34 Words, 41 Shots: A Defense of Affirmative Action

Top Story of Spring 2001:

A Talk by Dr. Robert Jensen

Delivered to a panel on racial disparity in health at the annual conference of the American Public Health Association, Boston, Massachusets, November 14, 2000; and for the “Speaking Truth to Power” Series at Schreiner University, Kerrville, Texas, April 3, 2001

I want to start with the 34 most misused words about race ever spoken in the United States:

“I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Those are, of course, the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr., spoken in 1963 at the March on Washington. King used the term “dream”, but his topic was the nightmare of race and America, of life in a racialized and racist society.

Today, conservatives and liberals alike invoke King’s dream of a color-blind society in ways that I can only guess would deeply sadden and anger King. For to be blind to color in the United States in the year 2000 is to be truly blind.

But blindness, I think, is the wrong metaphor, and not just because it equates a disability with lack of understanding. It is also the wrong metaphor because one does not choose blindness; it is a condition one must deal with. The failure to understand race in a racialized world, the failure of white America to understand its own power and privilege, and how that power and privileged is based on a racialized and racist system, is a choice. It is a kind of willed ignorance, for one has to work very hard not to know what is so obvious. This clamor for color-blindness is, I want to argue, a kind of collective willed ignorance on the part of the majority of white Americans.

The way of out of the ignorance, I think, is relatively simple. We must learn to hold two seemingly contradictory things in our minds:

First, race is a fiction we must never accept.

Second, race is a fact we must never forget.

By that, I mean simply that we must let go, once and for all, of the notion that race is a meaningful biological or genetic concept. We must understand that in a biological sense, there are no such things as racial groups. Racial classification systems are a biological and genetic fiction. That doesn’t mean there aren’t differences in skin, hair and bone, to borrow from W. E. B. Du Bois. It means those differences don’t mean anything in biological or genetic terms. Recent work on the human genome verifies what we have long known: There is more genetic variation within racial groups that between them. So, we must eliminate what cultural theorist Stuart Hall calls “the biological trace” that is present not only in the dominant discourse but also often in anti-racist politics.

But race is, of course, very much a fact in a social sense, and a fact we cannot forget. Racial groups exist because people take them to be real. Invoking reason and religion, anthropology and science, people with power have created and imposed racial hierarchies, and those hierarchies have been used, and are still used today, to unjustly enrich some people and impoverish others. The consequences of that categorization and oppression are as real as the scars that racism leaves on people’s bodies, minds and souls.

I take these statements to be little more than truisms. Yet they would in many circles in this country spark argument. Let me quote from a correspondence I had with a very bright, and very white, man I met at a journalists’ conference, where he and I argued about affirmative action. He wrote to me:

“Where is your evidence of widespread contemporary racism? I literally don’t see it. In my view, the overwhelming majority of Americans, and 99 percent of our leadership, embrace Martin Luther King’s principles as pronounced in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Where do you see racism?”

Where do I see racism? Well, we could start with a study by the Council of Economic Advisors for the President’s Initiative on Race hardly a radical group. They detailed how, on average, whites are more likely than members of racial/ethnic minorities to:

* Attend primary and secondary schools with smaller class sizes;
* Have access to computer technology in public schools and at home during primary and secondary schooling;
* Attend and graduate from a four-year college or university;
* Earn higher salaries;
* Retain employment during a downturn in the economy;
* Be covered by health insurance and consequently gain access to health care;
* Survive certain life-threatening illnesses;
* Experience more favorable housing conditions (less crowding, less crime, less litter and deterioration, and fewer problems with public services);
* Spend a smaller percentage of household income on housing;
* Have unimpeded access to home mortgage loans and home ownership;
* Own stocks, mutual funds and IRA accounts; and
* Gain a substantial net worth.

[Council of Economic Advisors, “Changing America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being by Race and Hispanic Origin,” September 1998, http://w3.access.gpo.gov/eop/ca/index.html%5D

Where do I see racism? Not just in those statistics, but in the stories I read and hear from non-white people about what it is like to live in this country. And I see racism in this clamor for color-blindness.

I have often heard this comment from well-intentioned white people: “I don’t think of Joe as black. I just think of him as a person.” Such a statement could only be made in thoroughly racialized and racist society. Why?

