Monday, June 15, 2009

It’s More Complicated Than Race, But It Still Matters

I’ve wanted to chime in on the very good article by Brother, The Janitor, on the New Haven firefighters legal case. Needless to say I can’t get to things when I want to, moreover, other developments in the news demand some comments, and they actually relate to the firefighters episode. The New Haven case brings the question of racial preferences to the forefront of political discourse and has been referenced recently in attacks on Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor.

What seems obvious to me, is that the parameters in which racial preferences are discussed are as narrow as the prevailing Supreme Court interpretation of affirmative action, its appropriate uses and application. That interpretation essentially is defined as “strict scrutiny”, which concludes that race can be considered in public policy decision making but only after race neutral means have been exhausted. I may be treading on thin ice when I say this, but I’m not totally opposed to this view. I am quite disgusted however that those of us that consider ourselves of the progressive wing of the black community have not done a better job of framing the broader, global discussion of race.

We’re missing the rhetorical and philosophical boat in two respects. First, regarding policy issues, I believe we can enhance the discussion of preferences by considering taboo concepts like quotas as well as the conventional “strict scrutiny” argument. When it comes to economics and international trade, quotas have been a legitimate issue that has benefited American industries, despite the fact that some conservatives disparage the notion when it’s not in the interest of corporations in their state. With respect to hiring and contracting, we’re talking, at least to some degree, about taxation without representation. In cities with 40%, 50% or even higher rates of black or other minority representation (I guess that wouldn’t make them a minority would it?), there should, no, must be some baseline range of representation and inclusion of minorities. But, I certainly don’t want firefighters or police personnel that are unqualified. Reasonable policies and programs can be drafted that ensure representation without demonizing racial groups, yet maintain high standards.

The second aspect of the racial preferences discussion that we fail to lead is that of the morality of the country’s past racist practices. And, since we avoid talking about the sheer nature and depravity of American racism, we never discuss reparations. At some point we must hold this country accountable for 246 years of slavery and another 100 or so of state sponsored oppression. This is not a question of policy or how government and society treat other minorities and women. This is about the crime against the humanity of African Americans because of their color. The crime was directed at black people. The answer must benefit the victims and their progeny - black people.

For too long we’ve tried to deal with a question of criminality through political means with the intent of arriving at sociological outcomes. Those outcomes are important (non-discriminatory practices in the workplace, public accommodations, etc.), but frankly, most of these issues, even voting rights, were determined illegal a century ago. No one has the right to deny other citizens their rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The problem has always been one of law enforcement.

It was never a question whether black people were being oppressed. Indeed their rights were fully violated in front of God and the whole world. Rather than prosecuting states, terrorist groups and individuals for their crimes and then compensating the victims, the civil rights legal “victories” in the 60s established laws that were essentially unnecessary. So, governing entities responsible for two centuries of exploitation and oppression promise “not to do it anymore” and the liberal white and Negro professional establishment embarks on experimental social engineering exercises rather than demanding more equal distribution of public resources, true self-determinant political power and remuneration for historical and current grievances.

Only the American Negro seems content with the “we won’t do it again but please don’t ask us to pay for our crimes” legal rationale. (That’s actually not true but clarifying this point would require another article.) We must, much sooner than later, demand that Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, et. al., explain before a court of law why they do not owe black citizens (and/or their descendents) of their states a hell of a lot of everything.
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