Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dialogue with an African-American on Racism, Liberalism, and Affirmative Action

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 22 November 2002, with permission. Revised on 10 March 2004.

My dialogue partner's words will be in blue.

* * * * * 

While I agree that for the most part the Democratic party is not representative of faithful Catholics I remain a Democrat because I am an African-American.

Why? Do you really think that the Democrats have helped African-Americans that much more than the Republicans, when all is said and done? The black middle class grew just as rapidly under Reagan as it did under Clinton. During the Civil Rights struggle, it was the southern Democrats who were in the opposition, as well. Bull Connor wasn't a Republican . . . George Wallace wasn't . . . In fact, much of the opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came from racist Southern Democrats, not northern Republicans.

As Mark Shea [a Catholic apologist and author] said, I am a part of the "little guy".

I'm sure I am just as much a "little guy" as you are . . . if you knew how much money I make in a year. I grew up in inner-city Detroit: not exactly rolling in dough, either. And I am not a fan of big corporate-capitalism (to put it mildly). So I think we have more in common than you might suspect if you are applying the usual stereotypes of "conservative" and "Republican."

Besides, no one is more "little guy" than preborn babies. The Democrats are the party that wants to allow them to be slaughtered: some while they are 80% delivered from the womb: stabbed in their necks and brains sucked out. Is that favoring the "little guy"? That is not traditional liberalism, which was about more rights for the poor and the oppressed: worker's rights, and so forth. The Catholic Church has always supported those things, but not the wholesale slaughter of the innocents. How the mighty have fallen . . .

I resent your comments about a color blind society,

Why? That was what Rev. Martin Luther King wanted, wasn't it? I think it would be a great idea.

and affirmative action as well as public inner city education. As an African-American, I hate to hear white people say that affirmative action is favoritism.

I don't believe I said that (I'd have to go back and see what I wrote). My position is that the original vision of affirmative action has been corrupted. I'm all for total equality. I happen to think this is not the way to best go about it (i.e., how it is currently carried out: quotas and so forth). I would be in favor of vigorous prosecution of companies that engaged in any discrimination whatsoever. But people should be hired solely for their abilities, not because they are of a certain color. If it is proven that the best person didn't get a job simply because of the color of their skin, or ethnicity, or religion, or weight, or age, etc., I would favor heavy penalties on such a company, so that they would never try to pull such a stunt again.

We African-Americans are no one's favorites.

I am not denying at all, of course, that prejudice and discrimination and bigotry are still with us. They always will be, to some extent, because (bottom line) people are afraid of people who are different, and people lack love. That's part of original sin, I think. And people are taught to hate and be prejudiced by parents who are. Its a hideous thing.

But why is it that no one can honestly disagree on the means of eliminating those terrible realities as much as possible by law, without being suspected of "not caring," or whatever? This is what frustrates me to no end. Who says the Democrats have a corner on compassion and love? Who says their political solutions are always the best ones while Republican ones are some sort of remnant of institutional racism? Why are racist Republican politics and attitudes of the past held against current-day Republicans, while racist Democratic politics and attitudes of the past are not held against current-day Democrats? Have Democrats' programs helped African-Americans? Originally, they did, but I dare say that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society is a dismal failure.

It was right-intentioned, but we need to do something different, because it failed (at least among the poorest of the poor in the inner-city, of whatever color). Compassion looks for something that WORKS to eliminate the problem, not to support the same old failed program simply because it is the liberal Democrat program, whether or not it works. Meanwhile, the black family continues to be decimated as a result of single-parent families: themselves economically encouraged by failed welfare mentalities and programs. Illegitimacy and crime skyrockets, because the single greatest factor other than poverty for the cause of crime, is the absence of a father in the home. This has been verified time again in the studies of secular sociologists.

Without programs like affirmative action we would not get jobs no matter how qualified.

I agree that there has to be some measure to make sure this doesn't happen. You and I don't disagree at all on that. I merely disagree on affirmative action as currently practiced and implemented. It is not the program originally envisioned by its formulators: people like Hubert Humphrey, Rev. Martin Luther King himself, and other liberals concerned about race relations and institutional discrimination (types of programs which I would wholeheartedly support). But the way affirmative action is done today is creating resentments which could be avoided, and is sometimes harmful to the very cause it was designed to promote: fairness in hiring practices and better relations between blacks (and other minority groups) and whites.

