They say the more things change ... you know the rest. In '83, during the Reagan regime, one had good reason to doubt America's willingness to deal with any of its societal ills, especially its congenital disease of racism. As a sophomore in high school, however, my own nascent racial awareness was relatively unscathed by the pessimism of socio-political realities. I was still finding out how things were, and why they were. Perhaps it was youthful idealism, but I certainly envisioned more social progress awaiting us two decades into the future.
As I look back now, 20 years older and blacker, I can only shake my head when pondering the similarities between these eras. The early '80s were marked by a wave of conservatism that saw the nation embarking upon an unprecedented military buildup and the enactment of policies that institutionalized the transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich. While our manufacturing base, with its ability to sustain entire communities, was being shipped overseas to the lowest bidder, disgruntled and displaced white folks were looking over their shoulders at blacks and immigrants as economic threats. New external "enemies" were created continuously--the simple-minded, but oft-repeated lies of our government successfully distracted a credulous populace from the erosion of our economic foundation, and the criminal complicity of our government and ruling elite. Folks actually believed that the United States was in imminent physical danger from the likes of El Salvador and Nicaragua. Sound familiar?
My college years were eye-opening. The more I studied history, the more I learned just how entrenched racism was in this society, and the degree to which racial drama camouflaged similarly entrenched class antagonism and inequity. A false, "propagandized" history of America made it easy for racism to pass from one generation to the next, but its tremendous utility in providing self-worth and distraction to poor and middle-class whites made it too good to give up. I was amazed then, as I am now, at the amount of time and energy that goes into attacking and supporting affirmative action, for example. Were we having this discussion one hundred years after the end of formalized, systematic and pervasive racial discrimination against African Americans at the federal, state and local levels, and throughout private industry, I could perhaps understand those who are so zealous in their opposition.
I went to school at the University of Maryland, where, as recently as two decades prior to my matriculation, black students could not attend, regardless of qualifications, due to racial discrimination. While cutting my teeth there as a political columnist at one of the student newspapers, I'd run down the litany of things done to and against black people by America, enumerating those pernicious and persistent structural inequities that created and perpetuated a dramatically unlevel playing field. I'd remind the blissfully forgetful folks that the vicious and blatantly codified apartheid system that existed at the time in South Africa was no different, in impact, than what had existed on these shores. More importantly, in this country, full redress had never been provided or attempted.
Maryland would become an epicenter for the anti-affirmative action debate, ending up on the losing end of Podberesky v. Kirwan, in which the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship program, which used one percent of its scholarship fund to provide tuition and expenses for high-achieving African-American students, was struck down by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals as unconstitutional. As a former Banneker Scholar, I suppose it would have been constitutional if they only paid three-fifths of my tuition.
Nowadays, its a different U of M under the gun--the University of Michigan Law School--for its use of race as one of many factors in admissions, and having "diversity" as one of its stated goals. But, as the years press on, I find that I don't have patience anymore to debate with the new crop of conveniently colorblind, neo-Kingsian meritocratists who decry any hint of remedial "preference," blithely oblivious to the long-standing $$$-based affirmative action that allows low-achieving rich kids like the "Quota-in-Chief" to be admitted to Yale. Nah. College education, as it is in many other Western, industrialized nations, should be free or heavily subsidized anyway, especially in a country with the vast resources the United States has. Beyond that, though, I think its time to tilt at bigger windmills. So, next time affirmative action comes up in my presence, I'll politely say:
"Affirmative action is a half-assed substitute for reparations--you wanna get rid of affirmative action? Pay for all of the gross inequities perpetrated against us by the federal, state and local governments in just this century, plus interest, and we'll call it even."
Derek Jennings is a columnist for The Independent and a computer systems analyst in the Triangle.