Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Shape of the River

Raising kids can be frustrating. You feed them and pamper them and teach them to think like you do and then one day they start thinking for themselves. What kind of gratitude is that?

My children are all pretty open-minded and inclusive when it comes to accepting others and wanting everyone to have a fair shot at life. So it shocked me when one of them challenged what has, for me, long been an article of progressive faith: affirmative action.

I grew up in the Jim Crow south. To me, affirmative action is reparations for slavery (and not very generous reparations at that). Maybe my devotion to that moral imperative stems from my guilt at having been a passive observer of racial oppression when I was a boy. As my grandfather used to say about the brutal segregation of his boyhood, that’s just the way it was in Mississippi in 1925. It was better in Tennessee in 1955, but not much. I am ashamed to say that I took it for granted that the maids who cleaned my parent’s and grandparent’s houses and the waiters who served us at restaurants and country clubs were all black. “In the end,” Martin Luther King said, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

In my mother's arms, beside Osie,
who lived over the garage at my
grandparent's home
Long before my son would have been worried about a minority student snagging his place at college, he said he thought affirmative action was just another form of discrimination and, as such, was wrong. Oh, my god, I thought, it’s Clarence Thomas sitting there talking to me. I figured I would explain the bitter legacy of slavery and he’d see the need for continuing to help those whom my ancestors had oppressed. We started talking that night four years ago, and we’re still talking.

In fairness, my son has been spared growing up in a place where teenagers with unthinking cruelty joked about how black men found in chains at the bottom of the river had tried to steal more than they could swim with. The old newsreels of Bull Conner and his police dogs and fire hoses must seem like ancient history to him. He has always had friends of all races. For him, skin color just doesn’t come into it.

He has gotten a good look at another kind of hateful prejudice, however: that directed toward gays. And he hates it. Not just because he has gay friends, he says, but because he detests discrimination of all kinds. Looking at it that way, I see where he’s coming from on affirmative action.

Still, don’t we have an obligation to make up for the damage we do in life, especially when it affects an entire race of people? I went out and bought a copy of The Shape of the River, Derek Bok’s and William Bowen’s examination of the effectiveness of affirmative action. I read my son the parts about the sorry state of affairs for blacks when affirmative action first gained currency. I read him the argument, which made a lot of sense to me, that young blacks need role models, that they need to see black men and women in positions of power and influence if they are to imagine such possibilities for themselves.

My great grandfather (seated at right), Dr. John
Randolph Page, a surgeon in the Confederate army,
with his body servant, Ben
A staggering percentage of blacks and others of color live in poverty; giving them a leg up is the only way to break the cycle of poor education leading to more poverty, I argued. My son said he agreed with that. Let’s have affirmative action for all poor people, he said, regardless of skin color.  

“Economic affirmative action,” as he and I have taken to calling it, covers a lot of territory. Many minority students would qualify on that basis, and it’s hard to argue that kids from Appalachia shouldn’t have their shot too. But we didn’t put those poor white kids in the position they are in. We didn’t go to Africa and trap their ancestors.

Or did we?

Didn’t we trapped millions of white fathers and grandfathers in coal mines in West Virginia, in sweatshops and factories in the northeast, in textile mills in the south? Great chunks of this country were built on the backs of exploited workers. By and large we have used them up and spit them out, leaving them and their families to poverty. Don’t we owe them reparations too?

Still, I have trouble letting go of the skin-color thing. When you educate a white person and he achieves success, you can’t tell him from the rest of the white people, so it’s harder to point to him as a role model. Black or brown skin stays with you. A black or Hispanic girl who sees Barack Obama and Sonia Sotomayor sees a black man and an Hispanic woman, and she thinks (we hope): if they can do it, maybe I can too. In fact, apart from salving white guilt, creating role models seems to me to be the best argument for affirmative action.

But how well has that worked out? We’ve been at it for decades now, and what do we have to show for it? Sure, there have been personal successes in politics, business and education, but the great mass of poor people, black and white, are poorer than ever. The economic divide is widening. The few blacks and others of color who have reached the promised land are either not reaching back for those left behind (the Clarence Thomas approach), or their arms aren’t long enough.