Simply put, if an African-American and a Caucasian walked into an office run by a white person the white applicant would get the job. This would be true if for no other reason than comfort. They could have the same experience but because the white applicant is more "familiar" they would get the job.

Well, I don't think things are quite that bad. You act as if nothing has changed from 1902. I think that racism is less overall than it was, then. If it weren't less, then you would have to admit that all the laws and societal changes that have occurred (due to liberalism or whatever) have had no effect at all. Why bother to change laws if racism cannot be lessened no matter what is done culturally? Are you really that pessimistic? I'm a white guy and I certainly don't look at things that way.

Besides, there are many other factors at play. Do you really think a young, attractive black woman would be at a disadvantage to an old, not-too-attractive white guy? We know that good-looking women get jobs easier than not-so-attractive women. I don't buy it that your average white person sees a black person and just because of that wouldn't hire them (I'm not denying that there is still racism around). And if that were true, then I would say the same dynamic would apply with a black boss, in determining who they hire. I think this would be one factor, but not as prevalent as you think.

The fact remains that things are changing for the better, if one allows for all the social variables that affect income, and other indicators of societal equality. The brilliant economist and sociologist Thomas Sowell (an African-American) notes how things were already much different as far back as 1971:
Among young husband-wife families outside the South, black family income was 78 percent of white in 1959, 91 percent in 1969, and 96 percent in 1970. When husband and wife work in both races, the black couples earned 4 percent more than the white couples in 1970 and 5 percent more in 1971.
(From: The Economics and Politics of Race, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1983, 191; data from U.S. Bureau of the Census)
Black faculty members with a Ph.D. earn slightly less than white faculty members with a Ph.D., but usually more than white faculty members with a Ph.D. in the same field from a department of the same quality ranking . . . A case could be made that Chinese and Japanese faculty are underpaid, when quality of education is taken into account.
(Ibid., 197)
The political interpretation of group advancement has made it appear to be simply the product of the larger society's grudging acceptance in general or anti-discrimination laws in particular. It is true, for example, that the number of blacks in higher level occupations increased substantially in the years immediately following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it is also true that the numbers of blacks in such occupations increased substantially in the years immediately preceding passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The number of blacks in professional, technical and similar high level occupations more than doubled between 1954 and 1964. The continuation of this pre-existing trend after the Civil Rights Act is hardly decisive evidence of the efficacy of political action.
Where political action has been demonstrably effective has been in negating the effectes of state government action by the federal government. In short, government-created harm was reduced. The whole array of discriminatory practices by state governments, notably in the South, came under attack by the federal courts, national legislation and national administrative policies during the era of the civil rights revolution. As a result . . . the number of black state officials elected in the South increased nearly eight-fold from 1964 to 1975.
(Ibid., 199-200; data from U.S. Bureau of the Census and Daniel P. Moynihan, "Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family," Daedalus, Fall 1965, p. 752)

Dr. Sowell also points out that economics and social conditions are not the sole determinants of crime and other destructive behaviors (i.e., the usual politically liberal, Democratic analysis of these problems), but that ethnic and cultural factors also play a crucial role:
Groups who shared the same immigrant slums, and whose children sat side-by-side in the same schools, nevertheless had entirely different patterns of development in America -- patterns reflecting traditions from thousands of miles away and from centuries past . . . Black West Indian immigrants have had far lower crime rates than other blacks living in the same ghettoes -- and lower crime rates than white Americans, for that matter. Apparently the "root causes" of crime due to "social conditions" in the ghetto did not affect the West Indians. The Irish have had rates of alcoholic psychosis that were 25 times the rate among Italians and 50 times that among Jews. These differences hardly seem explicable by the "pressures" of American life, when great differences in drunkenness or alcoholism can be found in the same three groups in Europe in centuries past . . . Even today, West Indians have the same amount of schooling as other blacks in the New York City metropolitan area, but earn 28 percent higher incomes there.
(Ibid., 192, 198)
Black female-headed families have had declining real incomes during a period when black husband-wife families have had rising real incomes, both absolutely and relative to white families. It would be very difficult to explain those opposite trends by the attitudes of white employers . . . by the late 1960s young black males from families with a library card and newspapers and magazines in the home reached high-level occupations as frequently as white males of the same description who had the same education and home background.
(Ibid., 194; data from U.S. Bureau of the Census and Richard B. Freeman, Black Elite, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976, chapter 4)
Look at the history of America between the races. Jim Crow just ended about 50 years ago. Do you really believe that centuries of discrimination is over in just half a century?

