Monday, September 13, 2004

Concerning Affirmative Action.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Abel Meeropol, 1937

I start with this poem because I believe that to honestly talk about affirmative action, one must come to grips with some historical fact, and reflect on how that reality reverberated throughout the first half of the 20th century.

One must consider the psychological effects, and reason through what that does to a person, and how it affects the raising of subsequent generations of people.

(continued from page 1)
I know a lot of the common sound bytes about affirmative action, because I’ve said them all myself. However, I was young and stupid.

Some statements like “It’s reverse discrimination” are less simplistic versions of “It’s not fair”. Others, such as “It is an insult and implies the black man cannot compete”, feign a higher enlightened road of inclusion. An attempted egalitarian nudge and wink shared with your black friends, demonstrating your belief that you think Blacks really are people, while in fact you are being intellectually lazy, if not dishonest.

Strong words?

Please review the following:

End of the Civil War, April 1865; slaves are freed.

Legislation largely for and about the freed slaves:

14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Civil Rights (1868)
15th Amendment "The Right To Vote", February 3, 1870
The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991

It wasn’t until 1964 that freed slaves and their offspring actually had the unimpeded right to vote. Even then, the basic legislation had to be strengthened in 1991.

Elapsed time: 126 years.

The following is excerpted from a book called A Question of Manhood, Volume 2, Blacks in The Diaspora
-Darlene Clark Hine, John McCluskey, Jr., and David Barry Gaspar

The number of black voters in Alabama declined from a statewide total of 3,742 in 1908 to 1,500 in 1930. For all practical purposes, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution no longer existed in the Black Belt, and blacks found themselves increasingly vulnerable to racist violence. Georgia led the nation in lynchings between 1885 and 1918 with 398. Mississippi was a close second with 381 and Alabama was fifth with 246. In 1915 there were 18 lynchings in Georgia alone, twice as many as in any other state. Appropriately, Mississippi and Alabama were tied for second place with 9 illegal hangings of black people that year. Carter G. Woodson, reviewing the economic chaos which had befallen black farmers throughout the South, refused to attribute the exodus of blacks into the North for any but political reasons. “It is highly probable that the Negroes would not be leaving the South today,” the Negro historian wrote in 1918, “if they were treated as men.”

The tie between voting, land-ownership and lynching cannot be minimized.

There are many reasons which explain in part the demise of black land tenure in the Black Belt South, and the destruction of an authentic, black landowning class. We have isolated several causes—the emergence of white racism and Jim Crow legislation, the fall of cotton prices, the coming of the boll weevil, the lack of adequate credit at reasonable rates, and the general erosion and depletion of the soil. All of these reasons and others stem from a larger and as yet unanswered dilemma—the existence and survival of black people within the context of the American capitalist system. In theory, capitalism is characterized by a degree of labor mobility and a free movement of capital from disadvantageous enterprises to more profitable sectors. But under the economic conditions prevalent in the postbellum South, an elite group of white planters, bankers, investors, and merchants held a tight monopoly over the monetary supply, credit sources and rates, and the entire agricultural production of the region. This economic monopoly gradually promoted the collapse of the black economic miracle which black educators and entrepreneurs like Booker T. Washington dreamed of building. Given the structure of the domestic economy, it was inevitable that black farmers would be forced off the land and evicted from their homes to work at factory jobs in the cities of the New South and the urban ghettoes of the North.

As economist Paul Sweezy observed, “the very essence of monopoly is the existence of effective barriers to the [free] movement of capital.” Neither the South’s social institutions, corrupted from the bottom up by violent racist ideology, nor its lily-white political institutions could provide fundamental solutions to the region’s regressive economic order. History thus illustrates clearly that the goal of black economic self-sufficiency was a bitter illusion rather than a possibility; the collapse of black land tenure in the Black Belt South was not a failure of black people, but a direct result of the denial of equal economic opportunity for all members of the society.

What happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s probably made many blacks hearken back to the halcyon days of slavery.

There are poignant moments in the history of dependent peoples, when the terms of their oppression have not yet been—or are no longer—fixed, when there is movement, be it forward or backward. Black Americans had been sliding backwards since the heady days of Reconstruction. Violence, fraud, and restrictive electoral laws were used by the Democrats to reduce and control the black vote in the South. “There are minor elections in which it is not thought needful to interfere,” a British essayist observed in 1891. “But, speaking generally, the fact is too well known to need either proof or illustration that … the colored people are not suffered to use the rights which the amendments to the constitution were intended to secure.”

