Very few of us — liberal, conservative, whatever — like having our comfort zones shaken, do we now? Hobbits, Tolkien noted, liked books full of stuff they already knew, set down in print to validate their preconceived notions.
Apart from the hair on our feet, we aren’t much different. Recently I wrote a column — "What is affirmative action?" — in which I noted, with admiration for his intelligence and courage, the views of one Carl Cohen, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan who opposes using race as a factor in admissions.
Cohen, a principled liberal, has written widely, and correctly, that what is now called "affirmative action" isn’t what was originally meant by that term. He opposes racial quotas, thinks they are unconstitutional, and has not been afraid to say so. Those views are as apt to make one a social leper in U-M circles (I know; I’ve taught there) as devotion to integrated housing would in, say, Sterling Heights.
Well, I did get a couple of thoughtful letters arguing the point, which I always appreciate; one directed me to an excellent book, The Shape of the River, by William Bowery and Derek Bok. Mainly I got emotional denunciations, suggestions I be fired on the spot, wear my Klan regalia in public, etc., etc.
Few bothered to consider what I said, which is not surprising. Anyone who writes about "hot-button" issues such as assisted suicide, abortion or race knows the vast majority of respondents only use what you write to vent their feelings.
Yet white, liberal guilt burns, like indigestion in the flaccid abdomen of many a middle-aged teacher, and on a spring night last week I took myself to Michigan State University to hear the entertaining Mary Frances Berry, chair of the United States Civil Rights Commission, argue for affirmative action.
With deadpan wit, she told stories of academic shortsightedness and insularity, tales, alas, entirely believable to anyone who ever sat through a faculty meeting. The essential attitude she found was, "Sorry, we’d like to help, but you don’t have a track record. And since you don’t have one, you can never get one. If you had one it might be different, except that you can never get one because you don’t have one."
"That’s why we need this. Now, you don’t have to call it affirmative action. You could call it ‘banana,’" she suggested. She then skewered standardized tests as measures of intelligence and ability, and noted that many inner-city schools are a joke. (Berry has both a Ph.D. in history and a law degree from U-M, had test scores off the charts, and never needed affirmative anything.)
What amazed me is how much I saw the potential for common ground, based on the accurate perception that most schools minorities attend are horribly inferior. Something has to be done about that; in Detroit, they are now trying. Unless and until there is some rough "equal playing field," universities do need to exercise creativity in admissions; we need to accept minorities who may lack the tools, but have the potential — and then give them help to catch up where they are academically deficient.
And to head back into the realm of high political incorrectness — they need to work at it, too. Many need more self-discipline in school and out. Many promising young black students hamper their career prospects by producing babies before they can afford to raise them. Yes, white kids do this too, but not nearly as often; according to the National Center for Health Statistics, unmarried black women in Michigan are five times more likely to be mothers than single white women.
That’s not good, and racism is not a sufficient excuse. That is not a moralistic, but a practical statement. Someone recently told me some African-Americans have a hard time postponing gratification because of the legacy of slavery, when the value of a man’s labor wasn’t his own. Well, sorry, way past time to get beyond that, if only to show the man, damn it. Lord knows he needs to be shown.
Helping those who need a hand up, Berry concluded, is "not affirmative action, but plain old common garden-variety common sense." Amen.
Unless persons of color do not, someday soon, feel there is an equal playing field, this society is doomed.
What say we all stop whining and try to do the right thing?
This would astonish our enemies, please our mommies, and may be taken as proof that there is a streak of the hopeless romantic in even my acid-laced little breast.
Tender Mercies: Draper Hill was the best-known cartoonist in this town for many years, and was well-known nationally. His caricatures of Coleman Young were the best ever; he is author of a number of books, and a past national president of the editorial cartoonists association. He had been at the Detroit News since 1976, and remained loyal to management throughout the bitter strike. Last month they fired him.
Precisely why is a mystery (Hill declined comment), but it has been learned he was offered next to no severance, and was told it was over "competence." Why are we surprised? This is Gannett, remember; he is 63, and last winter sometime did, a neighbor tells me, break a leg. If this isn’t an employment case that screams for the talents and the lungs of Geoffrey Fieger, I’ve never seen one.