Thanks to President Obama (a man with long arms) and others like the Gates Foundation, public education reform is getting serious attention for the first time in decades. And as part of that dialogue, we are looking beyond the tokenism of affirmative action to helping the entire public school population. To do that, it is going to be more important to get most children into a good pre-school than a few into Harvard.

A problem with affirmative action may be that it let people like me off the hook too easily. Our guilt and good intentions were focused on a few bright kids, while we ignored the millions of others who were dropping out of high school and filling our prisons. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think it a shame that the poor have such dreadful education opportunities, but the problem seems so intractable that we have a hard time seeing what can be done. That’s just the way it is, we might say.

We are beginning not to accept that, just as fifty years ago we ceased accepting racial segregation and began trying to rectify its wrongs. President Obama and Bill Gates and many others are pursuing my son’s “economic affirmative action” on a grand scale. If, as my son does, we are also beginning to see these problems apart from race---post racial, some would say---perhaps we can move beyond both bigotry and guilt as we begin our journey around the next bend in the river.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Master is the Padawan

What I learned from my children:

-To love the Nutcracker
-How to spot a lie (thanks, Grant, you are the worst)
-All the lyrics to Les Miz (and how they repeat, how the tunes repeat, so cool)
-What the singularity is (“Hello, Dave.”)
-The Sicilian Defense
-Who Frederick Hayek was
-How to make a light saber
-That if you do the crime, you do the time.

Backstage at the L.A. Nutcracker with Ashley (right)

Before I had kids, I was a know-it-all. If someone’s house was decorated differently than mine, he didn’t have good taste. Colorful cultural dress was just tacky. Seeing the world differently than I did meant that you hadn’t had the privilege of being brought up right.

Dreadful, I know. At least I didn’t have one of those pointy white hoods. Looking back, I hope I affected some modesty (we learn to do that in the South). Otherwise, to anyone outside my provincial country-club crowd, I must have seemed like a jerk.

Thank goodness for my children. They saved me from myself.

There is no cure for ignorance like a child’s curiosity. By the time you have tried to explain all the things kids ask about, you realize how little you know yourself. If you’re lucky, you catch the bug of their curiosity and you start to wonder about…well, about everything.

Why do the Sunnis and the Shiites hate each other, anyway? Is there dark matter? Was Keynes right, or Hayek? What are the limits of artificial intelligence; after Arnold retires from fighting the California legislature, are we going to have to bring him back to lead another fight against cyborgs who have decided they can do without us?

In law school I learned to assume nothing, to get the evidence and measure it against the legal precedents. But somehow analytical rigor didn’t do much for my understanding of the human condition. Antonin Scalia is supposed to be brilliant, for instance, but to me he is an idiot savant, strictly construing the Constitution without regard to societal changes. That’s what I was, an idiot savant.

When you talk to children, though, they want to know why. Not just what, but why. And you start to wonder why yourself. Pretty soon you’re beginning to understand why those colorful clothes mean so much to people of other cultures. Strange religions and gods begin to make sense, or at least you can see why they make sense to others. The passions in the Middle East seem inevitable when you look into the psyche of those who for millennia have struggled back and forth over those parched lands.

This is empathy, of course: the ability to put yourself in the other fellow’s shoes. I would have said that as a young man I was empathetic---I stopped to help anyone with a flat tire. I gave money and clothes to the poor---but what I did was sympathetic, not empathetic. I pitied the people I helped more than I understood them.

For a long time, Nick sang the songs from Les Miz in the shower every morning. He’s the one who showed me (duh! you say) that the music and the lyrics repeat and circle back among the characters in a kind of musical testament to the ways (“I am of the gutter too,” Javert tells Valjean) in which we are all the same.

Now, when I hear the dying Fantine calling Cosette in from the darkness, or Javert praising the order and certainty of the stars, when I am roused by “Do You Hear the People Sing,” then sobered by “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in those moments when my analytical guard is down and my prejudices and preconceptions have relaxed their grip, I slip inside the characters and see the world as they do.

For that gift, I have my children to thank.