James Farmer, a co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), recounted that he proposed the idea of Affirmative Action to Lyndon Johnson when Johnson was Vice-President.
When he reported that fact to the Council on United Civil Rights Leadership, which the media dubbed the “Big Four” or the “Big Six,” Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League, indicated that he had similar discussions with Johnson. Thus, both deserve credit for leading the development of Affirmative Action.
Farmer told the Vice President that while Blacks were moving ahead in some sense — getting better jobs, getting promoted, being hired into some non-traditional positions in small numbers, smaller than we had hoped— we were not closing the gap. The income gap remained large and, indeed, was widening a bit.
The discussions at CORE centered around the example of wheels on a car. The back wheels of a vehicle will not catch the front wheels if they are moving at the same rate of speed. If minorities — Black people particularly —were the built-in rear wheels of the vehicle, they would continue to be a gap behind others. Consequentially, Blacks should be provided help to catch up with others.
Johnson agreed with Farmer’s Compensatory (Adjustment) idea but disliked the name. He suggested the title should suggest a more positive, more affirmative move. Thus was born the term, Affirmative Action.
Later, as president, Johnson provided his ball and chain analogy in his speech at Howard University. But affirmative action did not begin on the firm footing articulated by Johnson. Instead, it started and remained a “program for Black folks because they tend to need help,” a complete mischaracterization of the issue, which implicitly denied the role of systemic racism (President Johnson’s ball and chain) in creating the conditions of African American life.
Another weak argument is the recent one that says that diversity is a desirable goal that everyone benefits. While an admirable sentiment, this argument is not something that can stand for long as it depends on goodwill, which is a long way from a societal obligation to provide remedies for the disadvantages accruing to Blacks from racism.
A much better start to affirmative action would have occurred had it grown out of debates over reparations back in the 1960s. But of course, there were never any such debates as the civil rights leadership blocked reparations from entering forthrightly into the mainstream discussions and debates over the history and future of Black America.
Had reparations ever been raised as a serious issue, the critical question then—and now—is, “On what basis do you deserve reparation?” Of course, many of our learned activists would have answered that question in detail quite convincingly–about slavery and then the 100 years of American racial apartheid between 1865 and 1965.
But holding up racial progress in America is the lack of discussion about the history of the
systemic oppression of Black Americans. Until that issue is dealt with, our path forward is problematic.
The latest obstacle to moving ahead is White nationalists (whether in name or practice). They vehemently oppose educating the public on the history of racial oppression. This manifests itself in their over-the-top opposition to Critical Race Theory and systemic racism.
If the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action — also known as race-conscious
admissions policies in universities— it will make it unconstitutional for universities across the country to consider a student’s race as one…