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Marvin Gaye

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Colorblind Justice

The fundamental crisis in black America is twofold: too much poverty and too

Little self-love. The urgent problem of black poverty is primarily due to the distribution of wealth power and income, a distribution influenced by the racial caste system that denied opportunities to most qualified black people until two decades ago.

The historic role of American progressives is to promote redistributive measure that enhances the standard of living and quality of life for the have-nots and have-too-littles. Affirmative action was one such redistributive measure that surfaced in the heat of battle in the 1960s among those fighting for racial equality. Like earlier de facto affirmative action measures in the American past, contracts, jobs and loans to select immigrants granted by political machines, subsidies to certain farmers, FHA mortgage loans to specific home buyers, or GI Bill benefits to particular courageous Americans, recent efforts to broaden access to America's prosperity have been based upon preferential policies, Unfortunately, these policies always benefit middle-class Americans disproportionately. The political power of big business in big government circumscribes redistributive measures and there by tilts this measure away from the have-nots and have-too-littles.

Every redistributive measure is a compromise with and concession from the caretakers of American prosperity, that is, big business and big government. Affirmative action was one such compromise and concession achieved after the protracted struggle of American progressives and liberals in the courts and in the streets. Visionary progressives always push for substantive redistributive measures that make opportunities available to the have-nots and have-too littles, such as more federal support to small farmers, or more FHA mortgage loans to urban dwellers as well as suburban homebuyers. Yet in the American political system, where the powers that be turn a skeptical eye toward any program aimed at economic redistribution. Progressives must secure whatever redistributive measures they can, ensure their enforcement, then extend their benefits if possible. If I had been old enough to join the fight for racial equality in the courts, the legislatures, and the boardrooms in the 1960s. I would have favored, as I do now, a class-based affirmative action in principle. Yet in the heat of battle in American politics, a redistributive measure in principle with no power and pressure behind it means no redistributive measure at all. The prevailing discriminatory practices during the sixties, whose targets were working people, women and people of color, were atrocious. Thus, an enforceable race-based, and later gender based, affirmative action policy was the best possible compromise and concession.

Progressives should view affirmative action as neither a major solution to poverty nor a sufficient means to equality. We should see it as primarily playing a negative role, namely, to ensure that discriminatory practices against women and people of color are abated. Given the history of this country, it is a virtual certainty that without affirmative action, racial and sexual discrimination would return with a vengeance. Even if affirmative action fails significantly to reduce, black poverty or contributes to the persistence of racist perceptions in the workplace, without affirmative action black access to America's prosperity would be even more difficult to obtain and racism in the workplace would persist anyway.

This claim is not based upon any cynicism toward my white fellow citizens; rather, it rests upon America's historically weak will toward racial justice and substantive redistributive measures. This is why an attack on affirmative action is an attack on redistributive efforts by progressives unless there is a real possibility of enacting and enforcing a more wide-reaching class-based affirmative action policy.

In American politics, progressives must not only cling to redistributive ideals, but must also fight for those policies that, out of compromise and concession, imperfectly conform to those ideals. Liberals who give only lip service to these ideals, namely, the policies or reject the policies, as they perceive a shift in the racial bellwether give up precious ground too easily. In addition, they do so even as the sand is disappearing under our feet on such issues as regressive taxation, layoffs or take backs from workers, and cutbacks in health and childcare.

Affirmative action is not the most important issue for black progress in America, but it is part if a redistributive chain that must be strengthened if we are to confront and eliminate black poverty. If there were social democratic redistributive measure that wiped out black poverty, and if racial and sexual discrimination could be abated through the good will and meritorious judgments of those in power, affirmative action would be unnecessary. Although many of my liberal and progressive citizens view affirmative action as a redistributive measure whose time is over or shoes life is no longer worth preserving, I question their view because of the persistence of discriminatory practice that increase black social misery, and the warranted suspicion that good will and fair judgment among the powerful does not loom as large toward women and people of color.

If the elimination of black poverty is a necessary condition of substantive black progress, then the affirmation of black humanity, especially among black people themselves, is a sufficient condition of such programs. Such affirmation speaks to the existential issues of what it means to be degraded in a racist society. How does one affirm oneself without reenacting negative black stereotypes or overreacting to white supremacist ideals?

The difficult and delicate quest for black identity is integral to any talk about racial equality. Yet it is not solely a political or economic matter. The quest for black identity, self-respect and self-regard, realms inseparable from, yet identical from to, political power and economic status. The flagrant self-loathing among black middle-class professionals bears witness to this painful process. Unfortunately, black conservatives focus on the issue of self-respect as if it were the one key that would open all doors to black progress. They illustrate the fallacy of trying to open all doors with one key: they wind up closing their eyes to all doors except the one the key fits. Progressives, for our part, must take seriously the quest for self-respect, even as we train our eye on the institutional causes for black social misery. The issues of black identity, both black self-love and self-contempt, sit alongside



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