Moral Man and Immoral Society

Perhaps I was beginning to understand the practical meaning of the Niebuhrian distinctions between moral individuals and immoral institutions in society. There were many instances that brought that theological understanding “home”. One early lesson came as I was introduced to Herb Lyken, a gifted black man, who, when I first knew him was working at a downtown Boston office, I believe John Hancock. It was a period when institutions openly “bragged” about men like Herb, splashing across the news his picture, pointing with public presence to the advances of the company, proud that they employed such an able black man! At some point I had a brief consulting relationship to an administrator at the Harvard Business School, and I introduced Herb to that friend. The leaders at the school loved Herb! So much so that they offered him a job! I was unaware of his vocational move to Harvard, phoned his old job number, and was told how to contact him at “THE ‘B’ SCHOOL”. I phoned Herb, and he invited me out to see his new office and him in his new position, which included recruiting blacks for the school. I asked for directions to his office on the campus. Herb said: “You won’t have any trouble finding me. They’ve got me on display prominently inside the main office entrance”. Even with that ‘warning” I was still astounded when I walked into the building, and there he was in complete visibility, in an office which was practically glass-enclosed, where it was almost impossible for anyone entering the building to miss him! It was Harvard’s way of announcing to the world that it was clearly not racist, nor complicit with racism …The school might just as well have hung a big sign saying, “see who we have”!!!!! That was an early lesson in “tokenism” and institutional “display”, devoid of real meaning. (By the way, the “B” School never invited ME back.)

Work in colleges began in earnest in 1979, when we were invited to conduct workshops at Brown University. Two years later, several people at Brown, led by Theatre Arts Professor, Barbara Tannenbaum, and Darryl Smaw, University Chaplain. Together with a few others, in college leadership positions, we joined to create SOAR, the Society Organized Against Racism in Higher Education. The opening was exciting, with support from its President, Brown University hosted the event; combined choral groups at Brown presented the first performance of a specially written work built on Langston Hughes’ image: a “broken-winged bird cannot fly”.

SOAR was a good idea, but never lived up to my expectations. I learned from that experience that since SOAR was administered by campus personnel, the vigorous pursuit of racism depended on the willingness of the administrators to take risks. Administrators paid by the college were not often able/willing to do the necessary challenging. When students organize and begin to significantly challenge, the university has learned ways to divert attention, delay action, and wait for the students to graduate.

An example of how students can be ignored/dismissed came for me when I was invited to speak on a panel of “founders” at an anniversary of SOAR held at Dartmouth College. There was a noticeable lack of students present, and when I called attention to that in my talk, I was informed by the administrator-organizer of the program, that the lack of students was due to the fact that it was a vacation week on most campuses. I wondered aloud why the people who organized the conference planned a date when they knew most students would not be available?. My comment gave rise to an expected defensive reaction. It was the last time I was invited to a SOAR event!

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