ESSAY #11 – 10.16.20 POSTED 5.6.21

Where We Are, Part II, 3rd in the Series

Resetting the Relationship Following the Civil Rights Movement, a couple of practices—forced busing and Affirmative Action—helped move the country toward more balance of opportunity for all. Though good policy, these practices also left a few social scars, creating resistance and leaving some feeling that they were treated unfairly

Where We Are, Part II

Third in a Series of Essays on Race, Repair-ations, and Reconciliation:

Resetting the Relationship

We are pretty conservative, and extremely grateful for our education. It has provided us a good life. Our family and extended family took full advantage of the affirmative action era. My 26 first cousins on my mother’s side (I am the oldest) pretty much all have at least. a four-year degree. Three medical doctors (two are brothers), a lawyer, a small college dean, educators, an accountant and business men and women to name a few. We are all first-generation college graduates, but our parents were middle class hard workers and owned businesses. Most important to the family was home ownership. You get that through hard work. I come from a somewhat successful (large) black family and no one’s in jail that I know of. Many of us got our jobs through affirmative action… required to reflect diversity. It gave us opportunities we may not have otherwise had.

—Janey (introduced in Part I of this series), talking about her family

For some, maybe for many, the Affirmative Action policies put into place in the ‘60s and ‘70s opened up a whole new era of possibilities for Blacks living in a primarily white society. Progress is now apparent in the arts, the media, sports, education, government, political elections, and medical fields. It may be less apparent in the top management of big business, in engineering, and in other technical fields—there is certainly room for growth in those workforces and in the upper levels of many of the fields I mentioned. What is more important is that the great myth of black people’s inferior intelligence, work ethic, and motivation has been completely demolished, smashed into dust motes, and scattered to the wind. And yet, we are not done, and equity does not abound.

In spite of the progress that has been made (and it has been significant and meaningful progress), we hit a snag somewhere along the way. Maybe it began in the ‘80s when wage stagnancy began to settle in for the middle class, making it more difficult for black people to sustain economic progress. When a phenomenon such as machines replacing factory workers occurs, it will have a higher impact on the groups of people that are more dependent on that factory work than it will have on other groups. It will also have a trickle-down effect—if people who are working in skilled labor lose their higher-paid employment, they will then be competing for lower-paid employment, making it more difficult for unskilled laborers to earn that wage. This has had a devastating impact on economic progress for middle-class white and black families, but it happened to Blacks just as they were beginning to emerge from the bottom of the heap. It’s a little like getting a phone call from your mother while making love—the momentum gets stunted and it’s hard to get right back at it.

There were two other things that transpired in this tender process of integrating our society and providing equal opportunity that, regardless of their benefits, created drag in the process, providing further places to anchor hurt and resistance.

Forced busing

The first thing was that federal courts came to the conclusion that “separate but equal,” as a reasonable approach to education, was an oxymoron that couldn’t pass the whiff test, let alone pass legal sanctioning (my words, not theirs). What came from that was an agonizing process called “forced busing,” which was foisted upon many school jurisdictions, first in the Old South, and then all over the country. It was traumatic even for many families that supported integration, both black and white, and it was heavily resisted by many who simply didn’t want their children to mix, and by others who feared for their children’s safety.

Unfortunately, in many places, the redistricting that took place was done by people who were simply resistant to the orders, or were attempting to avoid career annihilation by an unsupportive public. And as usual, though they didn’t hear from everyone, they definitely heard from the angry parents. I have been close with two white women from two southern cities, Memphis and Pensacola, who, when they were high school students, were transferred (along with a handful of other Whites) into schools that were still 97% black. They quickly became the targets of racial animus. I can assure you that the decisions to transfer them there did nothing to improve anyone’s education or to further the cause of an open-minded, integrated society. I can, however, report that neither of these fine women has had any lingering animosity or racial prejudices from that time, unless they are buried so deep that a spelunker couldn’t find them. Not likely, in my house.

