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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 just?

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 runner."

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"?

Throughout 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.

Of 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."

Well, 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 privilege."

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?

How about 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 discrimination.

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.

Affirmative 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.

We 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 Christ.

Affirmative action? A resounding YES!
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*Talbert 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 385-388.

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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