We Aren’t Finished Yet; A Response to First Things’ “Another Narrative

This is a response of sorts to a recent article that I read online entitled, “Another Narrative”[1] from the site “First Things.” The article “Another Narrative” is a jumping off point, for me to dive into today’s societal issues and to try to grapple with all of the complexity surrounding them. Thanks to feedback I received, I have edited my writing to soften the tone and to do more justice to my own journey in trying to wrestle through these issues. I believe that the initial draft came across as confrontational and was directed far too much at the author, which was not my intent. I simply use “Another Narrative” as a framework to push back against ideas that I frequently hear.

“First Things” is “an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization.” The title – “Another Narrative” piqued my curiosity and so I was interested to know what narrative this piece was hoping to challenge.

The author, Robert Benne, begins by discussing a conversation that he had with a mentor. In the conversation his mentor warns him that the goal posts have moved; people are no longer interested in equality of opportunity, rather, now people want “equality of results.” He goes on to say that he should have taken the advice of his mentor more seriously. Interestingly, he does not provide an example of people asking for “equality of results.” I would like to know more about this idea. Who is articulating that equal opportunity is not enough and now people are demanding “equal results”? Where is he observing this and how is it manifesting itself in the public discourse? This is not mentioned, but has prompted further exploration.

He continues by talking about America’s quest to ensure that Black Americans, women, and other underrepresented populations, are represented in proportion to their population at large. He writes, “…we feel guilty if our achieved percentages are not high enough.” I’ve been fortunate enough to work in two medical institutions, both of which acknowledge the need for diversity and inclusion and who work towards that end. I have never been made to feel guilty for being white or been asked to repent for being white. I have also never heard leadership articulate feelings of guilt when goals are unachieved. Even in the modern day quest for equality, Black thought leaders have spoken and written about their desire for action and allies, not guilt.[3] [4] To me, guilt seems to be a refrain used to divert attention away from the issues of racial inequality. If looking at systemic racism and under-representation makes one FEEL guilty, does that mean they are actually guilty of something? Or should that lead to deeper reflection about why that feeling arises and what can be done about it? I would think the latter.

The article continues: “Since the 70’s our country has been working to ensure that women, blacks, and other minorities are represented in every facet of our society….” He then points out, “Even Wall Street is concerned: Fifteen percent of the overall population is black, but only 10 percent of Wall Street operatives are black.” As is pointed out, for 50 years the US has worked towards equal representation, and yet that equal representation has not occurred; the example of this is provided by looking at Wall Street. No doubt there are many reasons for this, and one of the big ones is that Affirmation Action has been fought tooth and nail since its inception.[5][6][7] Despite the consistent pushback towards affirmation action, studies do show that it has increased opportunities for Black Americans, among others.[8][9][10]

He goes on to say that these results, as well as, the push for diversity and inclusivity within “nearly all institutions,” including academia should be more satisfying. “But the recent protests have led to wholesale amnesia about the past fifty years of affirmative action. The hysteria ignores the fact that we have had a half-century of ‘systemic affirmative action’ rather than ‘systemic racism’” I find this truly bizarre. First, today’s protests are completely mischaracterized. They are specifically related to systemic racism in policing and the criminal justice system. This has little to do with affirmative action, but it seems like the argument is that because there has been a drive for greater representation in the criminal justice system, this systemic racism should have gone away. To think that the damage caused by hundreds of years of disenfranchising Black Americans through enslavement, violence and intimidation, and explicit and implicit racist policies, can be undone after 50 years of a policy that has been regularly fought and undermined, seems to underestimate the extent of the problem.

In addition, the argument is presented as if because there is affirmative action, all systemic racism has gone away. Greater representation in the work force is not the only area of bias and racism, and neither has affirmative action even solved that problem. Again there have been gains, but there are still very real issues with representation within important institutions in America:

  • Black Americans are underrepresented in journalism[11]
  • Black Americans are underrepresented in medicine (both as doctors and acceptance to med school)[12] [13]
  • Black Americans are underrepresented in corporate American, particularly in leadership roles [14]
  • Black Americans are underrepresented in law enforcement[15] [16]

To this day, the quest for equal representation is challenged throughout the country. This is true especially in the realm of academia. No case highlights this better than Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit against the University of Texas which made its way up to the Supreme Court in 2016. Fisher’s case was bankrolled by a man named Edward Blum, whose hobby is challenging affirmative action in academia.[17] In the Fisher case, her team alleged that she was denied a spot at UT because she is white and others less qualified were granted access to the University. The problem is, it’s not true. She was denied because of her academic performance. There were 49 provisional applicants offered admission with lower grades than Fisher. “Five of those students were black or Latino. FORTY-TWO were white.” In addition, there were “…168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year. Also left unsaid is the fact that Fisher turned down a standard UT offer under which she could have gone to the university her sophomore year if she earned a 3.2 GPA at another Texas university school in her freshman year.”[18] The Fisher case is a wonderful example of how equal representation continues to be fought to this day and it’s not a one-off example.[19] [20]  Despite the best efforts to paint affirmative action as a cure-all, this conclusion does not stand up to the statistics nor the continued battle against it.

This is not the only area where the on-the-ground issues in America seem to be mischaracterized. He writes, “Racism is called out and denounced when made public. In recent months we have seen exaggerated sensitivity to acts and words that are not likely racist at all. They just don’t fit into the current narrative.” I’m sure that there are examples of this, but I think that, on the whole, racism has been given a fresh platform. No greater example of this is the person who sits in the White House, President Donald J. Trump. President Trump has a well-documented history of racism.[21][22] Not to mention his unwillingness to separate himself and denounce white supremacists until there is intense outside pressure. Or his casual retweeting of a video of one of his supporters shouting clear as day, “White Power.”[23]

The impact of this racism in seen in many of his followers who have been emboldened and frequently invoke his name in their own racist diatribes. The videos of this are replete.[24] [25] Videos of a white woman questioning a landscaper and asking for his papers,[26] a video of Trump supporters telling a Latinx person in their video that “Trump is going to take care of you[27],” a white supremacist yelling for people trying to control him ‘To call Donald Trump’ before slapping a woman and being tackled.[28] One only needs to watch footage of “BLM counter-protests” to hear racism alive and well. And while it’s true that when these videos are made public there are often consequences for the people involved, how many of these acts occur out of the view of cameras? Dr. Benne seems to drastically underestimate the extent of the racist ideas in this country, and how those ideas have been given new license in the words and deeds of our highest office holder.

The article continues by discussing several of the problems facing Black communities and how equal representation through affirmative action (the focus of this article) is ineffective. “Poverty, crime, poor schools, single-parent families, gangs, and neighborhood decay are far too often the plight of that portion of our black population.” How these issues have developed and why they seem to disproportionately affect Black Americans is left unaddressed. No doubt the causes of “Poverty, crime, poor schools, single-parent families, gangs, and neighborhood decay…” are complex, but there can be no doubt of the impact of structural and systematic racism on creating many of the problems faced by Black Americans. It also goes unmentioned that the ‘Great Society programs’ as well as affirmative action resulted from analyses which showed the impact of racism on Black communities.[29] One such analysis, The Kerner Commission[30], highlighted many of our current issues. Sadly, it was written in 1968 and the recommendations, that may have circumvented our modern problems, were ignored.

I found the concluding remarks of this article most troubling. How are we to overcome these challenges? “Renewal will also have to come from within the black community, aided heavily by private and public agencies that can wisely discern the genuine agents of renewal.” What have Black Americans been doing throughout the history of our country? They have been seeking this renewal! Many have put their well-being and even their lives on the line in the hopes of achieving this equality which even today remains elusive. To me this statement seems to presume that this activity does not already exist, which it very clearly does. And of course private and public agencies have a role, as does the government at all levels of society who have aided in creating a society that does not offer equal opportunity.

A perfect example of how challenging this actually is, is the Trump administration’s rescinding of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) mandate.[31] This provision made it so that those seeking federal money for development and housing had to assess for discrimination and segregation, and, if it existed, put together a plan to address it. This is necessary because federal policy was housing discrimination through practices such as redlining and zoning. To ATTEMPT to rectify this, the AFFH came into existence. Much like affirmative action it has been fought tooth and nail, ignored, and finally rescinded by the Trump administration who then proclaimed that he was protecting the suburbs. The actions of the Trump administration were fought diligently by Black Americans, white Americans, Latinx Americans, as well as the civil rights community at large. Yet, their lawsuits, protestations, and data went unheeded. And this is the norm, the Voting Rights Act since its inception has been fought just as vehemently.[32]

Ultimately the article concludes by affirming that “… race is important. But the story of the last fifty years is a lot more complicated than the narrative of oppression and systemic racism.” This is particularly interesting because the entire article has painted an awfully simplistic (and rosy) picture of the past fifty years, especially in regards to affirmative action. Now, for the first time, the complexity of the American story is being articulated. However, it is not on these narratives that we should focus, “Instead of promoting these narratives [narratives of oppression and systemic racism], we need to build on the successes we have achieved and turn our attention to the formidable tasks ahead.” This closing sentence is problematic for two reasons:

First, I do not agree that we should not stop “promoting these narratives” because there is still a large part of the population who believe they are a myth, despite the data, evidence, and experience. Racial bias does indeed affect the medical system[33], the criminal justice system[34], and housing[35], to name a few. And we are just beginning to understand the extent of these problems, especially in the medical field. To say that we should shift gears and stop talking about these issues and instead focus “on the successes” seems premature and unwise.

Second, here the idea of narrative returns. In this concluding sentence, the author appears to be proposing that we lay down the other narratives [of oppression and systemic racism], for this narrative which will enable us “to build on the successes we have achieved.” The challenge for me is that I cannot figure out why these narratives are mutually exclusive. Why must we ignore the reality of systemic racism that still exists, to celebrate and build on the successes that have been achieved? Last year, I ran a marathon for the first time. This year, I’m training for a 30 mile trail run. I can celebrate my achievement of the marathon and have pride in that accomplishment, while pursuing the goal of a further distance. These two states of being are not mutually exclusive, yet this is representative of much of the discourse that takes place regarding race in America. The line of thinking seems to go, “Why can’t we just move beyond this topic, haven’t we done enough?” Well, we can’t move beyond this topic because it still impacts our society today. Certainly, we can celebrate and take pride in what has been accomplished, while simultaneously acknowledging that we aren’t there yet and continuing the fight for equality.

It seems like this alternative narrative wants to be done with all of this race talk. This despite the glaring disparities, despite American history, despite the racial bias that still exists in the foundational structures of our society. They are ready to move on to the “formidable tasks ahead.” Hopefully those tasks include fighting the “Poverty, crime, poor schools, single-parent families, gangs, and neighborhood decay…” that he mentions early in the article. If so, it will be tough to do so without addressing racism. As The Kerner Commission found in 1968, “What white Americans have never fully understood but what [Black Americans] can never forget–is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” It was true in 1968 and it remains true today. Acting as if we’ve moved beyond systemic racism only assures that our problems today will be handed down to the next generation. This occurred in 1968, and we are at a similar crossroads now. This is why “Another Narrative” should be rejected in favor a narrative of racial equality that acknowledges progress WHILE living in the reality that there is still a lot more work to be done.

[1] https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/07/another-narrative

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/10/white-guilt-america-walter-scott-us

[4] https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/Being-a-white-ally-of-African-Americans-means-15321365.php

[5] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/affirmative-action/

[6] https://www.scu.edu/mcae/publications/iie/v5n2/affirmative.html

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/19/most-white-americans-will-never-experience-affirmative-action-so-why-do-they-hate-it-so-much/

[8] https://isps.yale.edu/news/blog/2017/01/what-are-the-effects-of-affirmative-action-regulation-on-workers%E2%80%99-careers#:~:text=There%20is%20substantive%20evidence%20that,between%20majority%20and%20minority%20workers.

[9] https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7gXilvu7Y8AUDBfTXNGWi1XUjA/view

[10] http://people.umass.edu/fidan/Kurtulus_AffirmativeAction_AEJSubmission_06_26_2012_web.pdf

[11] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/11/02/newsroom-employees-are-less-diverse-than-u-s-workers-overall/

[12] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2019/02/28/medical-school-student-african-american-enrollment-black-doctors-health-disparity/2841925002/

[13] https://www.texmed.org/Template.aspx?id=50657

[14] https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/02/success/diversity-and-black-leadership-in-corporate-america/index.html

[15] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/07/14/minority-under-representation-in-city-and-suburban-policing/

[16] https://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/gov-police-department-diversity.html

[17] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-casemaker/special-report-behind-u-s-race-cases-a-little-known-recruiter-idUSBRE8B30V220121204

[18] https://www.propublica.org/article/a-colorblind-constitution-what-abigail-fishers-affirmative-action-case-is-r

[19] https://www.vox.com/2018/3/28/17031460/affirmative-action-asian-discrimination-admissions

[20] https://www.propublica.org/article/another-race-case-for-a-hostile-court

[21] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/trump-racism-comments/588067/

[22] https://www.vox.com/2016/7/25/12270880/donald-trump-racist-racism-history

[23] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53212685

[24] WARNING STRONG & OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9YPYRaeTW0&list=LLw9GZkXEB8wNEJQnDX99d0A&index=92

[25] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/asian-american-woman-harassed-self-identified-trump-supporter-thanks-bystanders-n1201261

[26] https://abc7.com/rancho-mirage-video-landscaper-show-me-your-papers-riverside-county/6326623/

[27] https://twitter.com/fb_illini/status/1287772604988710919?s=20

[28]https://twitter.com/melimels99/status/1289699643199299586

[29] https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/moynihan-report-1965/

[30] http://www.eisenhowerfoundation.org/docs/kerner.pdf

[31] https://allthingsofflimits.wordpress.com/2020/07/30/housing-discrimination-systemic-racism-and-the-shaping-of-american-cities/

[32] See Ari Berman’s Give us the Ballot and Dr. Carol Anderson’s One Person, One Vote.

[33] https://allthingsofflimits.wordpress.com/2020/07/23/american-medicine-and-systemic-racism/

[34] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/04/09/more-studies-showing-racial-disparities-criminal-justice-system/

[35] https://www.propublica.org/article/trump-financial-regulator-quietly-shelved-discrimination-probes-into-bank-of-america-and-other-lenders and  https://projects.newsday.com/long-island/real-estate-agents-investigation/

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