By the time those words appeared, the South was already embarking on what one southern editor described as “a new method of dealing with that White Man’s Burden which she has borne for more than thirty years-a method that, in spite of appearances of injustice, promises … more generous treatment of the negro.” The South would no longer seek to curtail and control the black vote, but to eliminate it altogether.

Lynching, an old American tradition that had long flourished on the frontier, gained new importance in the South. According to historian Edward L. Ayers, “The visibility and ferocity of lynching seemed to assume new proportions in the 1880s and 1890s.” One British observer wrote that “In many instances deliberate arrangements for the ‘execution’ are made, special trains bring throngs of male and female visitors, and the event forms an interesting public holiday.” Lynchings were also educational events as “young black men learned early in their lives that they could at any time be grabbed by a white mob—whether for murder, looking at a white woman the wrong way, or merely being ‘smart’—and dragged into the woods or a public street to be tortured, burned, mutilated.” The complicity and approval of southern whites were matched by the indifference of northern whites and the federal government. “It was a revealing reflection on the times that so few congressmen showed any concerns about the lynchings,” notes one scholar. Americans “are a nation of lynchers,” distinguished African American journalist Ida B. Wells cried out to a British audience in 1898

A gruesome symbol of the growing white savagery against blacks was the lynching of Sam Hose, an African American who confessed to having killed a white man.

On April 23, 1899, Sam Hose was seized from his jail cell in Newnan, Georgia, by a mob of angry whites. For half an hour he was slowly mutilated. “While he pleaded pitifully for mercy and begged his tormentors to let him die,” the men severed his ears, and then cut off his fingers one by one. Finally he was burned alive. “The torch was applied about 2:30, and at 3 o’clock the body of Sam Hose was limp and lifeless. … The body was not cut down. It was cut to pieces. The crowd fought for places about the smoldering tree, and with knives secured such pieces of his carcass as had not crumbled away.” One special and two regular trains “carried nearly 4,000 people” to witness the burning or to visit the scene of the lynching. “Special train for Newnan! All aboard for the burning!” the criers yelled. The New York Times reported that “the excursionists returning … [were] loaded down [with souvenirs] … bones, pieces of flesh, and parts of the wood which was placed at the negro’s feet.” The paper also noted that “one enthusiast procured a slice of the heart, which he took to Atlanta to present to the Governor.” Another three to four thousand spectators visited the scene of the lynching the following day.

In the days after the incident, the governor of Georgia blamed the blacks for the entire episode, and the U.S. attorney general hastened to declare that no federal law had been violated and that “the government would take no action whatever.”

Granted, Sam Hose was a confessed murderer. But, still… spectators to mutilation and muder?

In 1940 Ralph Ellison wrote “The Birthmark”. Here is an excerpt:

When Matt lowered his eyes he noticed the ribs had been caved in.

The flesh was bruised and torn. [The birthmark] was just below [Willie’s] navel, he thought. Then he gave a start: where it should have been was only a bloody mound of torn flesh and hair. Matt went weak. He felt as though he had been castrated himself. He thought he would fall when Clara stepped up beside him. Swiftly, he tried to push her back…. Then Clara was screaming…. Matt pushed [her] to go, feeling hot breath against the hand he held over her mouth.

“Just remember that a car hit ’im, and you’ll be all right,” the patrolman said. “We don’t allow no lynching round here no more.”

Matt felt Clara’s fingers digging into his arm as his eyes flashed swiftly over the face of the towering patrolman, over the badge against the blue shirt, the fingers crooked in the belt above the gun butt. He swallowed hard … catching sight of Willie between the white men’s legs.

“I’ll remember,” he said bitterly, “he was hit by a car.”

—RALPH ELLISON, “The Birthmark,” in New Masses, July 2, 1940

Now that you are sufficiently disgusted, I want you to imagine that you watched your older brother or your father get dragged out of your house and disappear.

Later, you find this:

The picture that inspired the poem Strange Fruit

Tell me, how do you cope? What would you tell your children when they grow up? Your grandchildren? What do they tell their kids? Please take a moment to think about what do you tell your kids?

Lynching is a shameful fact of our history. It is or was a symptom of a national illness. The symptoms may have been assuaged, but, is the illness cured?

It is my opinion that even as late as today Black America is just now emerging from the hellish nightmare caused by our national illness. I don’t know what the psychic generational burden of such a legacy truly engenders.

But we can look at society and get a clue.

