We too sing America. The struggle for African American equality, from slavery to today

Returning this fall to the campus where he became a professor, Walter R. Allen led a mainly student audience at the University of Michigan’s School of Education through the history of the African American struggle against segregation and racism. He said that he hoped this approach would help many of them better understand the historical context in which this November’s ballot drive by the right wing to overturn affirmative action in Michigan is taking place.

At the outset of his lecture “We Too Sing ‘America’: Race, Citizenship and Higher Education Opportunity,” the professor of sociology at UCLA said he took his title from Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too” because, like Hughes, he was examining “the status of people of African descent seeking a place at the table in American institutions.”

The law school and undergraduate school of the University of Michigan were sued in two cases (Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, respectively) that reached the Supreme Court. Both cases were brought in the name of white female applicants who accused the university of discriminating against them because they were white.

Allen said that the court’s decisions “weakly upheld” the right of the university to consider race in admissions on the ground that a diverse student body meets national objectives, especially those of business and military institutions. The high court “briefly quieted the storm but did not end debates about fairness issues.”

Those fairness issues persist, Allen said, especially the “gap in socioeconomic status” that reflects the history of slavery, segregation and systematic oppression of Americans of African descent.

The dream deferred

A key part of the American Dream, he said, is that “education opens doors to success for those who use their talents and work hard. Talent is often associated with education, so education is vital to achieving that dream.”

But another, “decidedly negative” idea plagues America, Allen said, and “at its core is the belief that whites are innately superior to Blacks and to other non-whites as well. This is woven into the fabric of this society. Racial exploitation, conquest and domination have enriched the country and left marks on every institution in American society.

“Racism has shaped — or better to say it has warped — all institutions in our society,” he continued. “Americans of African descent were long denied the American Dream. They were forbidden to learn to read or write or to practice such if they knew how to do them. At the same time, Blacks were labeled as ignorant, deficient and unmotivated.”

Despite the opposition of racists and burden of systematic racism, “Blacks struggled for access and success in education as they did in other American institutions,” Allen said, “and they made some advances while also occasionally experiencing effective ugly white backlash.”

Instruments of racism

The Supreme Court itself has been an instrument of such backlash, he said, most notably during the slavery era “in the 1857 Dred Scott [Scott v. Sandford] decision that ruled that U.S. law and tradition rendered African Americans as ‘a subordinate and inferior class of beings’ who had ‘no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’”

The Civil War’s demolition of slavery marked an advance for Blacks, but this progress “was blunted by racial codes — the so-called Jim Crow segregationist laws — that the Supreme Court validated in Plessy v. Ferguson. In that 1896 case the high court endorsed the doctrine of ‘separate but equal.’ The country’s highest court thereby approved the construction of a racial apartheid system.”

And that apartheid system lasted 60 years, until 1954, when the Supreme Court overturned it in the Brown v. Board of Education case, which held that “separatist facilities were inherently inferior.”

Many American institutions and citizens resisted the Brown ruling, especially in the Deep South. President Eisenhower mobilized federal troops to defend those who acted upon the desegregation ruling, Allen said, “but even so, progress toward equal educational opportunities in kindergarten through 12th grade and in higher education was excruciatingly slow.”

Civil rights movement creates change

The wide-ranging modern civil rights movement of the 1940s-60s, led by Blacks but also waged by people of all nationalities, coupled with spontaneous violent unrest in one city after another, drew the attention not only of this nation but also of the whole world. “People everywhere wondered what would the country that called itself the leader of the Free World do,” Allen recalled.

The Lyndon Johnson administration responded with a patchwork of relatively weak equal opportunity programs based on the 14th Amendment, which stated that the federal government could insure that citizens possessed full constitutional rights that no states could diminish.

Johnson also issued executive orders targeting Jim Crow segregation and other discriminatory practices that were legacies of slavery.

Allen summarized the two eras preceding the present one in the following way: From 1619 to 1865, slavery was the rule and, until 1865, was protected by the 1787 Constitution of the United States. Then, from 1865 to 1965, the country “legalized segregation and stripped citizens of African descent of human rights and dignity.”

After 1965, the country “tore down formal legal barriers” to equal citizenship for Blacks, but the dominant society “replaced these barriers with more subtle methods of durable structural inequality.” As a result, multitudes of Black Americans have experienced “generations of poverty, discrimination and injustice.”