Of course it is not over with, because it is a problem of sin, which is in our hearts. But I think things are better than they were, as seen clearly in the above data. How could anyone not think so? African-Americans couldn't even be in the Major Leagues until Jackie Robinson in 1947. The military wasn't integrated till after World War II. Obviously, it is abominable that it took that long, but to say that things are not any better than in those days . . . ? I don't see how anyone could think that.

To be truthful, white America does not want a colorblind society because then we will see increased intermarrying and mixing. I am sure not many white folks would be thrilled with that.

That is a remnant of racism that is more entrenched than others; I agree. It is a shame and a disgrace for any professed Christian to think that way.

So please at least consider the other person's side before you are so sure of your statements.

I've been intensely interested in race relations for 35 years, ever since the Detroit riots of 1967. I think about it all the time. But I don't have to follow one way of trying to make the world less racist and bigoted (the liberal Democrat way). I think the Catholic approach is actually a "third way" which transcends both parties. It combines a concern for both social justice (traditionally a Democratic emphasis) and pro-life (a Republican emphasis, and frowned upon by virtually all Democratic candidates for national office, and most on a local level as well).

Never once have you been black so you have no idea what difficulties arise.

Bill Clinton ain't black, but somehow that doesn't concern black people. They like him anyway. I think whites are seen to "understand" to the extent that they agree with the party line of how to deal with the problem. Of course, I can't relate to being black, in the same sense that I can't relate to being a woman or a person who lives in Mongolia, but I can try to learn all I can about what it is like. I read Invisible Man and Black Like Me way back in high school (I graduated in 1976). I read Malcolm X's autobiography more recently (and I admire that man a lot). I watch everything on TV I can see (e.g., the documentary on the history of the civil rights movement: Eyes on the Prize; biographies of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, etc.) . I have lots of books on the subject. I can't change the fact that I am white, but I can always learn. I've always been interested in many other cultures and ethnic groups, such as (particularly) the Irish, Jews, and Native Americans. I rather like diversity; I think it is really cool, and that it makes life interesting and fun.

Secondly, I have some idea of how prejudice works because I have been subject to it myself to some extent, by being 1) conservative, 2) pro-life, and 3) Catholic. There are various prejudices. The liberals who claim to be so compassionate and caring suddenly aren't always that way when they confront conservatives who don't buy their whole outlook. And they are very uncompassionate about preborn babies. They don't seem to think much of their right to life and what it must feel like to not yet be born and to be torn limb from limb and executed.

I've also run into racist black cops and teachers. Black people are not immune to racism themselves, being people. Racism can't be explained totally by social factors. It also flows from the sinfulness of the individual and the choices they make with regard to how to regard and treat people. Original sin is present prior to any cultural or other environmental influence.

I am only 5 feet tall, 120 lbs and white women grab their purses when I am near. Trust me: things are not equal yet.

That's disgusting. Once again, I don't deny any of that. How could I? You are telling me it still happens to you. All I'm saying is that it is better than 100 or 50 years ago and that there is more than one way to try to work on these societal and relational problems.

To the issue of school reform. It is not the education system alone that has failed. The inner city parents have also failed.

I agree.

I teach in an inner city school. Teachers are dedicated, often spending our own money to give the children some stability.

I've never said this is the teachers' fault. They are usually wonderful, selfless people. It's the system which is failing inner-city kids, of whatever color.

