough to leave only minuscule traces of our historical culture in our national life, then I would agree that the nation is ready for race-neutral remedies. But three centuries of relentless grinding down on the spirits of black people and relentless unearned puffing of the spirits of white people has left us still hopelessly vulnerable to a continuation of the national calamities that George Mason so presciently predicted for us. That the small, fragile basket of public policies adopted by Congress in the 1960s and ’70s made us some progress—but surely not enough—is demonstrated by the consistent familiar statistics that tell us about our inequality. At this writing, the Census Bureau is reporting that almost a quarter of black Americans are living in poverty—more than any other group. Forty percent of black children are being raised in poverty—being disabled as we observe them and ensuring that these disabilities will be inflicted massively on the next generation of black people as well. The black unemployment rate, at 11.1 percent—depression levels for a nation—is twice the white rate. And even when blacks are employed, their incomes are consistently less than those of our white counterparts in virtually every job category.
Evidence of the continuing damage to whites can be found in an article published recently by Professor James A. Metcalf, a colleague of mine at George Mason University. In a recent column in a local newspaper, he characterized the decision in the University of Michigan Law School case, Grutter v. Bollinger, as ruling that “racial discrimination in admission to public universities is permissible as a method of obtaining ‘the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.’” He later mischaracterizes the decision in Brown v. Board of Education as making the law “indifferent to race in public education.” I don’t believe I need to make extensive comments on those assertions because I believe they are absurd on their face. Simply stated, Grutter stands for the proposition that race can be used very carefully to ensure a well-qualified and diverse group of students is assembled for each incoming Michigan Law School class. Brown consciously ushered in the most race-conscious period of Supreme Court jurisprudence we have ever had precisely because previous courts, in pretending to be “indifferent” to race, had permitted some of the most egregious constitutional violations in our national history to persist unchallenged.

I know Professor Metcalf slightly and though we are neither friends nor close colleagues, we have met and so we greet each other cordially and exchange pleasantries on those odd occasions when we encounter each other on campus. And yet we are strangers. It is the basic relationship of blacks and whites in this country. Most of us blacks and most of us whites have been damaged to some degree by the ways in which our culture has shaped us. And in some ways, we are not yet fit to live with each other because our spirits have been so damaged that we cannot reach out imaginatively to that place in each other’s souls that receives succor or opens up to enjoy the comfort of intimate friendship.

So, here we are 396 years after Englishmen landed at Jamestown and found themselves in a biracial society and 384 years after the first blacks joined them, and we still need to discover ways to find each other so that we can join in efforts to heal our deeply wounded country.

I have not made the traditional arguments for affirmative action—the unreliability of test scores or the widespread use of preferences for legacies and athletes or the great value of diversity in the classroom or the powerful claims that minorities have to constitutional justice. I believe in all those arguments, but I have attempted here to argue at a deeper level. I rest my case on the damage done to us all by our culture and our resultant inability to deal rationally with the preferences still enjoyed by white people (white men in particular) and with the societal injuries still suffered by a very substantial proportion of the black population.

White people urgently need to get to know black people and other people of color. Beyond the damage to their souls and their misconceptions about what justice requires and their moral confusion, there lies a more basic problem: White supremacy is simply dangerous. It leads the country into very serious misperceptions about the world and thus to some very bad policy judgments that have caused us great harm as a nation. To be quite nonpartisan about it, I would point to Vietnam, a foreign policy and military fiasco that exploded under the two Democratic presidents whom I served. I think few clear-eyed historians would deny that part of our miscalculation about Southeast Asia resulted from our underestimation of the military prowess, the patriotism, and the tenacity of our enemy. I would simply observe that the world is full of countries led by people who are not white whom we need to be able to understand and to deal with equitably and effectively. Similarly, the population of the United States is becoming less and less white. As I say, we need to get to know each other.

When it happens, it works so very well. Sixty years ago a twelve-year-old white kid named Don De Young suggested that he and I walk to our all-white (except for me) school together. Don and I remained good friends until he died this past summer. Over the years he told me that the largest lessons he learned in high school flowed from the fact that he had come to know my family and me. When he was grown and a judge in Grand Rapids, he adopted my mother as his “second mother,” a fact that puzzled some of his colleagues when he introduced her that way in downtown restaurants. It is clear to me that both my mother’s life and Don’s were enriched by their friendship. Don’s widow, Gail, tells me that in the notes he kept about his life, Don mentioned me more than any other friend and credited our friendship with giving him the understanding that led him to be an outstanding judge. Conversely, it was my relationship with Don and other high school friends that enabled me to become a successful campus politician at Michigan and to go on to live a richly integrated life and to be a racial pioneer in a number of powerful American institutions. We NEED to know each other.

Beyond understanding and good relationships, we need to develop a renewed commitment to justice in our country. It is foolish and disingenuous for people to pretend that the small cluster of public policies deployed over about an 18-year period in the last century could scour successfully three centuries of racist bilge that had blighted our country and our spirits. Those who argue for color-blindness today are really arguing that we should leave in place the accumulation of preferences, injustices, and mutual injuries built up over the centuries. We need to see the disparities in health outcomes, in income, housing, wealth, and opportunity for what they are: challenges to our aspiration for a fair and just society and to our constitutional promises to ourselves and especially to our progeny.
White people have always been involved in some fashion in the black struggle for full human recognition and for full American citizenship and opportunity. But, generally, blacks have taken the lead in the fight by scouting and mapping the territory and taking big initial risks. Considering the shape of our culture and its rewards, it is doubtful that white people will summon the will and the energy for this fight if blacks do not drive the initiative. If that is to be the case, we need to educate greater and greater numbers of young black people.

Fifty years ago, feeling all of the uncertainties of a first-year law student (and those the culture had planted in me as well), I went to see my contracts professor—who was also the law school admissions officer—to seek a little reassurance. At some point in the conversation, I said, “I must have the lowest undergraduate average in the whole freshman class,” fully hoping that he would say, “Oh, no, Mr. Wilkins, far from it.” What he said was: “That’s right, Mr. Wilkins.” Devastated, I demanded to know why they’d admitted me in the first place. Now remember, this was 1953, before Brown, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the Freedom Rides, before Birmingham and the civil rights legislation, before the words affirmative action had entered the national dialogue.

“We think the Negro people need leaders,” he said, “and we think the Michigan Law School should do its part in preparing those leaders. So when we saw your application, we queried some of your professors, whom we know, to assess your academic abilities. They all told us that you were just fine, but that you were powerfully diverted by all of your political activities on the campus. So we took a chance on you.”

Then he paused and looked me hard in the eye: “But now that you’re in, you must do the work!”

And so I did the work and got my degree and in the 47 years since then I have tried to live up to the ideals my law school had developed way back then. Now that we understand our national racial malady better, we know that well-trained minority leaders will be the first responders to these problems. And we need them. And we need them to be educated in the same classrooms as aspiring young white people. And over time, there will be fewer strangers and more friends among the races and more young blacks who will try to take the lead in igniting the spark for justice and more young whites—as my friend Don was—who will have open and ready hearts, if just given the chance.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading