Affirmative Denial

Salim Muwakkil

One of the primary reasons I support the congressional bill to study the feasibility of reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans is the need to acquaint Americans with the devastating effects racial slavery has had on African-Americans.

That need was never more apparent than during national discussions of the Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action rulings. In a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled that the University of Michigan law school (and thus all colleges and universities) could constitutionally consider race as a factor in admissions. The court also ruled that the school’s undergraduate admissions point system, which awards points for certain racial identities, is unconstitutional.

Progressives applauded the top court’s law school ruling as a victory for the forces of social justice. But it was a win by default only. The law school maintained it took race into account to help produce a more diverse student body. Diversity enhanced the university environment, it argued. A slim majority of the court bought that argument, which reasoned, essentially, that minorities should be tolerated because they add texture to whites’ educational experience.

Thus it seems that even when the top court acts in the interest of social justice, its motives are tainted by assumptions of racial hierarchy. Other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, none of the other justices thought it necessary to link structural racial barriers to continued social and economic disparities between black and white Americans. These racial disparities endure, and in some cases have worsened. And remember, affirmative action was a program born specifically to help beat down barriers that cause those disparities.

Ironically, toppling racial barriers also was the raison d’être for the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment that foes of affirmative action now use to justify the program’s demise. In fact, irony is a consistent theme in this debate: Not only do we have the specter of affirmative action foes quoting Dr. Martin Luther King out of context about the content of character” rather than the color of skin, we now have Justice Clarence Thomas using the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass to bolster his anti-affirmative action point.

Quoting Douglass’ 1865 speech before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, Thomas wrote, All I ask is, give him [‘the Negro’] a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … Your interference is doing him positive injury.” Thomas failed to mention that Douglass’ speech was responding to the patronizing excesses of many Northern abolitionists, who, at the time, seemed to regard freedmen as so much flotsam and jetsam of the Civil War to be handled, rather than as human beings to be supported.

This recasting of the past is becoming a routine rhetorical tactic of the shameless right, but Americans’ lack of historical perspective makes it much easier for them to get away with it. This historical ignorance is the precise target of the congressional bill I mentioned earlier. 

This bill, which has been introduced annually by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) since 1989 but languishes in committee, seeks to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery … and economic discrimination against African-Americans … to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”

Few Americans know of the legacy that racial slavery and Jim Crow apartheid has bequeathed to African-Americans. Because of that ignorance, many white Americans either are mystified by blacks’ disproportionate miseries or attribute them to some intrinsic quality (be it genetic or cultural). African-Americans often are urged to get over” race; that is, accept racial inequities as a state of nature and shut up.

A more honest reckoning of our history would reveal the difficulty of transcending racial disadvantage without some attempt to repair the damage done to a people victimized by 16 generations of racial slavery and Jim Crow apartheid. 

After all, African-Americans exist only because there was a transatlantic slave trade; racial slavery was a new species of human bondage, now considered one of history’s longest-running crimes against humanity. Slavery stole the labor of enslaved Africans for more than 250 years, and by depriving their descendants of any material inheritance — except poverty— slavery also damaged their futures. 

Jim Crow apartheid blocked blacks from access to America’s fruits for a century following slavery’s demise. In fact, African-Americans were not fully enfranchised as citizens until 1965, and racial barriers erected to justify and protect slavery still to this day inhibit blacks’ social and economic mobility.

The peculiar institution also severed the ancestral sources of identity and cultural continuity of enslaved Africans, leaving them and their progeny especially vulnerable to the widespread biases of white supremacy and its corollary, black inferiority (including the negative aesthetic values of kinky” hair, thick lips, and dark skin, as well as notions of intellectual inferiority) that still permeate American society. These Afrophobic biases are also a legacy of slavery, and may have been just as damaging to the psyches of African-Americans as the more overt injuries of social and economic discrimination were to their life chances. 

The problem becomes more complex and expensive as the legacy of slavery lengthens; affirmative action is inadequate to the task, even without the equivocal dodge of diversity.” In fact, affirmative action itself is a timid euphemism for reparations. Passing Conyers’ bill could help relieve our timidity. 

Few Americans know of the legacy that racial slavery and Jim Crow apartheid has bequeathed to African-Americans
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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