Affirmative Action

One of the sporadic national attempts to regulate human affairs in an anti-racist way has been Affirmative Action. The focus on where people were employed led us to join with the Association of Affirmative Action Professionals, a strong organization then with a membership numbering in the hundreds, representing both public and private agencies, government offices, and private corporations. The Board of Community Change agreed that my personal work with the Association was commensurate with our purpose, so I gave a great deal of time to that group. For at least twelve years I served on numerous committees and then as President. As attacks on Affirmative Action became more consistent and public, AAAP suffered loss in membership and eventually was dissolved. Additional efforts to continue affirmative action through the Institute for Affirmative Action, and then a much smaller Affirmative Action Voices, were strong efforts which eventually gave way to “diversity”. “Diversity” became the emphasis replacing “affirmative action” in most work places.

“Diversity” is the emphasis as I write. I continue to view it as I did when first seen. “Diversity” is a worthy goal, but is deficient in its failure to recognize power relationships. The emphasis in “diversity” is generally to count the people present with the intent to include differences in gender, color, etc. In the attempt to bring everyone to the table, “diversity” does not often take into account what people bring to the table, nor the historic limitations which some people bring as they relate at the “table”. I have heard people proud that their organization is “diverse”, because among its members or staff there are gender, race, and age differences, assuming that somehow this equalizes the relationships. These same people often overlook the differences which remain. There may be some who are just a pay check away from severe hardship, or there may be some whose formal education experience will limit opportunities available to others among the “diverse” group. The simple fact of “diversity”, as it is usually measured, obscures what are sometimes very large remaining inequalities. More importantly “diversity” does not generally measure the limitations placed on some participants by the specific system which brings the “diverse” group together.

Neither James nor Langston would be satisfied by “diversity”. “Diversity” is a diversion from the real issue, which is racism. Baldwin tells us that for whites who begin to understand the trap in which history has caught them, there is one dominant danger.
The danger, he says, is the challenge to white identity. It is like waking to the day and seeing the moon shining brightly with stars in the sky; the world is changed. So it has been for me, and my “dis-ease” sets me on a historical search for the meaning of “white”.
It is a life-process search.

A review of the newsletters of Community Change will illustrate that in the early years, there were numerous opportunities to participate on the “national scene” of the burgeoning anti-racism movement, but there came a time when at Community Change there was a conscious decision to focus locally. I remember one phone call from a group in the St. Louis area, asking us to work with them; I referred them to people in that general area who were part of a national coalition. Our decision to work more locally was motivated mostly by a recognition that our ability to “follow-up” with groups was urgent, and we could not do that as well with groups in other states. So the “think globally, act locally” slogan became a part of our organizational strategy.

1987, with celebrations of the two hundredth year of our nation’s constitution. brought a wonderful opportunity to apply our concern for the study of history. In October we held a Public Forum on the Constitution, at Harvard Law School, with Derrick Bell a featured presenter, engaging a panel of informed people, in reflections on the Constitution, and its meaning and challenges for the present. Was the nation born with that Constitution, or was it begun with a “Declaration” that “all men are created equal”. What happened to that “dream deferred’?

Somewhere during the 8o’s people began to request copies of what I called “essays” which I had included in Community Change newsletters, and these were eventually published under the title, Convictions About Racism in the United States of America. These began usually as a vehicle for me to express my own feelings, often of anger, at the racial prejudice and discrimination I saw too frequently around me. One of the first essays was a response to a morning when I met an African American woman friend walking across Boston Common; she unleashed her anger at an incident which had just happened to her; I carried that anger back to the CCI office, wrote about it in an essay which was included in the next newsletter.

None of the essays can be claimed as definitive on any subject, but as they were circulated, positive response came from many across the nation. One national federal agency head began to circulate the essays through his department, and there were other indications that, simple as they were, they were helpful to many. While they are little known today, and would need much revision for today’s world, there are still occasional bits of insight that can be helpful. They become a kind of chronicle of my daily hunt for the origins of my “dis-ease”, and the search for actions to counter racism.

The work with college students led to the creation of our summer internship program. Teaching at Boston College, meeting students in work with other colleges, it became important to provide an experience through which students could contribute to the movement while extending their learning through practical work in the field. In other organizations we had seen interns doing mostly the work that no one else wanted to do, the detailed “grunt work” of the movement.

We wanted a different opportunity for our interns. Our program included three foci for the interns. (1) Interns indeed were expected to do a part of the “grunt work”, but always shared by me or others in the office, stuffing a mailing, or whatever was necessary. (2) Interns went to community meetings with me in what we eventually called “shadowing”. They were there to observe, participate, and then later reflect together on what we had learned. (3) Interns were each expected to select a project of their own, to complete during the summer. Those projects varied by intern interests and skills; often it was a plan for implementation back on campus, or maybe creating a body of information to be added to resources available for CCI friends. This three-pronged program became a way to further the education of committed students, and to make their skills available to the organization.

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