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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Time to give race a respite

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

A young black woman looked up at my white face from where she was seated in the classroom and said, "Yeah, right."

I was teaching a class of students studying for their high school general equivalency diploma, and said they could be anything they wanted, that it took perseverance, courage, blah and blah. The young woman looked up and said, to the general amusement of the mostly black class, "Yeah, right; I'll be the state attorney general."

The state was Georgia, the city was Athens—deep in the heart of the old South—and the year was 1967. Boycotts, fire hoses, freedom marches and other events of the civil rights movement weren't history then; they were everyday news. The South was reeling from a national frontal attack on a century of legalized and institutionalized racism. The civil rights movement had started a decade before, but deep, abiding racism remained. The student was right; she had no chance of becoming the Georgia attorney general. Then.

Now, four decades later, that same state gave our first African-American president elect, Barack Obama, 47 percent of its popular vote, not enough to win its 15 electoral delegates, but unthinkable back then.

Much has changed in those four decades, and Americans can be justifiably proud of what they have accomplished. Obama has been elected to the highest and most powerful office—in the public or private sector—in America, if not the world.

This towering achievement begs us to honestly and humbly reconsider affirmative action.

Obama achieved this campaign victory on his own merits, without any racial set-asides or goals to "level the playing field" among the many ambitious, talented and resourceful white politicians who coveted the job. Obama's win is more than a powerful symbol; it is reality. A reality that the many affirmative action programs—too many to count at all levels of government, business and education—must now acknowledge. If there is anything that challenges the national unity that Obama seeks, you need to include the mandated, favored treatment of certain races and ethnic groups given in hiring, promotion, college admissions and contracts.

Affirmative action has strayed far from what President John F. Kennedy intended when in 1961 he issued an executive order requiring all federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during their employment, without regard to race, creed, color or national origin." It was a mandate to be energetically non-discriminatory.

President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded on Kennedy's "colorblind" approach when he said, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." Whatever you may think of the merits of the policy, it was indisputably a mandate to favor some over others.

Racial discrimination still can be found in America, but the appropriate follow-up question that eventually cannot be ignored is: For how long is discrimination against one race required to compensate for past levels of discrimination against another? Don't kid anyone: The many who have patiently stood in line while others have been escorted to the front, even though they may not have directly felt the sting of discrimination, is a source of deep animosity that stands in the way of the kind of racial reconciliation that Obama seeks. So are the battalions of affirmative action and race consciousness enforcers who have engineered a good living by spotting, exaggerating and "remediating" racial tensions where few or none exist.

This is not to say that Obama's election has ushered in an Eden unsullied by lingering, even persistent racism. And it might be a fool's quest to urge a rational and calm re-examination of the pros and cons of affirmative action as it now exists when a black president and a Democratic Congress have been swept into office.

But if not now, when? If we want a frank and honest discussion on race and whether affirmative action should be returned to its original race-neutral intent, isn't it appropriate to consider modifications to the programs to reflect current realities? And to weigh whether class, cultural and economic circumstances are holding back more African-Americans now than racial hatreds?

Is affirmative action to forever continue in its now constituted and overreaching form, which even Johnson would not recognize? How do we know when the kind of legalized racial imbalances imposed by some affirmative action programs are no longer required? If one of the signs that we should be moving in that direction isn't the election of an African-American president, then what is?


Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

Rev. Wright may be a loose cannon, but he did make an important point. Just because Tiger Woods and Barack Obama have reached the pinnacle of success does not mean that average blacks have it easy.

Affirmative action does not compensate for past discrimination, it prevents present injustice. Until people with black names get the same number of inteviews, it will be required.

Kramer said...

"Obama's win is more than a powerful symbol"
wait, I thought you said his election was based on his "aura". So now that all of us brain washed idiots have elected Obama, it's time to focus on your Oberweisian version of social inequality instead of our bankrupt economy. Way to make your self look and sound meaningless once again.

Anonymous said...

How long, oh, Lord, how long must we make reparations for sins we didn't commit?