I have students who come to school dirty, no help with homework, parents on drugs. Think about it -- learning starts at home. If no one teaches you at home how to be a good citizen and student when you come to school you are worse for the wear. When students excel from the inner city they are usually from loving homes where the parents may have been poor. At my school, we have back to school night. There are 24 teachers; all show up. There are 350 students and only 50 parents show up. Guess what? Those are our 50 most successful students. The correlation between success and parental involvement is high.

I totally agree with you. But despite all that, there are schools which work in the inner-city even with all these problems. Education can be done differently too. We home-school, and our kids are whiz kids. I went to all Detroit public schools (and my high school was 80% African-American, by the way, and that was fine with me; I got along great with everyone). But we think that because God is not allowed in public schools, and because of the way in which morality is taught (or not taught) these days, that we cannot in good conscience send our kids there, if we are able to home school. That's not to knock what you are doing at all. More power to you. I say the problem is not the teachers but the system.

I think these issues are very important to talk about, which is why I wanted to add a new paper on it. If you would like to dialogue about anything related in the future, please let me know. I enjoyed it, and you are friendly, intelligent, and articulate: qualities I always admire in people.

Thank you so much for responding. I am very glad that my comments were appreciated. I agree with much of what you said.

Excellent! I thought we could achieve a meeting of the minds (and hearts), if we tried hard enough.

I even understand your position on affirmative action.


I have never been a fan of much of current Democratic (the party) thought. I believe that I jumped so hastily because as an African-American I must admit that when I see certain statements I lose sight of the "big picture".

I can understand that, too. And that is another reason why it is important to discuss these issues in depth, because not every white person is the same, just like every black person is different, too. And not every "conservative" thinks the same way. I think (or hope) you would agree that my views were not the typical stereotype of what a "conservative" (especially as seen by liberals or Democrats) is supposed to be like. Granted, there are lots of folks in both parties who indeed fit the stereotypes very well, but our task is to think for ourselves and come up with something fresh; new approaches to existing problems --informed by our Catholic Christian viewpoints.

I agree with your comments about the duty of a Christian to not only be personally against wrong but to also publicly guide others away from it.

I'm delighted to hear that.

Since my first email I have thought and discussed a lot about these topic. (I am not closed minded :) )

I can see that. :-) And I do admire it very much, and commend you for your open-mindedness. You made my day when I first read this letter.

I realize that as an African-American Catholic Christian I am called by God to make a stand. My problem has been that it is hard to chose between two "evils". While I acknowledge that there is more moral decay in the policies of the Democrats I admit prejudice against Republican thought because in some ways they are no longer the "party of Lincoln".

Fair enough. I think the Democrats are no longer the party of JFK or FDR, because advocating abortion is not helping the "little guy" and the oppressed. It's one thing to advocate social reform along more traditionally left-leaning lines (New Deal, Great Society, unions, civil rights, equality for women and minorities, health care provisions, social security and Medicare, etc. -- much of which is very good and consistent with Catholic social teaching); quite another to adopt wholesale radical moral teachings that contradict Christianity, as formerly understood by both liberals and conservatives.

I recently heard from a black Christian Republican who said, essentially, he is a Republican because of the conservatism in the party in terms of the party's response to homosexuality, abortion and family values. He was asked how he deals with the prejudice and he responded that neither party in recent years has helped blacks drastically.

That's very much how I would respond. In fact, I think one could argue that the Democrats take the black vote for granted; therefore, they don't feel particularly compelled to do much to gain it. When you get 90-95% of the vote of a group, why work for it? Politicians go after the swing voters, because that is what decides every election: the 20% of the populace who are the "mushy middle." So they go after the women's vote (which was split 50-48% Democrat this time), or the blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" or Hispanics, or southern conservatives who were traditionally Democrat but now increasingly Republican, or the libertarian vote which can go either way, depending on the leading issues of the campaign.

From a purely pragmatic political perspective, why worry about the black vote, which is the most certain of all? In that way, African-Americans have almost been disenfranchised from much political power. The Democrats know that it will be a lovefest if they visit black communities and churches. They know exactly what to say and what black people want to hear. So they can be adored, but then they leave the church and do virtually nothing, because the symbolism and "good vibes" was more desired than wanting to do something to actually HELP the African-American community. It makes people feel good when they are adored and loved by one and all; great for the ego.

