If only affirmative action were simple

January 17, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

The Rev. Benjamin Hooks was sailing right along there, holding his audience's rapt attention as he told of that night in Memphis before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

It was a stormy night in Memphis on April 3, 1968. Winds were high, the skies filled with flashes of lightning, and rain poured in such torrents that one man drowned after his car was blown from the road into a water-filled ditch.

But about 2,000 people, including Hooks and a friend, showed up that night to hear King give a speech pleading for simple justice for Memphis' sanitation workers. It was a speech in which King seemed to eerily prophesy his own death, which was less than 24 hours away.

It was a tale about a true American hero sacrificing his life to help workers most of us would look down on. Hooks gave his speech Thursday morning at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast at Martin's West. The speech moved along brilliantly until Hooks broached the subject of affirmative action.

For Hooks, affirmative action is a test of racial loyalty. He couldn't understand how somebody can be black and be against affirmative action. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was once again pilloried as something akin to the anti-Christ. Hooks implied that those opposed to affirmative action are racist. Listening to Hooks, you could easily get the impression that affirmative action is not a means to the end of racial justice, but the end itself.

Wouldn't it be nice if life were that simple? It isn't, of course. Affirmative action is actually a complex issue. Consider it sociological quantum physics. It's long past time affirmative action proponents and opponents at least agreed on that simple fact.

"Beware of both sides in the affirmative action debate," I told Pocomoke High School's graduating class last year. "Each side has its own agenda. Each will try to give you a simple analysis to a very complex problem."

For affirmative action proponents, those whites who oppose it are racists. The blacks who oppose it are Uncle Toms, sellouts and traitors. Opponents of affirmative action claim that proponents are cynically clinging to a racial spoils system and care not one whit about equality of opportunity.

But couldn't blacks reasonably view what happened to Julia McLaughlin as an injustice? McLaughlin took the entrance exam to the prestigious Boston Latin High School in 1995. She was rejected, although she scored higher than 103 minority applicants who were accepted. What happened to McLaughlin didn't bother traditional liberal civil rights groups. That should be to their everlasting shame. A two-tiered test score system is an insult to black intellectual capabilities. Liberal black leaders seem content to say, "Insult us."

Shouldn't affirmative action proponents be suspicious of the motives of opponents? Surely some opposing affirmative action are devoted to meritocracy. But proponents of affirmative action are right when they claim that meritocracy has never existed, that what has prevailed is a "good old boy" network. Do affirmative action opponents want meritocracy or a return of the good old boy network?

Legendary civil rights activist James Farmer said at a speech at the Gilman School some years ago that the struggle for civil rights was one of "right against wrong." Affirmative action is more complex, Farmer said, because it involves "right against right."

Farmer, in his autobiography, said that Roy Wilkins -- Hooks' predecessor as head of the NAACP -- had his own misgivings about affirmative action.

"I have a problem with that whole concept," Farmer recalled Wilkins saying. "What you're asking for there is not equal treatment, but special treatment to make up for the unequal treatment of the past. I think that's outside the American tradition and the country won't buy it. I don't feel at all comfortable asking for any special treatment. I just want to be treated like everyone else."

That conversation took place in the early 1960s. It sounds much like the same thing Clarence Thomas is saying today. Wilkins, it seems, was a bit prophetic. The country, for the most part, hasn't bought affirmative action and special treatment. But the country has yet to assure blacks, Hispanics and others who have been historically discriminated against that abolishing affirmative action will not return us to the days when these ethnic minorities were systemically excluded from the job market.

Pub Date: 1/17/98

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