In 1985 I was interviewing candidates for a refrigeration position. Refrigeration in Texas is a big deal, and so refrigeration techs are in high demand. During the summer it is very hard to find one that has time to come in and interview. I finally had a young black male with all his certifications come in. Experience, etc. I had the supervisor do a second interview. Less than 10 minutes he was back down with the candidate. Smiling and shaking his hand he bade him farewell, saying we’d be in touch. When the door closed, the supervisor turned to me and said, quote “You know they all steal” and walked away. I was young and outraged and so I pursued it with my boss. We hired the guy. Which was no favor to him. He quit in 3 weeks. The only thing he told me in the exit interview was that “it just isn’t going to work out.”

As much as we want to think, discrimination is not gone in America. It’s not even dormant. The only inroads that have been made are due to Government addressing the situation. The only lasting solution is when you actually work with someone different from you, and realize how similar you really are. And you teach your kids to judge the individual, not the race.

None of that would be happening today if not for affirmative action, or the threat of it, in employment law.

The need for that government intervention is not gone. At least not in employment. But what of education? Well, this is circular. Which came first, the job or the education? Depends. The job of the parent perhaps maintained the family unit and allowed for the next generation to get an education. The education allows for better jobs, etc.

I submit the starting point is being able to make a living, any living. And that comes from being able to hold jobs. Of course you have to get the jobs first. And if you are dealing with residual mentalities that organized social events around a lynching, I submit that getting a job and keeping one can be a difficult proposition.

There is no denying that affirmative action is not perfect. It is distasteful to most, precisely because it is discriminatory. I think of affirmative action as a prescribed medicine, an antibiotic if you will, which one takes because it makes you better. But what does the doctor always say about your antibiotic? That’s right. Take them all until they are gone. Otherwise, the illness will come back stronger.

It is not yet time to toss affirmative action aside. Its job is not yet done. It has taken 126 years to get to this point, and only the last 30 years have shown any significant advancement. That’s only one generation from institutionalized lynching being part of your daily reality. Clearly that is not long enough.

Yes, things are a lot better. We can all feel better about the situation, and feel good about the progress that has been made.

But, the country is not yet completely healthy. We may feel better about discrimination in America, but we cannot stop taking the anti-biotic just because we feel better. We have to finish taking the prescription. Probably for another generation at least. Doctor’s orders.


See Affirmative on Page 3


Kat said...

I'm not sure how I feel about this accept maybe I agree that we are not so far removed from the days where it was easy to discriminate and need laws against it. On the other hand, I am not sure where the "affirmative action" law fits in with the anti-descrimination laws that exist and I always question more laws when it should be that the first law is enforced.

I have heard far too many people say the "n" word and then claim that since "black people use it" it's ok, or that "there are black people and then there are n-----s" as if they had the measuring stick for what that is. Of course, it is not just about blacks, but any minority that comes to the United States must fight to be recognized. Some have it easier than others (like the Irish and then the Italians) because, they were after all, white. or some were not persecuted onto death near as often as the descendents of slaves.

My personal experience has been that people will claim discrimination sometimes when it is not an issue. I don't state this as some benchmark as to why these laws are bad, just that it is so. I actually had a white male tell me I was discriminating against him because he was being disciplined, I was a woman, and our department was 80% women. therefore, my reasons must be unjust and discriminatory.

Funny how the world works, hmm?

silvermyst said...

I have that poem sung by Billy Holiday on my playlist and it freaks me out every time I hear it so that nowadays, I actively take it off my list.

While I don't believe in affirmative action, much like feminism, I believe it was neccessary at the time- like Michael Moore now- The other extreme must be portrayed to allow audiences to find a balance. (maybe?) There is no right or wrong answer anyhow. To me anyway.

my friends who have studied in the US (and my Asian American friends) have told me that people recognise you by race, and that stereotypes (good and bad) are then formed based on that.

however, in Melbourne (our most multi-cultural state in Australia), people pretend they're colour-blind. They take it to the next level- interested in your culture and way of life, but also ignoring the colour of your skin in other factors, however impossible it may be.

Friends who have studied in America have commented on this and tell me they don't like it because people over in the US they're seen as smart. So I don't know. It can be good and bad.

Frater Bovious said...

Thanks for the comment! You said above "On the other hand, I am not sure where the "affirmative action" law fits in with the anti-descrimination laws that exist and I always question more laws when it should be that the first law is enforced."

It is partly a question of measurement. It is very hard to measure non-discrimination. Also, it became clear that the laws against discrimination were not accomplishing the goal. That is why the 14th amendment was followed by the 15th, which was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

The 14th amendment attempted to address voting rights by lowering the representation that states would have in congress and senate based on their treatment of the freed slaves:

" Section. 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State."

Certain states did not care. So, the 15th amendment explicitly addressed voting rights. Which worked for a bit until Jim Crow laws came into effect. And lynching reached a kind of frenzy.