On the other hand, if a Republican goes into the same community, he is widely-regarded with suspicion, and often scorned as a racist and so forth. Who wants to go through that? Occasionally, you will get a "progressive conservative Republican" like Jack Kemp who has a measure of respect in the black community because he has been more active there, but even then, though he might be treated courteously at a fund-raiser or speech, blacks will still vote for the Democrat. So there isn't much reason, politically, for Republicans to want to reach out to black voters as a bloc.

That isn't racism; it is just how politics works. If you have only so much capital, you have to decide where to spend it in order to turn the election. Getting 1 or 2% more of the black vote is not enough to do that. So the stereotype continues that Republicans aren't interested in the welfare of African-Americans because they don't visit their communities much, etc. I think the reasons are those above, and quite understandable, politically.

But in terms of actual policy, Republicans have been in the forefront of a number of programs that are now gaining increasing acceptance among blacks. Jack Kemp championed the free enterprise zones (which JFK had also advocated). We "progressive conservatives" have been talking about problems in the black family, and the need to be more self-sufficient in terms of personal (traditional Christian) morality, starting black-owned businesses, economic development of communities from the inside, etc., for years. Somehow, that was considered racism (as if only government programs could possibly help black people).

But then we had the Million Man March, which championed essentially the same ideas (which can be traced to Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass). I was considered a racist when I said exactly the same thing 15 years ago, but when Minister Farrakhan (who actually is a racist, against Jews in particular) said it, that was wonderful, and a great "new" approach.
Republicans pushed for welfare reform, for years, because it was demonstrable and obvious that welfare was decimating the black family (and families of non-blacks on welfare as well). That was fought with vigor by the Democrats as a "non-negotiable," till President Clinton finally agreed to it and passed a bill (mostly, I think, for political reasons, to save himself after the mid-term elections of '94). As usual, he cynically adopted the Republican idea so he could get credit for it.

Another idea Republicans have strongly advocated is school choice, so that poor people of any race do not have to send their children to lousy schools. This is gaining increased acceptance among inner-city blacks. If it eventually wins the day in the inner cities, then Republicans can say that it was our idea in the first place, and that indeed it was our desire to help poor blacks get a better education, just as the Democrats have been saying for years (yet doing little in concrete reality to help make that happen, as the test scores got lower and lower).

It is up to us (as blacks) to make both parties listen to our needs. That makes sense to me.

Well, you said basically the same thing I was arguing above, in depth. I am answering as I read. I don't pretend to know what it is like to be black, and know what you have to go through, dealing with pea-brained racists and those who are scared to death of any differences among people. I get disgusted enough at the various prejudices I personally come across (anti-Catholicism being the biggest, since I encounter that all the time in my work). I can't even imagine how I would deal with the irrational prejudice and hatred that you have to deal with. I would not do well at all, I don't think.

To think of losing certain rights and legislation is scary. (I am intelligent but I am sure that I got to Georgetown University through affirmative action. They had to hold a spot for an African-American and they chose a qualified one. I meet all the academic requirements but I am sure that if there was no affirmative action I would not have been chosen.)

I don't know enough about the particulars to agree or disagree, so I will take your word for it and agree that it is sad and tragic that it has to be that way, since you were qualified in the first place.

I don't think any honest black person wants preferential treatment. We just want deserving blacks to get the same opportunities as deserving whites. That is what we mean by affirmative action.

Okay; then to that extent I wholeheartedly agree. When I am critiquing affirmative action, I am referring to how the program has come to actually be implemented, and unfortunately that does in practice include quotas and preferential treatment. I don't think that helps black people in the long run, and fuels resentment and bitterness and more racism among whites. On the other hand (as I noted before), I am in favor of aggressive policies to make sure hiring and admissions are absolutely fair.
So I'm not advocating taking away affirmative action and having nothing in place as an alternative. I think that is where many black people misunderstand critics of affirmative action. We want action taken, -- and we are just as concerned about the welfare of the poor and minorities as the Democrats --, but action and policy in a different fashion than has been taking place. It is simply a matter of what works best. The original notion was good; it simply has to be reformed, because the original vision of how it was supposed to work has been corrupted to some extent.

