Commentary: Affirmative action? Yes!
3/10/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn
NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photo of Bishop Melvin Talbert is available.
A UMNS Commentary By Bishop Melvin G. Talbert*
By Bishop Melvin G. Talbert*
The issue of affirmative action has caused much pain and
grief, especially within recent months. As human beings, how do we live
in relationship with one another in a manner that is equitable, fair and
In the gospel of Matthew 25:31-46 (as recorded in The
Message by Eugene Peterson), we are reminded of a final judgment that
awaits each of us. The Scripture suggests that the way we live our
lives in relationship with one another will be an indicator for what
that future judgment will be. The lessons and inspiration we draw from
the Scriptures encourage us to open our lives to the power and presence
of the Holy Spirit to be enabled to live faithfully in relationship to
God and to one another.
The late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
raised the affirmative action issue amid the civil rights struggles of
the 1960s. He knew that the Jim Crow laws of segregation, the concept of
separate but equal, had to be changed. Separate but equal was a farce.
It was never intended to be a reality. Inequities between the races
existed from the beginning and continued for hundreds of years. The gaps
or disparities grew wider and wider.
In his book Why We Can't
Wait, King wrote, " ... The nation must not only radically readjust its
attitude toward (African Americans) in the compelling present, but must
incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the
handicaps (African Americans have) inherited from the past. It is
impossible to create a formula for the future, which does not take into
account that our society has done something special against (African
Americans) for hundreds of years. How then can (African Americans) be
absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something
special for (them) now, in order to balance the equation and equip
(them) to compete on a just and equal basis?
"Whenever this issue
of compensatory or preferential treatment for (African Americans) is
raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. (African Americans) should
be granted equality, they agree; but (they) should ask nothing more. On
the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it
is obvious that if a (person) entered at the starting line in a race
three hundred years after another (person), the (latter) would have to
perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow
King's comments have relevance for us in the 21st
century. Despite the many changes we have seen and the progress made,
there is still the lingering question of inequity. Will this nation
"incorporate into its planning some compensatory consideration for the
handicaps African Americans have inherited from the past"?
the Lyndon Johnson administration and continuing into the late 1980s,
society made great strides to embrace and implement the concept of
affirmative action. We began seeing faces of African Americans, other
persons of color and white women in positions of leadership in new
places - corporate offices, media, public accommodations, educational
institutions, public transportation, department stores and churches.
It's because of affirmative action in our church that people of color
and white women were granted the privilege of demonstrating their skills
as leaders at various levels: conference staff, district
superintendents, staff of churchwide agencies, bishops and so on.
course, there were critics from the beginning who cried reverse
discrimination. Those critics continue today. With the tilt of the
political tide in the United States to conservatism, political leaders -
including those in Congress and the White House - are determined to
overturn every gain made to embrace affirmative action for people of
color and white women. The argument used is that special privilege for
some people is reverse discrimination.
Let me hasten to remind us
that there is no protest against subsidy for farmers; a Marshall Plan
that helped countries in Europe rebuild after World War II; a G.I. Bill
for veterans to enable them to receive their educational training in
trade schools, colleges and universities. In fact, this country is quite
aware of and endorses special privileges for family members of
graduates of Ivy League schools. Is there any question that President
George W. Bush received a special privilege when he was granted entrance
into an Ivy League school with a "C" average?
From where I see
it, "white privilege" is granted without any question. In fact, it is
expected and assumed. So even the president of the United States of
America chose the week leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend
to launch an assault against affirmative action with a case in Michigan.
How insensitive can he be? How insulting can he be? To top it off, he
attended an African-American church worship service and commented from
the pulpit: "There are still people in our society who hurt. There is
still prejudice holding people back. There is still a school system that
doesn't elevate every child so they can learn. There is still a need
for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King, to make sure the hope of
America extends its reach into every neighborhood across this land."
Mr. President, I ask you to be the first to hear the words of Dr. King,
who said that compensatory and preferential treatment are needed for
African Americans, and others, to experience the hope of America in
their lives in this country.
Mr. President, it is not fair for
you to make promises of hope on one hand, and perform acts of insult and
utter disdain for African Americans on the other. Your frontal assault
on affirmative action is not fair; it is not just. African Americans
know what you are against when it comes to their hopes for the future.
But what they want to know is what are you for that will enable them to
overcome the handicaps of slavery for hundreds of years. They want to
know what you will do for them that will close the gap between white
Americans who are still receiving the benefits of slavery through "white
African Americans will never overcome the inequities
of the past unless they have special privileges that help them catch up
with their white counterparts. I'm not talking about handouts. I'm
talking about "hand ups." What might those look like?
granting African Americans compensatory and preferential treatment
through education? This could be through a form of reparations for the
next 50 years to ensure that every African-American child would be
assured quality education as compensation for the past injustices
endured by our ancestors in slavery and through other forms of race
What about African Americans, and others, being
granted special treatment to ensure they will be considered for
employment in all sectors of society? Without intentional efforts or
goals, African Americans, other people of color and white women will not
be hired in many sectors of our society.
Race and gender
discrimination is a reality in hiring practices today. I contend that
the only way forward is for all sectors of society to be required to set
intentional goals in their hiring practices. The employment pools of
all sectors of society should reflect the ratio of citizens living in
the surrounding community or the constituency served.
action is not reverse discrimination. It is an intentional effort to
ensure that African Americans, other persons of color and white women
have the chance to receive all the benefits of society: education,
employment, housing and the opportunity to pursue the American dream.
all desire a final judgment that is equitable and fair. Such a judgment
is assured if we focus our energies on doing the right thing for the
"overlooked or ignored" among us.
It is my prayer that
compensatory and preferential treatment for African Americans, women and
other persons of color, is given priority consideration as we pursue
the beloved community in this nation envisioned by Dr. King and by Jesus
Affirmative action? A resounding YES!
# # #
is ecumenical officer for the Council of Bishops of the United
Methodist Church and is peace advocate. This commentary is edited from a
speech given at United Methodist Communications during Black History
Month. Information on the United Methodist Church's official support of
affirmative action can be found in the 2000 Book of Resolutions, pages
Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service
do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the
United Methodist Church.
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