Monday, March 4, 2013

When Authority Speaks

When I first heard the term, I thought 'post-racialism' was a straw man: I saw no way Americans could take the position, that by simply electing a mixed-race President, that racial injustice had been swept away. There is too much evidence to the contrary.

Out here in Portland, Oregon, we're still refining the collection of 'stop data,' and the work continues to demonstrate our police bureau engages in racial profiling. Racial injustice did not conclude with the election of Barack Hussein Obama. Though it's been a century and a half since Oregon was created as a white homeland, disparities in policing, housing, and health and educational outcomes are still very much in evidence in the nation's fifth-whitest city.

For quite a while, regressive policymakers have have called affirmative action into question, changing the frame from attempts to remedy centuries of racial discrimination to look at issues of fairness in the here and now. Quotas circumscribing opportunity are unfair in a democracy, particularly when viewed in the lens of immediacy. Set-asides in hiring and educational opportunity for historically deprived constituencies seem fairer when seen on a landscape of centuries of denied opportunity, however.

I'm troubled by a recent surge of academics beckoning post-racial society. This conversation may arise from desires that the US Supreme Court strike down provisions of the 1968 Voting Rights Act ... protections against a full-fledged return to the racist vote suppression that characterized much of this country for a century. Rather than look to data to inform us whether parties with histories of inhibiting voters have reformed themselves, spin doctors simply change the frame of reference. Justice Antonin Scalia tells us the continuation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act represents the "perpetuation of racial entitlement," hinting that 'time is up:' there is no need to 'perpetuate' this new disparity. Scalia is blatantly undemocratic in describing anyone's right to the ballot as an entitlement.* If counter-revolutionary forces can change the discussion from our history of repression to appreciate immediate effects of chosen remedies, the idea of what is 'fair' will change as well.

It's become important to place civil rights victories in the past, to frame the abandonment of affirmative action goals as 'mission accomplished.' Dr. Audrey Kobayashi will lend her status as Past President of the Association of American Geographers to call attention to Race: An idea past its time in the discipline of geography? at the AAG's national convention this summer.

In Foreign Affairs magazine this month, titled Capitalism and Inequality, Jerry Z. Muller does not mention race by name when he says the cure may be worse than the disease to use "... government policy to close the gaps between individuals and groups by offering preferential treatment to underperformers ..." The Catholic University Professor repeats the 'injustice among the rest of the population' refrain. He condemns 'mandated rewards:' "More grave is their cost in terms of economic efficiency, since by definition, they promote less-qualified individuals to positions they would not attain on the basis of merit alone."

"Face it folks," Muller seems to say, "these are less qualified individuals, not an under-caste who've been systemically denied educational opportunity, growing up in households who, because of their color, have been systemically denied economic opportunity."

Muller does continue: "Similarly, policies banning the use of meritocratic criteria in education, hiring, and credit simply because they have a 'differential impact' on the fortunes of various communal groups or because they contribute to unequal social outcomes will inevitably impede the quality of the educational system, the work force, and the economy." I read 'unequal social outcomes' as 'social injustice:' Instead of employing education to improve the merit of a people historically discriminated against - who remain deprived of equal opportunity in classroom size, environment and quality of tools - we should turn a colorblind eye. We should look for resident merit in applicants.

And I thought about these voices of authority, steering the conversation on racial aptitude. It is not the first time that scientists and academicians have helped frame perceptions about race-based capacities in the dominant culture.

I am researching an historical moment in 1849, when radical emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay disemboweled Cyrus Squire Turner (1819-1849, my first cousin 3 times removed) during a debate Clay was having with Turner's father Squire Turner (1793-1871, my great-grandmother's paternal uncle). Certified smart people were framing the merits of people of color in that period as well.

When publishing his diagnostic term 'Drapetomania' in De Bow's Review, Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright reached into ancient Greek to remind readers that the concept of 'runaway slave' has been with us since ancient times.

Like the jurist and and academics above, Cartwright lends an authoritative voice to help readers pursue the most effective policies, or measures, suggesting, "It may not be unworthy a great statesman to inquire, if what is true in Medicine may not be true in Government, and to investigate the question whether the laws and free institutions, so beneficial to the white man, may not be detrimental and deteriorating to the negro?"
In her book on mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness, Michelle Alexander shows how white supremacist policy makers no longer need cite race; we've criminalized so much of the Black Experience, we can discriminate by means of criminal 'justice' systems. In a new era of Jim Crow laws, the right to vote, to serve on juries, and to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits is now denied on the basis of criminal history. The needs of white supremacists are met at the expense of national consensus.

It seems a continuation of generations-old attempts to regulate the behavior of people of color.

*Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act pertains to districts with histories of discrimination (like Texas where, since 1980, every initial attempt to gerrymander voting districts has been rejected as discriminatory).