Backtalk

EXCHANGING COLORS

So America is "changing colors" (Mother Jones special issue, September/October). Gee, whatever else is new? America has been changing colors since that first shipment of Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. We didn't have to wait to hear it from Tiger Woods or Ward Connerly that something is awry in the way we allot identity. We knew it all along. But obliviousness is such sweet slumber. What we are experiencing now is not so much a changing of color as it is the cumulative effect of three and a half centuries of catatonic denial about color.

And while we are on the subject of reality, permit me one further observation. According to the contemporary crop of Monday morning racial quarterbacks, "white liberals," those allegedly used-up "old-timers," have fouled the American melting pot with the scum of identification. In short, they were willing to let the outcast untouchables in, so long as they wore the afros or dreadlocks of ethnic identity to remind themselves and the gatekeepers who they were. That seems to be an unkind and indefensible cut at some Americans with some identifiable record of human compassion and moral concern, coming as it is from people who, so far, have nothing to show but their fangs.

Nobody ever pretended that liberal white America ever approached moral or ethical or practical perfection in its dealings with the race problem. But to blame liberals for what they didn't do in the face of the realities of the national conscience and convenience is like blaming the Quakers for slavery.

Tomorrow, what used to be a simple question of "black and white" will become enormously complex with possible consequences most Americans do not want to think about. We can do ourselves and our posterity a favor if we stop posturing and apologizing and get on with the collective business of making the human imprimatur the sole criterion of human inclusiveness.

Robert Burns said it best: A "man's a man for a' that." And Popeye spelled it out in language that both liberals and conservatives (and all those in between) had better try to understand: "I yam what I yam, an' tha's all I yam" -- who can ask any more? Who can be any more? And what color would that be?

C. ERIC LINCOLN
AUTHOR, COMING THROUGH THE FIRE
DURHAM, N.C.


In my short story "The Space Traders," aliens come to America with a new energy source and chemicals to clean up the environment. They offer to trade these riches in return for all African Americans. After vigorous debate, a majority of Americans approve the trade in a national referendum.

Blacks in audiences to whom I read this story agree that my estimation of such a vote's outcome is indeed accurate. Whites are more ambivalent, but they, too, reluctantly agree that a majority would vote for such a trade.

I see little of this racial reality in Mother Jones' September/October issue. The tone is quite like that of many conservative publications: Affirmative action is a lost cause and is in fact the roadblock to better race relations. Abandon it, along with "race- and identity-based politics," Jeffrey Klein urges in his Editor's Note, and adopt "shared, communal goals" that would bring many groups into a "progressive, transracial coalition." Michael Lind adopts a similar theme in "The End of the Rainbow."

Affirmative action policies, though, were the response -- in the wake of urban riots -- to failed programs based on shared, communal goals. Now, even successful programs like the Boston Latin School's are beaten down. Its attackers wave the banner of merit, but wealth-based privileges such as legacy admissions remain unchallenged.

Racism, sans white sheets and Jim Crow signs, remains a system of advantage based on race. Even a drug-crazed, institutionalized white man could recognize -- as Art Spiegelman did -- that "nigger" is more than an epithet ("Getting In Touch With My Inner Racist"). It's a defining statement of superior racial status that, for many whites, is threatened by any system of preference for blacks. As technology renders more jobs obsolete, the already-apparent anxiety of many whites will seek the usual targets. Affirmative action is the first, not the only, racial remedy that will fail.

As for the future, rather than any of the scenarios envisioned by Walter Truett Anderson ("A Brave New You"), there may be violence and strife. For all too many blacks, the Space Traders' arrival would not be a nightmare, but a rescue mission. I expected Mother Jones to acknowledge what so many black people already know and fear.

DERRICK BELL
AUTHOR, FACES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WELL:
THE PERMANENCE OF RACISM
NEW YORK, N.Y.

Jeffrey Klein writes that the goal of a civil rights agenda ought to be "racial comity" and that "affirmative action has eroded liberals' moral credibility as reformers" because it constitutes "a mandated advantage in the marketplace." This is a serious misconstruction of both the civil rights agenda and affirmative action's place within it.

Civil rights is about far more than interpersonal healing. It is about addressing systemic privilege and subordination meted out along racial lines, and affirmative action functions within this as one anti-subordination tool. An overview of important opportunity structures in our society -- such as education, wealth in general and home ownership in particular, access to health care, and access to employment opportunities -- reveals that we have a long way to go in eradicating racial subordination and destabilizing white privilege.

A more useful approach to addressing society's "changing colors" would be to examine the need for new strategies to confront injustice in an era of de facto racism, and to examine those practices that define and propagate what race, including whiteness, means in a racially stratified society.

JOHN POWELL
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
INSTITUTE ON RACE AND POVERTY
MINNEAPOLIS, MINN.


Jeffrey Klein asserts that "progressives need to reassess their commitment to affirmative action and find better alternatives that can re-establish racial healing as a national priority." This is reminiscent of the criticism, also leveled by well-meaning liberals, that Martin Luther King Jr.'s tactics of confrontation exacerbated race relations. In his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail," King scorned those who prefer "a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." To ask blacks to forgo affirmative action in the name of racial healing is as unconscionable as it was to ask blacks in Montgomery to return to the back of the bus.

