Remember Affirmative Action?
Every generation has their name for the effort to create true equality. And as always, there are many who will cry “no fair.” That’s just “reverse discrimination,” another buzzword from the recent past. Its three steps forward, two steps back, because we are often left with the nagging thought that women and minorities have received these opportunities to compensate for the fact that they are somehow lesser in talent and ability, even though that idea is proven wrong over and over again. The question persists. If all things were truly equal, would white males really win more opportunities than women and minorities? Its such a loaded question, because number one, we don’t even know what an equal playing field looks like. And number two, we all carry around that nagging doubt like a dead animal, because it is the resulting accumulation of centuries of bias. It Is not only white males who are limited by this bias. People of every make up share in that nagging doubt that women and minorities would not win on an equal playing field if opportunities were truly blind to gender and race.
Was Beethoven a Racist?
My son, Danny, often asks me some form of this question about gender and racial blindness. I tell him, there is gender/race blindness and there is inequality built into the system that needs to be corrected. They are two separate ideas. As he is waking up to the inequalities and injustices embedded in our society, he is taking on what he calls “white guilt.” He is resentful that he is somehow being blamed for the acts of generations before him. He is pure in his frustration and he is not alone, particularly among his fellow young white males. They deserve an answer. At this moment he is consuming the writings and utterances of Jordan Peterson, who postulates in his book “12 Rules for Life,” an excellent book I read and highly recommend, that women and men co-conspired to create the patriarchal society we are now striving to rectify. He postulates that it was a matter of necessity in a harsher environment. I disagree with this answer. I think it was a choice made by the more physically assertive and entitled males. I don’t believe either of these overly simple explanations in anyway explains or justifies the existence of the patriarchy of today. It’s probably some nuanced combination of the two arguments. And on the issue of racism, there can be no historical justification for subjugation and oppression of one race over another, other than to feebly say, we were not as evolved back then. As a musician, Danny is sincerely upset that his beloved Beethoven may have been a racist. Indeed, many great people from the past held racist and sexist beliefs, including Washington and even Lincoln. We just have to accept that as the way it was. We can still love Beethoven and Lincoln. We can bracket those malevolent qualities and appreciate the good they did.
Eliza Goodpasture asks a similar question in Art Review Magazine: “Are all-women art shows ‘tactically necessary’? That’s the argument of feminist art historian Griselda Pollock, in her introduction to a new exhibition of female abstractionists at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. But critic Eliza Goodpasture isn’t so easily convinced. Is it a good enough reason to have a women-only exhibition, she asks, just because there have been too many exhibitions with only men?“ Ms. Goodpasture wonders out loud if it isn’t an over-correction. Are feminist themes a worthy subject for attention by artists? Of course they are. Inequality is a real thorn in our side that is being deconstructed by brave artists of every stripe.
As a society, to what extent are we willing to go in creating a better world? The bottom line is we need to somehow adjust and compensate in order to move to a society that is truly fair and equal. It is a painful, arduous process, filled with many pitfalls and disparities. Those on the right cry “reverse discrimination!” And it is true, the individual is often lost in the scenario of “tactical necessity.” It can become a very personal thing. For example, I believed at the time, in the late seventies, that I lost a place in the University of Michigan Clarinet program to an African-American colleague, who I felt did not play as well as I. Of course there are a number of factors that may have been in play, including that I quite possibly was not as amazing a musician as I thought. He may simply have played a better audition than I did. Or the administration may have indeed needed to fill that slot with a person of color. I recall at the time, making a choice to be happy for his good fortune. In fact, I was happy that he, both as my friend and as an African-American, received this opportunity. My life went in other directions. I realized, even then, particularly as a white male, every closed door was an open door somewhere else.
That is another thing I stress in my conversations with my son on race. Our personal interactions with people of color should not be confused with our efforts to end institutional racism. I go out of my way, personally, to treat women and people of color as my brothers and sisters. And if those feelings aren’t always returned or if I become the occasional victim of racial bias, that doesn’t mean I should stop voting against racist policies. Racism and sexism are so deeply entrenched in our system, it is not at all surprising that resentment and anger occasionally spills out into our interactions with women and people of color. These individual racist skirmishes should not be mixed up with our battle against institutional racism. Anger and outrage are not the same as hate. Bias and hate are literally hard-wired into our current system.
A while back, I had the opportunity to read James Baldwin’s extended essay, “The Fire Next time,” written around 1960. There was no talk of reparations then, of course. But the thing I found most striking is how little things have changed for African Americans since that time. After all our society’s “progress,” blacks remain second class citizens. I could not agree more with his conclusion that America must correct our original sin, once and for all. Unless and until true equality exists, there will be no real peace for anyone.
So let’s go there: are reparations really that radical an idea? I don’t think compensating the descendants of people of color, after enslaving and torturing them as race for 400 years, then “freeing” them with no civil or property rights and subjecting them to separate but unequal wages, housing, education and labor conditions, harassment, stigmatization, lynching, indentured servitude, grossly unfair lending practices, redlining, voting restrictions and discrimination at every turn, along with rampant police brutality and mass incarceration — and that doesn’t begin to cover the endless ways blacks have suffered at the hands of whites — is such a radical idea. It sounds pretty reasonable to me. And women, who could not even have a credit card in their name until the 1980s, have been shut out of the system for centuries. Everything the white male enjoys and takes for granted today was built and continues to be built on the backs of woman, African Americans, immigrants and native Americans. And I mean everything. Feel guilty if you want, but something needs to change to set this straight.
People talk a lot about making America great again. But America lost it’s greatness the moment whites came in conquest, displacing native Americans, subjugating women and stealing, enslaving, exploiting and finally marginalizing the black race. The evil of these horrific sins must be made right. It truly is the only way to make America finally great. We must reconcile with Native and African Americans, sharing power and wealth equally. We must also recognize that we have subjugated women and correct the gender bias. We must correct these iniquities so we can live together like brothers and sisters, with liberty and justice for all. And if one day, as it is predicted in twenty years or so, the white male becomes the minority, and policies begin to shift in favor of women and people of color, that suits me just fine. Perhaps in a hundred years, maybe longer, society will finally achieve real equality and real equity. And we will have done our small part in making it happen.