First, think of who makes such statements — almost exclusively white people. I have never had a black person say to me, “When I see a white person, I don’t see the color, I just see the person.” Few say that because being white historically has not been associated with degradation, dehumanization, denigration. Being white does not make one’s humanity problematic. To see me as a fully human person, non-white people don’t have to strip away my whiteness, because whiteness is not assumed to be less-than anything. I can be white and be a person, without complication.

So, no non-white person has to de-race a white person to be able to treat that white person as a person. But white people will take that de-racing to be evidence of having transcended the deeply embedded racism of this country, when in fact the process of stripping non-white people of their color in order to see them as a person implicitly acknowledges the association of color with lesserness, with deficiency.

Our goal should not be to strip away the reality of our difference, our particularity, in favor of some abstracted form. Our goal should not be to be color-blind. Our goal should be to understand how color, hair and bone shape all our lives.

For whites, I think that means taking seriously not only the task of understanding what it means for people of color to live in a racialized and racist world, but for us to start to see how the privileges that come with being white give us advantages, some subtle and some obvious, some overt and some covert, some material and some ideological.

I have worked hard in my life. I believe that, amid all my mistakes and screw-ups, I have done some good things in the world. But to believe that, I don’t have to deny that I live in a world that unjustly advantages me because I am white (and male, and educated, and from a professional class).

Justice starts with the truth. The truth is we live in a society that was founded on a racist genocide of indigenous people and enriched through a racist slave traffic in African people, and that is maintained in its affluence through an ongoing racist attack on the non-white people of much of the third world. Yet these three American holocausts perpetrated by white people have become abstracted as “the race problem” with no sense of the agency of oppression.

This goes back to the founding of the nation. The father of our grand democracy, James Madison, himself a slaveowner, said: “Next to the case of the black race within our bosom, that of the red on our borders is the problem most baffling to the policy of our country.”

Like most white Americans, Madison saw the existence of blacks and Indians as the problem, not the attacks on those people and the exploitation of them by whites. It is by now a truism to say that racism is a white problem. But based on my reading and interaction with whites, it is clear to me that most of white American still sees race as a problem rooted in communities of color, one that can only be solved when people in those communities change, not when white people change.

I want to argue not only that race is a white problem, but that it is one that can only be solved by politics.

That means we must understand racism and white privilege not in individual, psychological terms, but in social and political terms. The problems of race are not simply that some individuals are racially prejudiced. The problem is what can be called institutional or systemic racism: the system of unjustly gained wealth and power, continuing resource inequality, and a deeply embedded white-supremacist ideology. By institutional and systemic, I mean that without intervention the institutions of society will reproduce the racism. I mean it is to some degree present everywhere.

If that’s true, then it means white people have to rethink the question of our own connection to racism. Each of us here could completely eliminate any vestiges of racial prejudice in ourselves, and we would still be implicated in systemic racism. We would still retain all the privileges that come with being white. We would still have what George Lipsitz has termed “the possessive investment in whiteness.”

That means to be truly anti-racist, we must be political. I mean political in the broadest sense politics as the struggle for the distribution of power and resources in a society. Not just electoral politics, but the struggle in our schools, our workplaces, and the larger society, to confront the realities of that systemic racism. The contours of that struggle can vary from place to place. But it is, and for the foreseeable future will be, a struggle, because as Frederick Douglass so eloquently explained more than a century ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

That doesn’t mean we white folks don’t have lots of internal, personal work to do as well. My own experience has taught me that just when I think I have shed the last of my own racist training, just when I think I can trust myself on matters of race, I find myself falling on my face, making mistakes.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a lot. It doesn’t mean I’m the same person I was as a kid, telling racist jokes while growing up in virtually all-white North Dakota. It doesn’t mean I’m the same person I was when as a smug, self-satisfied journalist in my 20s I believed affirmative action was a way for underqualified blacks to get and protect their jobs.

I have learned. I have grown. I have been blessed with non-white friends who have held me accountable, who have given me what I call the gift of being made uncomfortable. But I am a work in progress, just like us all.

Because of what I have learned, I understand now, more than ever, how that anti-racist work must go on not only inside myself, but in the world, a world where people suffer and die because of racism. I can begin to restructure my own thinking, even my own feeling, and that’s important.