As for Michael Lind, it is one thing to call for a liberal populism that transcends race and gender, but it is another thing to blame the multicultural left for the current debility of liberal and left politics. If liberal populism ever does emerge as a political force, it will likely develop through a coalescence of precisely the "rainbow liberals" that Lind excoriates. Politics, after all, is not a parlor game. We must work with the political formations as they are constituted in the world outside the editorial offices of liberal publications. This means that we need to devise strategies for mobilizing "rainbow liberals," rather than asking them to go away.

Given the current political climate, the editors of Mother Jones can hardly be faulted for seeking new strategies for advancing a progressive agenda. But this progressive agenda will have no moral and political credibility if it is predicated on an abandonment of the cause of racial justice.

STEPHEN STEINBERG
AUTHOR, TURNING BACK: THE RETREAT FROM RACIAL
JUSTICE IN AMERICAN THOUGHT AND POLICY

NEW YORK, N.Y.


Jeffrey Klein and Kerry Tremain respond: Derrick Bell, john powell, and Stephen Steinberg ignore the fact, pointed out by Michael Lind, that by 1993, more than 70 percent of those eligible for affirmative action were white women and legal immigrants. Try explaining to your neighbor, of any color, why legal immigrants should have a preferred claim on our public institutions. And none of these authors address Lind's central argument that preference policies now divide a progressive coalition, rather than unite it.

Richard Nixon advanced preference policies as a political strategy to separate civil rights leaders from their allies in the labor movement. On the day after Nixon won passage of the so-called Philadelphia Plan (which essentially requires federal contractors to hire minorities), he celebrated with his staff by mocking labor leader George Meany. John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy adviser, wrote in his notes that evening: "Beaten the unions." This wedge between blacks and the white working-class base of the New Deal coalition was instrumental in reviving conservative Republicanism.

Powell is correct that civil rights are about more than racial comity. But the indexes of racial inequality that he cites -- inequities in education, housing, access to health care, etc. -- are unlikely to be remedied by a bureaucratic system for dividing up the spoils of society along racial lines. As Bell notes, affirmative action has frequently been defended as a hedge against the threat of urban race riots. That brand of cynical politics is more in tune with Richard Nixon's vision than that of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin. As King and Rustin argued, racial justice cannot emerge without the efforts of a transracial coalition, based on commonly held democratic ideals.


POT OF SCOLD

Michael Lind argues that the Democrats can no longer count upon nonwhite support in the numbers to which they've become accustomed ("The End of the Rainbow"). Now, there's no question that the Democrats' pre-1992 emphasis on race questions over class questions drove white voters into Republican ranks. But as to the political future of nonwhite voters, one of the most significant aspects of the '96 vote was the mobilization of Hispanics into the Democratic column in unprecedented numbers.

Nor is it clear that affirmative action is all that electorally disabling for the Democrats. In the same election in which they passed Proposition 209, voters in California -- electorally, the big enchilada of American politics (although Lind might prefer to call it the decisive ham-on-white-bread sandwich) -- also gave Proposition 209-foe Bill Clinton a majority.

Which is to say, I question the political necessity -- and fear the social consequences (e.g., the resegregation of higher education) -- of abandoning affirmative action. Nonetheless, the general descent of liberalism into New Age tribalism is profoundly disquieting.

Lind believes that another key to constructing a class-based national sensibility is to jettison the prevailing multiculturalism for a purer American culture, by which he means a fusion of white and black traditions. Having sat through more dismal performance art celebrations of ethnicity than any one person should have to endure, I'm sympathetic to anything that reduces the glut of cultural particularism that has swept much of American art.

That said, I think the distinctly American part of American art is its fusion of a range of traditions and idioms, and to restrict those idioms simply to black and white when the third wave of immigrants has changed our demographic profile forever is as silly and fruitless as it would have been to have tried to keep the Jewish sensibility out of the post-World War II American novel. Lind's reading of the history of American art is ethnically sanitized. "The Irish elements of our common culture are minuscule," he writes. Has he ever seen Victor McLaglen in a John Ford cavalry western?

HAROLD MEYERSON
EXECUTIVE EDITOR, L.A. WEEKLY
LOS ANGELES, CALIF.


Your September/October issue on race was a welcome relief from the rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum. Michael Lind's article, in particular, was very honest about affirmative action -- progressives should not be in the business of dividing people based on racial identity.

Lind made an especially good point when he said that what we think of as race is really closer to ethnicity. In Canada, where I live, multiculturalism is essentially official government policy, and one's ethnicity is stressed. Even WASP Canadians distinguish between Irish, English, Scottish, and Welsh lineage. Has this helped people respect other ethnicities? I really don't know.

I do know that I have no idea what my ethnicity is -- I'm English/Irish/Scottish/German/Swiss, but I don't feel any strong link to any of them. From my perspective, race and ethnicity seem to a great extent to be invented.

You never did answer the question of what the little girl on the cover is -- or whether it's important that we make a distinction.