The '64 act created the EEOC and from there we began to get affirmative action as a remedy for entities not obeying the law.

The '91 act put teeth into the legislation, setting a minimum fine of $300,000.00 among other things. Notice that each piece of legislation attempted to address an unforseen shortcoming of the previous one.

The unforseen shortcoming can be generalized as giving human behavior too much credibility.

It took approximately 85 years to address that problem.

So, affirmative action became a remedy for when discrimination laws were violated. There is not really an "Affirmative Action" law. Affirmative Action is a method used to remedy lack of compliance. A kind of punishment, if you will. Plus it has the advantage of being measurable.

Remember, nothing really changed until affirmative action requirements made it too expensive to discriminate. Basically, what Affirmative Action did was finally cause enforcement of the intent of the 14th amendment. fb

Anonymous said...

When I did a post on considering reparations -I thought TWD made some really good points (Oh, it pains me to say that). In typical TWD form -it is VERY long, but I will re-post it here... (It made me think about some things that I had let emotion shut out)...

This Will Defend: begin quote: "Reparations for slavery? That assumes two things that aren't true.

1) that the pain and suffering of the long-dead can be lessened somehow by payment to their descendents. It can't.

Slavery was evil, a black mark on our history (no pun intended) and the American form of slavery was particulary evil. Much worse than ancient Greece or Rome - at least in those societies the children of slaves were not slaves themselves. American slavery condemned human beings to perpetual bondage. And in Rome slaves were considered enslaved humans, in American slavery humans were considered livestock. Absolute evil and our schools don't teach the truth about it. BUT, that said, you can't take it back. You can't unmurder somebody, untorture somebody, or give them back their stolen life. It won't "even out" ever and justice is impossible because the mistreated are as dead as the mistreaters.

2) It assumes that the descendants of slaves are worse off because of slavery than they would have been otherwise. As Keyes put it, reparations would help them to "catch up" to where they would have been without slavery. What I am about to say might sound radical, but it is true: descendants of slaves are BETTER OFF because their ancestors were slaves. Before you freak out think about it - I can easily prove it. How?

Because if there were no slavery African-Americans would be African, not African-American. Ever been to the west coast of Africa, where American slaves were captured from? I have. Vacation wonderland, let me tell you. Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Guinea, Senegal, lots of places that you wouldn't want to visit, ever. Poor, high disease rates, hungry children, chaos, anarchy. A very low level of development. The ancestors of slaves have a much higher standard of living and much more opportunity than the ancestors of those who weren't enslaved and therefore stayed in Africa. You can't compare African-Americans to White Americans to determine if any "catch-up" is needed. You need to compare Africans to African-Americans because slavery is what caused the difference. Slavery was evil, but no "catch-up" for descendents of those unfairly brutalized by that evil is appropriate. Because there isn't any catching up to do. If your ancestors were African slaves in America that sucks for THEM, but it is a bonus for YOU - otherwise you would be growing up in Togo or Nigeria or someplace like that. No thanks.

Well, what about those who, as you say, benefited from the ownership of another? The south was by far the richest region of our nation up until 1861. By 1865 it was the poorest and has remained so to this day. Most of those benefits were destroyed along with the confederate army. And in addition you say the South should pay, but every confederate state except South Carolina had enough patriots to field at least one Union Regiment, and there were enough volunteers in the North to field many confederate regiments. How would you differentiate among the descendants? And the principle of res judicata suggests that even if you could you don't - those wronged are gone, and those who benefited are dead. The descendants of those who benefited might be better off, but that isn't their doing. We don't visit the sins of the fathers onto the children in our society. And, of course, many people have immigrated here since the Civil War, including black people. Do recent immigrants pay? Do recent black immigrants benefit? In both cases, why or why not?

As for income tax: an income tax suspension would benefit those who pay taxes, with the largest benefit to those who earn the most - hardly a way to "even" up the difference by giving rich black people a break at the expense of poor and middle-class people of every other color. In short, why does Keyes deserve a tax break and not me? Because of what his great-great-great grandfather went through? No way I say.

As for affirmative action, race-based affirmative action is similarly flawed. I agree that racism (not slavery) has done much harm that is still with us today, and racism is real and more prevalent than many white people believe. Affirmative action based on race does not help solve that at all.

Take affirmative action in college admissions, for example, which the Supreme Court has upheld - who benefits? The normal story supporting affirmative action is that poor inner-city schools and a history of oppression has resulted in lower SAT scores and less educational opportunity for african-americans. That is, actually, quite true. The solution of race-based affirmative action does nothing to solve this. It tries to fix at the back end of the educational process what was broken starting at preschool. And it doesn't benefit those it claims to help - the poor, inner-city kids who go to crappy schools. Wouldn't it be better to fix those schools instead of benefiting a chosen few?