I am afraid that there are many people of other races who think that all black people are just playing the "race card", but racism is still strong.

The race card is indeed played far too often, and we get sick and tired of everything being reduced to an issue of "racism," as if anyone who disagrees with political liberalism is a racist, and as if our motives and commitment to helping people (as whites or conservatives) are immediately suspect because we disagree on a certain policy. I know that I have never been a racist at all, yet I have been accused of this time and again (in fact, because of this I was highly surprised by your positive response to my letter). That gets old real fast, too, believe me, because no one likes to have their heart judged.

Even black conservatives get the same treatment. If they dare to disagree with the infallible orthodox dogma of the liberal civil rights establishment, they are pilloried as Uncle Toms and "Oreos." Who wants to go through that? This is what conservative blacks who try to think outside the box get from other blacks. Black people themselves need to allow independent thought in their own ranks, and not brutally treat and ostracize someone who has a sincere, honest disagreement with liberalism.
When did political liberalism become unquestioned dogma from on high, for heaven's sake, as if no one can ever utter the slightest criticism of it without having their character trashed, or as if no one can care for another human being unless that care is transmitted through liberal social programs and no other kind, or no other method whatever? This is patently absurd. Sometimes, it is said that a black conservative isn't even black (whereas Bill Clinton is black :-).

I agree with you that racism is still strong, because people are people, and the problem ultimately comes from original sin and human nature, not social situations. But I think that the social environment has been changed much for the better in the last 50 years, and that institutionally, discrimination has been greatly reduced by legislation since the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. To some extent (I hope, a lot), that helps to transform opinions in a positive direction. But social programs and changes alone will not end racism altogether, because it is a sin and a heart problem.

In that sense, Malcolm X was a greater revolutionary than Martin Luther King, because he stressed personal behavior and ethics as well as social reform, which the latter almost solely concentrated on. I think Rev. King should have publicly taught much more biblical personal morality, but that was a function, I think, of the separation of "social gospel" from personal righteousness, which unfortunately occurred in Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant): the theological liberals (who tended to be politically liberal) emphasized the social and institutional, while conservatives (who tended to be politically conservative as well) emphasized individual traditional Christian morals and the family. The Catholic Church brings both impulses together and refuses to separate them. That's why I consider it a "third way" -- distinct from both political parties, which have become polarized in such an unnecessary manner, and mostly secularized, too.

However, I see your point that turning a blind eye to the issues of mortal sin makes me just as guilty as if I committed them myself. Especially if I claim to be a Christian. I have truly been contemplating these issues. I can sacrifice myself to some prejudice to help save an innocent unborn child.

That is music to my ears. I'm so happy to hear you say this.

I have a question. What do you do when a Republican candidate favors the mortal sin issues like abortion and homosexual partnerships and is only hard on the venial ones like getting rid of affirmative action programs and getting rid of student loans etc.?

I don't vote for anyone who favors abortion (or homosexual marriage), whatever party they are. I've never voted a straight ticket, and I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 (before I was conservative or much informed of political issues at all). In the last election I voted for a pro-life Democrat for state senator.

Maybe for next year I'll register as an independent:)


Thank you for your charitable response. God bless you and your mission.

God bless you; I enjoyed this again. Have a great day, and thanks again for your friendliness, food for thought, and the opportunity to express my opinions.

Your brother in Christ and His Church,


I'd love for you to add our most recent communication to your paper . . .

I still think that public schools are not that bad. There are some areas of the system that leave much to be desired, but I promise you that more than half of the problem in inner city schools is the lack of parental involvement. One reason some poor parents want school choice is because of the conditions around their students. For example, the behavior of other students and the inability of the teacher to teach effectively because of discipline and lack of materials. Tonight was report card night and I only had three parents come and I have 13 students in my class. I know that it definitely is not me because I am a state recognized teacher of the year.

I also look forward to future communications with you.

No comments: