Tag Archives: elwood watson

Michael Jackson: A Transformative Human Being

By Elwood Watson

Okay. I will confess that I was a huge Michael Jackson fan! From the time I was a teenager, I rabidly purchased all of his albums. To me, he was one of the greatest entertainerelwoodwatsons to live. To this very day, I still harbor that assessment. In fact, on the very evening of his passing I received a call from one of my sisters asking me how I was feeling. She knew how much I admired the king of pop. Truth be told, I was very saddened to hear of his death. As I saw it, he was so young, so vibrant and still had so much more to accomplish. Granted, his life history was far from serene, yet it certainly was nowhere near as “tragic” as some media pundits and entertainment correspondents argued.

I had followed the late Mr. Jackson from his days as a member of the Jackson Five when I was in elementary school (my older siblings were also huge fans as well) to his solo efforts with his superb albums “Off The Wall” and “Thriller.” By the time “Thriller” was released, I was in high school. If his record sales were an indication, I was obviously not alone in my fascination with Michael Jackson. “Off The Wall” went multiplatinum and made Jackson the first artist to have four songs in the top 10 FROM THE SAME ALBUM at one time! As if this was not significant enough, his “Thriller” album produced six No. 1 songs, sold 40 million copies, earned seven American music awards, eight Grammy awards and stayed on the charts for more than three years!

In addition in 1983, Jackson was credited for SINGLEHANDEDLY reviving the music industry! Think about it. Even if no other artist had released any album that year, Michael Jackson alone would have revived an industry which up until that time was in an economic funk! Such a record is phenomenal. No one, not even The Beatles accomplished such a feat.

It was because of Michael Jackson that MTV, which up until this time catered to a predominantly 18- to 30-year old White audience, slowly but surely began to give considerable airtime to Black artists like Prince, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston and others. By the early 1990s, MTV was playing Black artists with frantic frequency, even going so far as to have a daily show entitled MTV Raps. Most of us have heard the story of how MTV was initially resistant to playing Jackson’s videos but relented due to pressure from Walter Yetnikoff, then-president of CBS records who threatened to pull all of his artists from the music channel if they refused to comply with his demand. Whether such a narrative is valid or the stuff of urban legend, no one can dispute the fact that such a decision was a wise and lucrative one, both financially and globally for MTV.

In my opinion “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” and needless to say “Thriller,” were among the most innovative videos ever aired. Jackson’s famous moonwalk and phenomenal dancing prowess alone prompted mid-20th century dancing legend Fred Astaire to praise Jackson for his hoofing abilities. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, such racial inclusion and transformation of a White dominated industry was largely due to Michael Jackson.

Unfortunately, rather than focuses on such positive accomplishments such as his donating millions of dollars to various charities and altruistic efforts, there are those – mostly detractors – who seem more content to ruminate on what they see as the negative aspects of Jackson’s life. These are the playa haters who take perverse comfort in espousing everything that was suspect or controversial about Jackson. Examples of such retrograde allegations were:

– he was a self-hating Black man
– he was probably a pedophile
– he was a drug addict
– his marriages were a sham
– he was financially broke
and the list goes on and on.

For the record, to paraphrase USA TODAY columnist De Wayne Wickham, unlike many Black entertainers (and some White ones for that matter) who are very influential and have substantial multiracial followings, Jackson did not hesitate to confront the issue of race. This was evident in such songs as “Black or White” and “Heal the World.” This is stark contrast to many of his supposedly “pro super Black” critics who have no problem doing a number on Whites in private, but whose militant, rhetorically racially conscious backbones become spineless marshmallows when in the presence of certain Whites. The same can be said for many of Jackson’s White and other non-Black critics who would often turn a blind eye or even wink at the deviant, in some cases, pathological behavior of celebrities of their own ethnic group, but had no problems in denouncing Jackson as some “freak of nature.”

While Jackson did settle out of court a lawsuit alleging (I stress the word allege) child molestation, he did not admit to guilt. In his 2005 trial, he was acquitted of all charges by an all-White jury. Despite recent news accounts, all throughout his illustrious career, there was no hard evidence that Michael Jackson was a habitual user of drugs. In fact, it was because of his image as a drug free celebrity (which was almost an oxymoron in Hollywood during the 1980s and mid-1990s) that he was invited to the White House in 1984 by then-president Ronald Reagan to receive an award and to serve as a spokesperson for former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” to drugs campaign.

There were others who argued that in spite of his immense talents, his love life was non-existent and fraudulent as was evident in his divorces. It was very peculiar that such “know it alls” supposedly seemed to know more about the intimate details of Jackson’s private life than he did. Moreover, given a nation where the divorce rate is more than 50 percent (among Hollywood celebrities the percentage is much higher) Jackson was hardly an aberration. In fact, he was pretty consistent.

We were constantly induced with stories of financial incompetence and constant rumors of Jackson bordering on the brink of bankruptcy. Such stories became so commonplace that his accountants eventually decided to release press statements refuting such intense rumors. His purchase of the Beatles Catalog in the mid-1980s coupled with his merger with Sony music a few years ago no doubt nullified any debt he had. The amount that many fans all over the world ( I was one) spent purchasing CDs, videos, magazines and other Jackson merchandise over the past few weeks probably took care of any lingering “supposedly financial troubles” he had.

Could Michael Jackson have handled some of his public relations better than he did? Certainly. I do not think too many people would argue about this. To be sure, like a number of people, Michael Jackson was eccentric. However, being non-conformist is not a crime nor does it mean that he was all the retrograde things that many of his opponents made him out to be. Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Michael Jackson was one of the most talented entertainers the world has ever seen and it will be a long time, perhaps never, that we may see the likes of him again. As the Rev. Al Sharpton said a few weeks ago at his memorial “Thank you, Michael.” I say rest in peace brother Jackson.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

 

 

 

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Racial Intolerance, Historical Streotypes and Paranoia on the Rerun

Racial Intolerance, Historical Stereotypes and Paranoia on the Rerunelwoodwatson

While many Americans of all races celebrated the election of our first Black president, there were others who did not. These are the men and women who have been seething in resentment and rage at the fact that a person of non-Eurocentric origin is occupying the most powerful political office in the world. Such hostility is evident. According to the latest statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 926 hate groups were active in the United States. This was a 4 percent increase over 2007. Moreover, it is a 50 percent increase since 2000. Examples of such intolerance range from anti-Obama rallies where so-called “true and proud” Americans have shouted hate-filled comments such as “kill the nigger” to anti-Obama rallies where supposedly Christian men and women have screamed at the top of their lungs holding posters with language stating “Obama is a socialist” or “Obama is the anti-Christ.” The hatred has been searing. More important, they are often rooted in long-held historical stereotypes.

While a number of social and cultural issues have been at the forefront of American debate, the fact is that Americans have always had a preoccupation and fascination with race — from the days of slavery to the practice of social Darwinism in the late 1890s to popular authors that era like Rudyard Kipling and Madison Grant who argued of the superiority of Whites and the inferiority of non-Whites. The nation witnessed a dramatic racial spectacle when the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s busted the seams of a largely, rigid, segregated American society. The fact is that all ethnic groups have had stereotypes ascribed to them. White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs ) have been seen as stuffy and pretentious, Hispanics and Italians as hot tempered, Asians as aloof and bookish, Blacks as childlike and oversexed, Jews as neurotic and shrewd. Of course, many people are aware that these are historical stereotypes and nothing more, but many others, even today in the 21st century, subscribe to such deeply held retrograde notions.

The often insulated world of the academy has not been immune from such myopic intolerance. Despite the fact that academia has long been known as a haven of racial inclusion and tolerance (to a degree this is true, although much of it has been rhetorical trendiness and faux liberalism as opposed to radical, genuine progressive behavior), the specter of racism has been prevalent. This has particularly been the case over the past decade. In the 1990s, books by authors such as Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza caused much controversy for their supposed assumptions on intellectual, racial and cultural differences.

Some academics from respected institutions have argued that Whites have superior brains for their body size, that lower Black and Hispanic intelligence is the cause of higher crime rates in these communities, that integrated schools demand an “academically deficient curriculum” that frustrates White students and so on. The fact is that most legitimate research has demonstrated that crucial environmental factors – love, discipline, stability, motivation — are often the decisive factors that determine how well most individuals perform. Race is irrelevant.

Without question, there are millions more Barack Obamas, Cornel Wests, Hillary Clintons and Toni Morrisons languishing about, and their predicament has nothing to due with their racial orientation. Lack of economic opportunity, low morale, mediocre teachers, out-of-date textbooks and other factors are the problems. This is where these academics and other so-called “experts” need to focus their criticisms as opposed to engaging in inaccurate, paranoid falsehoods arguing racial dysfunction.

Racial paranoia and stereotypes, whether it be promoted by politicians, private citizens, academics or others, must be challenged aggressively. The lessons of Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and others should remind us of what such potentially ominous rhetoric can lead to. Our increasingly diverse, pluralistic nation can ill afford such polarizing discourse.

 

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008).

Michelle Obama: One Classy, Resilient, Intelligent First Lady

By Elwood Watson

elwoodwatsonFrom the moment her husband became a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, Michelle Obama has been a perennial figure in the media spotlight. With this level of exposure has also come a significant amount of controversy. Unlike previous first ladies such as Rosalyn Carter, the late former first lady, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, Pat Nixon and others, Mrs. Obama seems to evoke rabid passion among her supporters and detractors alike. There is no middle ground or indifference in their feelings toward her. Her proponents see her as intelligent, classy, elegant, no-nonsense, charismatic and socially conscious. Her opponents denounce her as being arrogant, aloof, unpatriotic, and racially bigoted and harboring a socialist agenda.

For her critics, the already high level of suspicion toward both Obamas reached a fever pitch in the 2008 presidential campaign when the then-future first lady stated first_lady_michelle_obama_official_portrait_2009-redthat for the first time in her adult life she was really proud of America. While many reasonable and rational people totally understood what she meant (even Laura Bush later in the same year in an interview stated that she did) and were well aware of the fact that there was not one hint of unpatriotic rhetoric in her comments, the political right led by Cindy McCain and company wasted no time in perversely exploiting a sincere statement, misconstruing it to imply that Mrs. Obama was an anti-American who harbored Black nationalist sentiments.

Sensing a possible campaign issue, the Republican right seized on Mrs. Obama making her the target of vicious assaults. She was accused of hating Whites and using the term “whitey” on tape. Terms such as “baby mama,” “angry Black woman,” “jezebel,” “Black Lady Macbeth,” “Ms. Grievance,” “bitch” (in many cases preceded by the word Black), “uppity” and other derogatory and disrespectful labels were ascribed to her. In fact, on some far right wing websites, the language used to describe both her and her husband was so inflammatory and intolerant that some website moderators decided to shut down for a few days to reissue stricter guidelines for bloggers. I could not even repeat such incendiary rhetoric here.

Not content enough to just take a quote grossly out of context, the anti-Michelle crowd posted copies of her Princeton undergraduate thesis on anti-Obama websites in an effort to demonstrate that she was obsessed with being Black, attacked her University of Chicago administrative job as a “diversity position,” spread false rumors that she only wanted Black and other non-whites at campaign rallies, that she was on tape yelling anti-American statements and other such nonsense. A couple of talk show hosts referred to Michelle Obama by invoking the term “lynching party.” YES INDEED! THINGS WERE GETTING UGLY! The McCain campaign fall rallies demonstrated the vile, seething anti-Obama paranoia and hatred that was evident. But that’s another story that has been effectively covered.

In regards to the tapes, the interesting thing is that none of them ever surfaced. This is probably due to the fact that no such tapes ever existed. The Republican architects of such sinister schemes were well aware of this; however, they knew that it was not necessary for them to produce any concrete evidence. For their jingoistic, wild-eyed, racist, sexist, xenophobic right-winged supporters, just the thought of such images was enough to whip them into an anti-Michelle Obama frenzy.

Some people argue that there have been other first ladies like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan who have undergone critical and hostile scrutiny. While true, neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mrs. Reagan were subjected to acerbic racial overtones. They were criticized for certain excesses, but never were the attacks, especially in the case of Nancy Reagan, so racially charged or personal. Race has undoubtedly been a factor in such treatment. However, like many strong, radiant and viable Black women before her, Mrs. Obama has managed to admirably shrug off such criticism and resentment and focus on the goals that are important to her, such as speaking to young girls in elementary and middle schools and meeting with military families.

More recently, the current first lady has charmed the world demonstrated with her impeccable fashion sense. She warmly embraced Queen Elizabeth (the queen reciprocated). She demonstrated that she is just as elegant as any European leader’s wife and endeared herself into the minds and hearts of millions of people all over the world. In fact, many people have compared her to a previous first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

Whether this deep admiration for her will last remains to be seen. Nonetheless, for the present moment, it seems that many individuals see her diverse, flexible, sincere personality as one that is refreshing to them. Recently, even her most strident, bigoted critics, a number of whom would rather have her cleaning their houses as opposed to living in the White House, have been unable to demonize her. One thing is probably for certain and that is Michelle Obama will remain true to herself and to her constituencies. She is indeed one classy, resilient, intelligent first lady.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

 

 

 

Hiding Behind Racism

By Elwood Watson

A few weeks ago, I was part of a campus panel discussion that discussed the N-Word, racism and post-racism. I was invited to speak by Bakari Kitwana, author and CEO elwood-watson1of Rap Sessions. Other panelists included Rosa Clemente, 2008 vice presidential nominee of the Green Party; MC Serch, host of VH-1 Shows, “The White Rapper Show” and “Miss Rap Supreme,” M-1 , of the rap group Dead Prez; and Lisa Fager Bediako, president and co-founder of Industry Ears, Inc. I was contacted by Mr. Kitwana to be a panel member. I was honored to receive an invitation to be a part of such a well-known, prominent panel.

Attendance at the event was large, and the question-and-answer session was lively and fruitful. The issue of racism and its manifestations dominated the discussion and seemed to intrigue the audience the most. There were a number of thought-provoking questions from audience members; however, one question that stood out among the others (or at least for me) was “do you think some people make an effort to hide behind their racism?” Each member of the panel responded to this question from their own perspective. I responded yes.

I further argued that unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when it was acceptable, indeed even permissible for Whites, especially White men, to openly voice their racism and sexism toward non-Whites and women without fear of retribution, that several decades later, while such views are still largely harbored by many people, we have advanced to the point of where it is totally unacceptable to publicly engage in overt acts of racial intolerance. I mentioned the Michael Richards (aka Kramer ofSeinfeld” fame) nightclub incident that happened a few years ago as an example. A number (certainly not all) of  people who were repulsed by the fact that Richards would use such ugly, ferocious language in public would have no problem engaging in such behavior in private among likeminded friends and acquaintances. The “I am among friends, it is safe” mindset reigns in such an environment. It is hypocrisy at its finest.

Indeed, over the past few decades we have seen a number of situations where many people, rather than hurl vicious, ugly callous racial rhetoric in the public arena, have resorted to hiding behind their racial hatred in more sophisticated and subtle ways. Among them, the infamous Willie Horton ad that was used during the 1988 presidential campaign by Republican party operatives, the recent New York Post editorial cartoon depicting President Barack Obama as a murdered chimpanzee (the cartoonist denied racial intentions), and the racist e-mail of former Los Alamos, Calif., Mayor Dean Grose who depicted a White House lawn populated with watermelons (the mayor subsequently resigned after public outrage). There are numerous other examples of such deplorable behavior. These are not isolated incidents.

What is even more amusing (in a perverse way) is that more than often when the culprits of such behavior are caught with their hands in the racist cookie jar, they are quick to revert to defensive mode, blaming those who denounce their behavior as being “oversensitive,” “humorless” and get this – troublemakers who should learn to thicken up their tender feelings. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Such behavior is an example of sophisticated racism manifesting itself.

The good news that has come from this is that those individuals who have found it acceptable to participate in such retrograde behavior have been put on notice that in our emerging, increasingly diverse America, such behavior will not be allowed to be winked at or given a pass. Those who partake in such acts will be called out on it and that’s the truth, Ruth!

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

Has The SAT Test Undergone A Backlash?

 By Elwood Watson

           

    There is a good chance that if you were a high school junior or senior applying to a four-year college or university you’ve seen a question like the following. “Select the lettered pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair:

 

BOW:VIOLIN

(A)   music:piano

(B)   brass:trumpet

(C)   drumstick:drum

(D)   string:guitar

(E)    note:flute

 

    The correct answer is C. From its conception 86 years ago in 1926, the scholastic aptitude test (more commonly known as the SAT) has been administered to thousands of high school students who have dreams of being selected to attend the college or university of their choice. Over the past few years, the SAT has undergone some significant changes. For one, in 2005, the analogy portion like the aforementioned question example was replaced with longer reading comprehension passages and a writing section. The perfect score that a student could obtain changed from 1600 to 2400. 

 

  The test has had a virtual stranglehold on parents, teachers and students. A large number of teachers gear their subject matter toward the test. Parents reach deep into their pockets to shell out as much as thousands of dollars for prep coaches, software and other assorted materials in an effort to help their children secure those high scores that are often the gateway for admission to many of our nation’s elite institutions. Many students have measured their intelligence by the test. For others, it has been a crucial portion of their self-worth. 

 

      Some teachers and guidance counselors view students with high SAT scores but with a mediocre grade point average as “lazy” or an” underachiever.” On the contrary, a student with low SAT scores and a high GPA is seen as “hardworking” or an “overachiever.” Rarely, does anyone rationalize the fact that such students are either good or poor test takers. Personally, I believe a major reason many students are entering college unable to write coherent paragraphs, let alone quality good papers and requiring remedial courses to master material that they should have learned in high school is these tests. The fact is too many high school teachers and administrators are spending too much misplaced energy on teaching to a largely problematic test as opposed to having students reading literature, writing essays and analyzing various critical works. To be blunt, the SAT has eclipsed the high school curriculum that high school students are supposed to learn.

      From time to time, the SAT has found itself at the center of controversy in many secondary and higher education institutions. Just last month, a blue ribbon panel of experts on higher education recently asked a number of colleges to reconsider or possibly end their SAT admissions mandates. The panel came to the conclusion that SAT scores are often a less than accurate predictor of college performance. They also reiterated the well-known fact that studies have shown that many lower income and students of color are often at a financial and cultural disadvantage when taking the test.   

            There are a number of higher education institutions that have decided to forego the “SAT as gospel” message. Rather, such schools have undertaken a variety of factors in an effort to assemble a well-qualified and diverse student body. High school curriculum, leadership, community activism, personal life histories and moral character are just a few. According to Jesse Mermell, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Boston-based advocacy group, more than 40 institutions have dropped admissions tests since 2004. Among these schools are highly selective ones such as Smith College in Northampton, Mass. and Wake Forest University in N.C.     

         While there have been a few statistics over the years proving that the SAT can distinguish strong students from weaker ones, recent evidence and the emerging findings from NACAC have proven that Scholastic Aptitude Test measures one thing – a student’s ability at taking the test. It does not measure characteristics such as intelligence, creativity, motivation and perseverance. These are the qualities that a student must possess a certain amount of if he or she intends to successfully earn a bachelor’s degree. It is good to see that many parties – high schools, admissions offices and others — are working together to create an  admissions process that encompasses a holistic manner of selecting students for college as opposed to relying either primarily or disproportionately on standardized tests like the SAT that fail to measure crucial elements of a person. This is particularly true in the case of students of color.     

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Inspiration For Us All

By Elwood Watson

 

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine about the acceptance speech that Barack Obama delivered in Denver. We both watched the speech at different locations and commented on how Obama’s was so inspiring, emotive, sincere and downright “on the money in his message!

 

I am a generation X Black professional and he is a Generation Y professional. We are both college professors. According to those who examine birth groups, generation X encompasses those of us who were born between 1965 to 1977. Generation Y accounts for those of who were born between 1978 to 1992. At 29 years and 41 years old respectively, we are both on the upper end of our generations.

This fact aside, we both had a very emotional conversation (a positive one) on what we had witnessed. Both of us were overjoyed at the fact that an attractive, intelligent, community-conscious Black man had secured the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States of America. Despite the fact that we both believed that we would probably see a Black person nominated for president, we thought that we would be much older when such an event would happen.  The fact that it happened while we are relatively young people was even more gratifying.

            Needless to say, such glee transformed itself across generational lines. My older siblings, all baby boomers, were elated at the prospect of a Black president. I saw a number of television programs were Black people of all ages from 15 to 92 were being  interviewed, some with tears running down their faces, many expressing their undiluted joy that something that they thought would never happen in their lifetimes. In fact, one of the most unprecedented and inspiring moments I witnessed at the Democratic Convention was when I saw Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi officially state “I declare Senator Barack Obama of Illinois the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.” Upon hearing this, several Black delegates, mostly elderly ones, but of varied ages broke into tears. So did I.

            While the fact that a Black man has received the endorsement of a major party, there are still some Black Americans ranging from talk show hosts, to professors, to maintenance workers to retired people who are concerned (not without total rationales) as to whether an Obama presidency will actually be a double edge sword for the Black community. Many of the individuals casted their ballots for Obama with the hope that his presidency would help bridge the nation’s racial divide are also concerned that his victory will prompt many White Americans (and perhaps some Blacks) to adopt a “well, we a have a Black man as president, we have obviously overcome” sort of mindset. This conversation is of real concern from barber and beauty shops to soul food restaurants and from academic conferences to houses of worship. The fear for some is that the problems of the Black poor and underclass will be relegated “to the wilderness” so to speak.   

            While it is clear that an Obama presidency will not change the problems that are facing a large segment of the Black community overnight, or a period of time for that matter, I am more optimistic about the fact that a biracial man who has risen from humble beginnings, was temporarily the product of a single mother who had to sporadically apply for food stamps, was largely raised by his White grandparents, decided to forego a lucrative law firm position, but rather immersed himself into the grunting and largely thankless, tedious, and at times stress-filled  job of a being a community organizer will certainly remind, indeed demand, that White America as well as Americans of all races be attuned to the fact that the problems of Black, White, Latino, poor and the economically disadvantaged of all races are real and will not be forsaken. Perhaps that is the optimist in me, but it is exactly the sort of optimistic spirit in many Black Americans that inspired a large number of us to cast our primary ballots for him. I have no doubt that the majority of us will do the same this coming November. Whether he wins or loses the presidency, there is no doubt that Barack Obama is a Black person who can serve as an inspiration for us all.         

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

 

 

 

 

 

 

              

           

 

 

 

 

Affirmative Action is Still Relevant and Needed

           

 

By Elwood Watson

       A few weeks ago, the anti-affirmative action ballot measure in Arizona that was supported by Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Black conservative opportunist and hypocrite Ward Connerly failed to garner enough support to be placed on the ballot. Earlier this year, a similar referendum in Oklahoma faced a similar fate. I must admit that I was surprised, yet, gratified to see voters of the traditionally conservative states reject these disingenuous initiatives that were put forth by Connerly and his merry little band of dishonest distorters. 

         After all, there have been more than a few individuals in the Republican Party who have opposition to affirmative action, an unwritten plank of the GOP platform. What is often interesting is the fact many Republicans and others who oppose affirmative action argue is that what they want is a color-blind society. My response to this is that many of us across racial lines would like to see our nation and the world at large evolve into such a force; however, the sad reality is that we do not live in a society that resembles such a racial utopia by any standard of the imagination. While it is true that affirmative action has been instrumental in integrating many previous segregated institutions, White people have very little to be alarmed about in regards to such a policy.

In fact, many businesses and corporations have avidly adopted such inclusionary measures, realizing such a practice that makes good business sense. This was evident when many of these institutions banned together to rally in support for affirmative action which was partly upheld by the Supreme Court. Moreover, it should be well known by now that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action are White professional women.

        Because Blacks, non-European Latinos and many women, for the most part, have not achieved relative parity with White males, the rationale for such a program still exists. In addition, affirmative action should not be seen as an entity that rewards subpar and incompetent minorities. The vast majority of Blacks who have benefitted from affirmative action are qualified individuals who are fully competent to hold the positions they hold. This is not to say that there have not been some bad apples that were not quite ripe enough; however, they were certainly outnumbered by the juicy ones bursting with flavor. Think of all the White males who were are, in some cases, incompetent in their positions but nonetheless routinely received jobs (and in some cases promotions) due to the fact that they were part of the “good ol’boy” network and had the correct plumbing. Veteran status, children of legacies, geographical location are all forms of affirmative action as well.  

As a historian, I can attest to the fact that Whites have had ample opportunities due to affirmative action. The GI Bill is a classic case in point. This bill signed into law by the U.S. Congress after World War II made it possible for millions of White American men (and a number of Black men including my father ) of modest backgrounds to attend college and become part of the American mainstream.  This program produced an entire new generation of middle- and upper-class families. Men who grew up on farms or economically depressed urban areas in Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Delaware and so on were afforded the opportunity to attend colleges and universities that many would probably not have been able to attend and earned their Ph.D.’s, JD’s. MBA’s and MD’s. This was the most glaring example of affirmative action in this nation’s history. Ira Katznelson’s book When Affirmative Action Was White provides a fascinating, much understudied history of this topic.  

         White men comprise about 40 percent of the American population, yet they represent 85 percent of tenured college faculty positions, 86 percent of partners in law firms, 90 percent of mainstream news media personalities and 96 percent of CEO’s. Such percentages have not happened without accident. Such a situation reminds me of the response that the late former first lady Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson gave to reporters when a number of them inquired as to why her husband President Lyndon Johnson had a disproportionate number of non-Ivy League graduates in his cabinet and White House who held influential posts as opposed to the traditional Ivy-League graduates who often occupied and dominated such positions. To paraphrase Ms. Johnson, she said ‘because Lyndon and I refuse to believe that God gave out brains that unevenly.’ They were both correct. The same analogy applies to White men.

There are a sizable number of people (including some Black people) who argue that we need to refocus affirmative action in terms of class as opposed to race. While this idea is one that should be included to expand the policy, the fact is that the majority of discrimination that takes place in American society is racially based. Without affirmative action many institutions would not have desegregated and without consistent pressure would very well – no matter how politely or in no uncertain terms—close their doors to minorities and, in some cases, women.

The fact is that while we may be on the verge of electing our first Black president, the more pressing reality is that while America is a colorful society, it is far from being a color-blind society. As long as people continue to deny an individual access to something due to his or her race, gender or, in some cases, religion, then affirmative action will be a necessity. 

                       

 

Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)