The growing debate over the issues of a concept called affirmative action is still another indicator of just how far white America will go to protect and secure its ill-gained advantages over African-Americans and other people of color in this country.
Laudable programs are generated out of well-meaning concepts designed to bring about just a modicum of equal opportunity. Yet they are fiercely rejected and blacks are put in the untenable position of having to defend the right to equal treatment – or just fair treatment, equality aside. There is no need for black Americans to apologize for what is emotively referred to as “reverse discrimination.”
The need for affirmative action was and is generated out of a condition of systematic exclusion of the target population from the lucrative aspects of economic life in this country. Those who oppose affirmative action do not have an impressive history of opposing the conditions that make affirmative action a civilized and quasi-just response to historic and on-going racial and gender oppression.
Indeed, the opposition comes from the same people who create those conditions. They are like the so-called great patriot, Patrick Henry, who shouted vehemently, “Give me liberty or give me death,” but stormed out of the Constitutional Convention when a few moral-minded men tentatively suggested that, with the independence of America, slavery ought to be abolished. It is the same as saying, “I declare for myself freedom, but reserve the right to hold others in bondage.”
That does not differ from the economically powerful who have acquired their good fortunes through long-standing preferences, but now selfishly and immorally are prepared to fight even a tacit attempt to create an economically just society. They feel no shame or disloyalty to the nation as they continue to receive unearned financial benefits – even as they bankrupt America.
Most people have forgotten that the concept of affirmative action originated with a Southerner, President Lyndon B.
Johnson, as part of his “Great Society” program. Johnson, taking his cues from John F. Kennedy, understood the pervasiveness of racial exclusion. So, in 1964, speaking to the graduate class at Howard University, he spoke of the government needing to assist the “race of people who has been crippled by past discrimination.”
He told them that the fact that they were graduating from Howard University in no way granted them the same employment opportunities or further educational opportunities as those graduating from Georgetown University just down the street.
Even Martin Luther King Jr., the country’s most revered humanitarian, who spoke eloquently about judging people by the “content of their character,” was not blinded to the need for affirmative action.
In his book, Where do we go from here?, King mentions the conflict he experienced when having to consider “special treatment” for minorities. He correctly mitigates this conflict by believing that “A society that has done something special against the Negro (sic) for hundreds of years must do something special for him.”
Both Johnson and King understood the principle of social justice that is so well articulated by John Rawls. They understood that no kind of preferential treatment is just. But they also understood that injustice is tolerated if it is needed to correct an even greater injustice, of all the white historians, Eric Foner is the most unequivocating when he admonishes conservatives for condescendingly acknowledging that slavery was “wrong,” but either naively or deviously suggest that there is equality now. He says, “Slavery maybe gone and legal segregation dismantled, but effects of past discrimination live on…”
There are those who clamor for an official apology from the United States for enslaving Africans and for the subsequent racial discrimination. I am not one of them. As for me, America can keep its apology, but extend to me affirmative action.
Gilbert L. Raiford, a Miami resident, is semi-retired after a career in teaching and working for the U.S. Department of State. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org