The 1968 Kerner Report was an important national document that showed that the nation was becoming two societies, “one Black, one White — separate and unequal.”

President Johnson said that the report showed that the citizens whose ancestors had lived “unchained” had built up an unfair advantage over those whose ancestors had lived in bondage.

“Affirmative action recognizes the systemic nature of racism,” Allen said. He added that “other groups arrayed between whites and Blacks have benefited from affirmative action — such as white women, Asians, Latinos, the physically impaired and various sexual-preference groups.”

Affirmative action in the cross hairs

Opposition to this “widened tent” of people helped by affirmative action mounted, most virulently in California, one of the most diverse states and the one in which Allen teaches. Right-wingers there used an African American, Ward Connerly, as the front man in their successful campaign to roll back affirmative action in California, especially race-based affirmative action in higher education. And then they sent him to drum up opposition to affirmative action in Michigan, a traditionally progressive state now plagued by severe economic problems and job loss.

The central premise of the reactionaries was that affirmative action had completed its objectives of assisting Blacks and that continued affirmative action was “reverse-discrimination against guiltless whites,” Allen said.

“These are facetious and weak arguments. We know that affirmative action tore down barriers and changed the face of this country. Groups that were formerly shut out were more widely represented in American society than ever before.”

Nonetheless, amplified in the news media, warped by academic “studies” funded by right-wing foundations, and fueled by the fact that African Americans are “still targets of bigotry,” the seeds of anti-affirmative action propaganda bore fruit in California.

Resegregation and the rise of the Republican right

“Higher education is becoming resegregated” in California, Allen said, and he emphasized that the California campaign is a test case for what the right-wing hopes will be a national retrenchment “like that of the Reconstruction era that reversed many gains won by the Civil War.”

“Black and Latino and Latina enrollments have dropped on California’s prestigious campuses,” he reported. “The incoming class of 4,400 freshmen at UCLA includes only 100 Blacks, only 29 of whom are male.” Under affirmative action, Black enrollment was about three times higher

The “shift in the political context” — that is, the rise of right-wing Republicans — “affects the universities,” Allen said, “and an added factor is that public investment has been misplaced from higher education to prisons, a morally bankrupt transfer of funds. The money that could support 10 undergraduates at a premier campus, $44,000, maintains just one prisoner. But in the last decade or so, California has built 21 new prisons and expanded pre-existing ones while opening only three new campuses.

“Race and ethnicity still challenge our society. Will they be sources of strength or of division? California’s Black students now have lower rates of participation in our public universities than do Southern Black students in their states’ public universities. And Blacks in California show relatively high rates of morbidity and poverty and low levels of education.”

Equality basic to democracy

Despite all the facts showing the benefits of affirmative action not only to Blacks but to California society as a whole, a majority of California voters approved Proposition 209, which gutted affirmative action.

If Michigan voters fall for the same arguments against affirmative action, Allen predicted, “you will see an immediate and precipitous downturn of Blacks and Latinos on this campus, and the reactionary movement may sweep the country.”

Various ethnic groups can be placed in situations in which they feel they are in a contest for social advance, Allen said. Furthermore, downturns in the economy — like the decline in high tech and space industries in California or the drop in Michigan’s auto industry — can lead elites to seek groups “like the poor or Black or Latino or immigrants to serve as scapegoats” for potential discouraged elements in the majority community.

“What, then, is the ideology, the dream, that animates America?” Allen asked. Is it a commitment to fair play, justice and social mobility, or is it white supremacy and an inherently exploitative economic system — an inhumane system?

“Will it indulge the demons of degradation and domination, or will it try to make real the dream of progress and opportunity for all?”

“Colleges and universities are charged with helping win this struggle between America’s contradictory forces.”

Walter Allen is the Allan Murray Cartter chair of Higher Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also director of Choices: Access, Equity and Diversity in California Higher Education, a longitudinal study of the secondary and postsecondary educational opportunities and experiences of African American and Latino students in California. Professor Allen said statistics and research papers supporting his arguments may be read and downloaded from the web at www.choices.gseis.ucla.edu/.

Johnny Woods is a veteran journalist in Michigan.

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —

I, too, am America

— Langston Hughes