DAVE PLATT
WINNIPEG, MANITOBA


I cracked open the September/October issue of Mother Jones and found an anti-affirmative action editorial, an article by Michael Lind bashing "rainbow liberalism," and factoids from Glenn C. Loury, Linda Chavez, and Jim Sleeper. Did the printers switch the insides with the New Republic?

On second thought, I still see the ads for Barbara's Really Good Natural Cereals, Citra-Solv Natural Citrus Cleaner & Degreaser, and The Body Shop. There's even a hand-wringing article by Art Spiegelman ("Getting In Touch With My Inner Racist"), who's still feeling guilty about calling someone a "nigger" more than 30 years ago in the aftermath of an LSD-induced psychosis. So I guess it is Mother Jones after all.

NORMAN NITHMAN
CHICAGO, ILL.


ALMA MATTERS

I was pleased to read Bebe Nixon's story "Race to the Top" (September/October). As a graduate of the Boston Latin School and a member of the task force that reviewed its admissions policy last fall, I have been involved with the issues discussed for many years. They are not easy ones.

The most troubling aspect of the first incoming Boston Latin class under the new admissions policy is not its diminished racial diversity, but the extraordinarily small number of students who come from the Boston public schools. Notwithstanding a per-pupil expenditure far higher than that of most other cities and towns in Massachusetts (and two times greater than it was in the early 1980s), the Boston public schools cannot compete with parochial schools, most of which have far fewer resources available to them per student. Even with a $491 million budget, Boston's public schools do not appear to be preparing our students to compete, whether it be in the seventh grade or for admission to college. If just some of the energy focused on trying to bring down BLS were to address that very topic, then Boston's children would be far better off.

LAWRENCE S. DICARA
BOSTON, MASS.
CLASS OF '67


SEXUAL RESPONSES

Thomas Moore's "Sex (American Style)" (September/October) is an interesting and provocative essay. Americans, indeed, have not overcome their Puritan heritage, with its fear of and disdain for eroticism and the life of the senses.

As a nation we are more than ever before inveterate enemies of art and romance. Just look at our schools, where arts education has been largely supplanted by "life skills" curricula. Moore is particularly on target when he suggests that "for all its stupidity, lack of taste, and outrageousness, pornography keeps sex from becoming the heartless preserve of the medical establishment and the social scientist."

One of the failures of comprehensive sex education is that its ultimate goal -- in the words of sexuality educators William A. Fisher and Deborah M. Roffman -- is to "weaken emotional, cognitive, and fantasy barriers" and replace romance with a series of "preventive behavior sequences." Our schools are complicit in the American cultural assault on the senses. They promote soulless sex, and they stifle the artistic imagination.

DANA MACK
INSTITUTE FOR AMERICAN VALUES
WILTON, CONN.


I fail to understand how Thomas Moore can equate sex with religion, when throughout history religion has demonized sex, teaching that it's a biological evil -- albeit a pleasurable one -- to be permitted only for the purpose of procreation.

I agree we could probably be a lot happier with a bit more sensuality in our lives and a lot less repression in our culture. But it's not going to happen by trying to reconcile sexuality with religion; the two are mutually exclusive.

STEVE TRUNK
SAN DIEGO, CALIF.


CAMPUS CRITICS

Not even an honorable mention for UCLA ("Top 10 Activist Campuses," Outfront, September/October)? Where we've occupied any number of buildings for any number of reasons? Where undergraduate hunger strikers created a Latino studies program? Where we've had repeated walkouts by graduate student employees, with the support of faculty and undergraduates, protesting the university's refusal to recognize the Student Association of Graduate Employees as our collective bargaining body? Who'd you talk to?

A little credit where credit is due.
I love you anyway.

CHRISTOPHER THINNES
LOS ANGELES, CALIF.


Editor's note: UCLA did make the list of our all-time top 20 activist campuses in the September/October 1996 issue. (And we love you, too, Christopher.)


It's interesting that you list the University of Wisconsin at Madison first in activism. It should be pointed out that it's highly selective activism.

Under the current Republican governor, a record number of family farms have been wiped out. Our governor's response was to end aid to needy Wisconsin residents.

Homeless shelters and prisons are now hopelessly overcrowded. People are living (and dying) on the streets, and the state is shipping people to out-of-state prisons due to severe overcrowding.

It's nice that UW students speak out about human rights abuses overseas, but they haven't whispered a word about conditions right here in Wisconsin. The only contribution UW students have made to Wisconsin's poor is what they leave in the cafeteria dumpster.

DIANE H. FABIAN
FORT ATKINSON, WIS.


THE WAR IN THE AIR

To suggest that I am some sort of a "con" from hell because I have received tens of thousands of dollars' worth of compensation from many airlines is a disservice to your readers ("Con Air?" Outfront, September/October).

When an airline doesn't agree with me, I sue, and an impartial judge has always ruled in my favor. I highly doubt these judges would casually order airlines to pay me thousands of dollars unless I had a good case, as I have had every time I have sued.

I trust that most of your readers can appreciate that if it weren't for people like myself, who occasionally hold the airlines to what they are supposed to offer the flying public, just imagine what they'd try to get away with next.

JAMES FUHRMAN
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF.



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