But what does that mean for Amadou Diallo, a black man in New York who in 1999 committed the crime of being afraid in the presence of four white police officers and reaching for his wallet? His punishment was 41 shots. What does is mean for Patrick Dorismond, who the following year was shot and killed on the street by an undercover drug cop who, for no reason other than Dorismond’s black skin, approached him to try to make a drug buy. Dorismond made the mistake of being outraged that he was targeted, of confronting the officer. For that crime, he was shot on the street.

There were many white liberals in New York who stood silent when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instituted reactionary policing policies that, we are told, “cleaned up the city” and made it safer to walk the streets. Safer, that is, so long as you aren’t a young black man who carries the presumption of criminality. I assume many of those white liberals have worked on their own racism, as they quietly endorsed the mayor’s initiatives, as they secretly were glad when the white police officers in the Diallo case were acquitted of murder charges.

I can and should work on my own racism, and I can feel better about myself and my racial politics. I can do that, and Amadou Diallo is still dead. Patrick Dorismond is still dead. And Rudy is still mayor of New York. And white folks in New York still talk about how safe the streets are. For them. For us. The ones with the privilege to see police on the street and feel safe. The ones who don’t have to worry about 41 shots.

So, if whiteness does make one’s life easier, why should white people with privilege — including the privilege to ignore racism — bother? Why should we care? Why should be act?

I think there are always two main motivations for such a stance. One is the question of justice, the simple plea for decent human lives for all. If we see someone being hurt, we know we should help. When we see someone being brutalized, we know it is wrong. When these things happen systemically, it is just as obvious that we should act.

But there is also an argument from self-interest, at two different levels. One is that somewhere inside ourselves, we know that our own privilege is built on the backs of other people, and when we acknowledge that, it doesn.t feel good. To be fully human is to resist a system that conditions your pleasure on someone else.s pain. I can.t prove this, but it is an article of faith for me. It is what it means to be human. And I believe we all want to be fully human.

But there’s another self-interest to recognize, which is the simple lesson from history of what happens to empires built on exploitation and injustice and cruelty. They fall. Dr. King understood this, when in 1961 he warned white America that the “price America must pay for the continued exploitation of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., had no illusions about this country. As he grew older, his critique deepened and his language grew more blunt. He connected questions of domestic racism to the exploitation of capitalism and U.S. brutality abroad. He talked not just of race but of the “triplets of social misery”: racism, economic inequality, and militarism. (I would add sexism to this list as well. And homophobia.)

On the night before his death, Martin Luther King Jr, the man who white conservatives now use for rhetorical cover in their opposition to affirmative action, warned, “if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored people of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”

I do not pretend to have easy answers to the difficult questions of policy and strategy, the questions about how we are going to change the system. But I know that the first step toward answering those questions is to be honest about how deeply woven into the material and ideological fabric of our society racism is.

For white people, that means holding two seemingly contradictory things in mind:

First, our whiteness (in the sense of notions of white supremacy) is a depraved fiction that we must give up.

Second, our whiteness (in the sense of white privilege) is a fact we cannot simply wish away. For white people to be fully human, we must take seriously the moral imperative for political action.

To do that, I think, we must give up on the pathological individualism of this culture and start to see ourselves differently, to see how our successes and our failures are always partly social, not strictly individual. I’ll end by quoting from myself, from my response to my white correspondent who couldn.t see racism. My final words of that correspondence were:

“I think people in this country tend to see life as an auto race — we’re all in separate cars, racing each other, competing for advantages, seeing our success as requiring someone else’s defeat. That’s a short-term view, and it’s the wrong way to understand ourselves. I think life is like an ocean voyage with one ship. We’re all on the same ship. We’re all in the same boat. When a leak springs in one part of the ship, we’re all in trouble. On this voyage, there’s no dry dock to head to make repairs. Life is lived out on the water, plugging leaks and caring for each other.”

Our task is not complicated to articulate, though often difficult to make real in the world: We must create connection while not denying difference, in a politics that does not turn away from the pain of the world but also does not forget the pleasure and joy that comes from resistance to oppression in solidarity with others, as we keep trying to get as close as we can to what Paulo Freire eloquently called “the beauty of being human.”

Copyright 2000-2001 by Robert Jensen. Posted by permission from the author, by the Texas Civil Rights Review, Spring, 2001.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s