Our Common Stake in Affirmative Action

The Court just heard argument in another affirmative action case. It is often put as if it is all about them and the rest of us are just losers as the result of any affirmative action for African-Americans. But do we have a stake in affirmative action, or whether African-Americans remain a permanent underclass? Do we have a stake in understanding that what has happened to African-Americans is not a simple result of slavery, but the continuing result of government policies, by the states, the courts as well as the Congress, that have blocked progress in the African American community?

In the 1930s, Social Security, the minimum wage and Unemployment Insurance were deliberately constructed to leave African-Americans out. And after World War II, when the U.S. Government was guaranteeing bank loans to whites to buy houses in the suburbs, it was refusing to guarantee loans to African-Americans anywhere, and actively encouraging the banks to redline black areas, to refuse to make loans in black parts of town. So in precisely the period when, coming out of the Great Depression, white Americans were building wealth in their homes and had some protection at work, government was ripping the bottom out of black areas. At precisely the time that Brown v. Board said government has to treat all equally, the foundations of black business were wiped out by so-called urban renewal, integration, redlining and disinvestment in black communities. At precisely the moment when jobs began migrating to the suburbs, government kept blacks out. At precisely that moment, they had to start all over at the bottom of white businesses and begin to fight for equal opportunities in what jobs and schools were left.

But there is nothing equal about ignoring problems. There is nothing equal about denying medicine to your sick children because you don’t give it to your healthy ones. There is nothing equal about ignoring the ravages of floods because helping the victims would be doing things for them we don’t do for others. And there is nothing equal about refusing to do anything about the havoc that our government has caused in the black world because they didn’t cause the same havoc in the white world. And there is nothing equal in the choices we make as a nation among business, workers, farmers, and flood victims.

We all have a stake in a country where people greet each other with confidence and trust instead of fear and anger; where we can invest a great deal in education instead of prisons; a world where all people can contribute to the success of American business, science, medicine and all productive activity; where not just white businessmen but people of all races can help to create jobs for all of us; a world in which we own up to the harms our government has done to others supposedly to give us a leg up, and where we have the decency to try to make it right. That’s a better, wealthier, healthier, safer world for all of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 15, 2013.

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