And who is that few? Instead of helping the poor affirmative action benefits middle-class and rich minorities over everybody - including poor minorities. An example of the points I've made so far is that many (most?) of the blacks at elite schools are not descendants of African slaves. They or their families arrived since the Civil War, but they benefit. The descendents of slaves who are stuck in failed schools don't benefit. And neither do the children who aren't the descendents of slaves who are stuck in failing schools.

Imagine you work at University's admission's office. Your affirmative action program says that you can use race as a + factor for 20% of your slots, in effect reserving them for minorities without an actual quota. Everything else, of course, is the same - high test scores are better than low test scores, etc. So you get candidate X, Y, and Z.

X is a non-minority with a 1300 SAT.
Y is a minority candidate with a 1280 SAT.
Z is a minority with an 1260 SAT.
Who do you take?

You take Y, the minority candidate with a 1280.

Who is candidate Y likely to be? A middle class or rich black kid who went to good schools.

Who are X and Z?

X might be rich but he might be dirt poor. The % of blacks who are poor is higher than that of whites, but there are LOTS more poor white people. And X might be Asian, or any other category not eligible.

And if you make other races eligible what does that do to the Slavery and racism premise? Your ancestors faced the same problems as other immigrants. Why do some get a break now and not others?

Finally, and most importantly, there is Z. He is a poor black kid, and he just lost even with Affirmative Action because a kid from a good school stands a better chance of doing well than a kid from a crappy school, and affirmative action puts all the favored minorities into one pool and draws out those with the top scores. Who has the top scores? Kids who are richer than you I'll bet, including minority kids.

I went to law school with kids who have yet to hold their first job and drove BMWs and Mercedes, who lived in huge apartments, who didn't sweat tuition, who went to Europe on holiday. And who were Black. They went to great public schools or exclusive private schools. Did they deserve a break over me, who grew up on welfare and food stamps, went to a high school where half the kids couldn't read at the adult level upon graduation, and who served in the infantry for over a decade? Well, they got it. And they got it whether I was black or white. How is that justice for the slaves?

Affirmative action based on poverty, quality of schools, etc. makes more sense. Children should have an equal opportunity to excel regardless of the size of their parent's paychecks and regardless of their race. We don't have that and I wish we did. But using race as a factor won't help us get there.

And what of mixed-race children? Imagine stepbrothers, one with a black father and one without. They grow up in the same house with the same Mom, and then affirmative action will help one of them because of the poor schools that many minorities have to attend? They go to the same school.

And then there is the problem in both reparations and affirmative action that our society will be moving further away from Martin Luther King's dream, not closer. It will divide us further.

Soldiers who deployed to Bosnia or Kosovo will tell you that dealing with the locals was an exercise in insanity. "Why are you shooting at those people?" "well, they attacked us and massacred part of our village!" "When?" "1478." And they say it as if it were yesterday because they have been taught to feel angry about it their whole lives, and that is what they will teach their children. We don't need the same insanity here. It never evens out.

Our government should not consider race. If help is needed to even the playing field (and I say it is) then the only color that should count is green - if you have a lot you are better off than those who don't, regardless of your color. And affirmative action based on race won't help those who need it the most, while punishing the innocent." end quote

Frater Bovious said...

I pretty much agree with all of what TWD said, from a kind of idealistic, look from afar kind of viewpoint. It is fine to say that blacks in the USA are better today than blacks in Africa, but that argument seems kind of specious to me. You could easily argue from there that they have it too good, and maybe it's time to start stringing up the ungrateful bastards.

The money point is well made. But that is why my post, while not explicitly stating so, really kind of focused on jobs. Plus, as I stated at the end of the post, affirmative action is simply a measure and a remedy, and nothing really happened to improve the lot of the average black man until affirmative action made it a better business decision for companies.

Reparations, however, are just stupid.

I just have a sick feeling that tossing affirmative action out the window is a bad plan at this point in our history. I will agree that it is distasteful and you can poke a lot of philosophical holes in it from a lot of angles. And people sitting in their ivory towers can come up with all kinds of things that "should" work. The simple unescapable historical fact is that affirmative action is the only idea so far that actually accomplished anything.

Bear in mind, a key point perhaps lost in all the words is this: It's not until you work alongside someone or live next door to them that you realize that maybe they aren't all that different. And that ultimately is the solution, such that when we are answering the question about race on the application, the only choice is "Human." fb