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.


  1. Great insights!
    Although I don't see the gay bashing. (and I live in Kentucky for gosh sakes!)
    Most people I know are equally apathetic about the sex lives of gays, as they are heterosexuals..........just just don't care.

  2. And yet we're still arguing about Don't Ask Don't Tell in Washington, David. Go figure.

    Mac, this is, as always, a terrific post. Such a thoughtful consideration of such an important challenge we face.

  3. Meg, It is stupid isn't it?
    Don't ask Don't tell was always the unofficial stance of the military. Bill Clinton unfortunately had to show everyone how sensitive he was to this supposed problem by making it "Officially unofficial". Ironically, the proposed legislation would just take us back to the pre-Clinton era.

  4. One more thought about "Don't ask don't tell"
    The proposed legislation is:
    1.Regressive progressivism
    2."Everything old is new again"!
    or (my favorite)
    3.A snowjob instead of a blowjob.
    "At ease soldier"!

  5. I so respect and admire your openness, Mac, always, on this and other questions. I love your openness to your own questioning children.

    I think all of this is so intricate. It involves what is visible to someone, because of his or her position in culture (color of skin, religion, ethnicity, income, country of origin, education). I think that a lot of white people in this country can't see -- really can't see -- what almost all black people see and feel on a minute-to-minute basis. Skin color, race, -- these elements DO make an enormous difference, still, in ways both large (gigantic) and "small" (does the person next to you in line smile at you? Do you start up a conversation together? Can you walk easily on any street? Does a teacher look at you with a heart that believes you're the same in importance and goodness as the next student? Do you have as much chance as someone equally talented to publish a book, be cast in a play, gain an agent, get into graduate school?)

    Affirmative action is so, so important, still, I believe -- racism may have been erased or washed over for a majority of the white population in this country, but this doesn't mean it isn't here, constantly. All you have to do is look what happens when some group -- almost any group -- claims to be "color-blind." "Color-blind" almost always signifies that only whites can be seen.

    I see this in the world of theater, for instance, right here in the Bay Area. There are so few directors who will cast black actors in roles not specifying a black character. It's very hard for black actors to land excellent, central roles -- Rosalind, for instance, in AS YOU LIKE IT, or Miranda in THE TEMPEST, or Willy Loman in THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN. My daughter's company has, as part of its mission, to be the opposite of color-blind . . . that is, to look for black actors, to seek them out. This is affirmative action, in an informal sense, and it is necessary.

  6. Beautifully expressed, Harriet. These are such frustrating issues because they cry out for big solutions, and yet everything that happens in building a civil society happens at the individual level. One heart at a time, one fair chance at a time, seems so painfully slow...

  7. Another great article, Mac. The problems in education & the eventual economic impact are varied & complicated, but the one thing that I think should be an easy fix, is in the way we allocate money to our schools. The higher the income in a given area, the better the schools. I can't for the life of me figure out why we don't allocate on a per capita basis for every child in each state. i would propose that it be done on a national level, but I've been told that education is constitutionally a state province. You & Meg are the lawyers, so you may know if that is true, but either way, if the same amount was spent on each child's education, the results would have to be better. This would eventually eliminate the need for affirmative action.

  8. I agree with Teresa. the higher the income in a given area, the better the schools. But that does not translate to the more money allocated per pupil, the better the education and outcome.
    Washington DC schools have the highest per pupil spending at 14,000, and the lowest graduation rate in the country. Achievment scores are also among the lowest.
    Higher expectations are the answer.

  9. Mac,
    I'm so glad to have found your wonderful blog, not only because of your thoughtful comments on pressing issues, but also to have learned more about your life's peregrinations! What a gift it is to have the opportunity to know another person well, including the workings of a great literary mind.
    I too grew up the in south with "invisible" blacks and a poorly taught history of the US, including "the war between the states" (from the perspective of Texas! The recent comments by Haley Barber reignited memories of the Citizens' Councils and the struggles to overcome resistance to integration. My husband worked for justice in Mississippi, right in the thick of it..A society that claims to stand for justice and morality does owe something to subsequent generations of those who were so deliberately repressed..Our current culture of extreme selfishness and greed which the new Congress hopes to institutionalize in legislation, will be a challenge to overcome.. Perhaps if even the "Tea Party" crowd can overcome their racist discomfort with a black President, they will realize how they are being screwed!
    Here's to the continuation of prolific writing in the New Year.. It was great to see you, Meg, and the boys.