A balanced solution

Sometime during the ‘70s, my hometown voluntarily created a solution to integrating the schools that worked quite well. We only had one high school, so that was never an issue. We had two junior high schools on the east and the west sides, and the historically black community was on the south side, between them, so they, too, were racially balanced. But we had six or seven grade schools, one on the south side that was about 98% black, and the remaining schools elsewhere were predominantly white. There was initially a lot of noise and acrimony in the community, as people resisted any proposed solutions that would interrupt “normal” patterns and neighborhood schools—isn’t that one of the reasons a young couple buys a home in a certain neighborhood, after all?

But the solution they opted for worked well for everyone. They decided to convert the elementary school in the black community to an early childhood development center, and then bus every five-year-old in the community there for kindergarten. The older elementary school children of the black community were bused to the other neighborhood schools in a generally balanced way. The community was proud of that center and, except for a couple of grudge-nursers, it became a non-issue. This is what was supposed to happen—children of all races and backgrounds, mixed together, getting an equal education. The side effect was that the children saw each other as “just regular kids,” and became comfortable with people that were different from them.

Affirmative Action

The other thing that happened during that period was “Affirmative Action,” which meant many different things to many different people. The intention was to provide career and employment opportunities to Blacks—opportunities that had previously not been available to them primarily because they were black. There were places where requirements and quotas were set, which forced the hiring of black people (as well as women and other identifiable minority groups), with the aim of bringing about balance in the workforce—primarily in public employment. For a while, it was very difficult for a white man to find a job in many public institutions—think city and county offices, universities, federal government, school administration, etc.

If you look at the overall results, these organizations are generally well-integrated today, the hiring practices have improved over time, and they are pretty good places to work. It has also provided an opportunity for white people and black people to hang out and to work side by side. Integration works to lower fear and animosity. That doesn’t mean that public employment in every corner of the US has a supportive environment for people to work in, nor does it mean that they are all absent systemic issues. It means that a lot of progress has been made in integrating the workplace, to the benefit of all of us.

Where the ponies are

Here’s the thing. A lot of white men came through that period feeling that they were treated unfairly. They were and they weren’t, depending how you define the word “fair.” Now, one of my Old White Guy brothers once wisely said, “Fair is where the ponies are.” In other words, if you want fair, go to the county fair, because you ain’t gonna find it in a relative world, and a relative world is where we live.

Getting back to something I said earlier, fairness is very personal, and it is going to be embedded in your personal story. And most likely, if you think you have been treated unfairly, it is going to stick in your craw for a very long time. On the other hand, it is difficult to see what all the complaining is about if the person who is experiencing the supposed unfairness isn’t you, and especially if you see that person as different from you. A black guy hauling around four hundred years of various forms of subjugation is not going to recognize the deep unfairness in a decade or two of preferential hiring, especially if that unfairness is landing on a white guy.

In my scenario, in this my story, I agree with the black guy. A hundred years from now, no one is going to care that it was tough for a few white people to be temporarily dispossessed of fair access to a job. But I think it is important to say objectively—especially if the application of the policy was faulty, and it often was—that there were white guys that were treated unfairly. Unfairness was inherent in the policy. But with equal fervor, it’s important to say that it was, and in some places still is, good policy—necessary to create the society I believe we want to live in.

Having said that, I also believe it is fair (there’s that word again) to acknowledge that it wasn’t fair to the white guys. Four hundred years of aggravation and frustration (those words are hardly an adequate description) landed on their heads, and the white guys entering the work force in the ‘70s had nothing to do with what happened to black people (or women) prior to their coming of age. Most white guys survived it, and it may have even made them better in some way. But if you are going to create a compassionate society, you have to have compassion for the experiences of all others, whether you agree with them or not.

What happened to white men in the ‘70s didn’t feel good, and for some, maybe for many, it still influences what they think and how they feel about black people and women today.

Give it some thought, then go to Essay 12, Part III