Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Affirmative Action Program

In the wake of events in Ferguson, I’ve had many discussions with folks about race and often come away saddened by the quick, self-satisfied judgments I hear white folks make. I’m not saying that everything coming from the African American community sounds entirely rational either, but I’m not immersed in their world, I’m immersed in mine, and it’s mostly white. I’ll speak to what I know. It’s an American history that for some reason, some of my peers never think to apply to their own success and comfort.

I’ll call this history, “My Affirmative Action Program.”

My grandfather Meyer grew up in a poor German-speaking farming family in northern Indiana in the early 20th Century. He went to school with his German heritage in tact. In fact, though all 12 of his siblings were born in America, they didn’t bother speaking English until they went to school – good schools by international standards at that time. As a young man he took that work ethic and education to the nearest small town, married my grandmother and got a job at the post office. It was a good gig for the 1920s.

I imagine the African American version of my grandfather. That man’s grandparents were slaves. His ancestor’s culture, religion, language were all beaten out of the generations that led up to him. And if he had a school, it likely wasn’t as good as the one-room schoolhouse my grandfather had. He too probably grew up in hard circumstances, but there was no post office job for him. Though he might have been a janitor at a post office making a fraction of what my white grandfather earned.

I once interviewed a local African American woman whose husband was the rarest of 1930s black men. He got a degree in chemistry at IU. After graduation he applied for a job at Eli Lilly. But he was told, “The only job we’ve got for you involves a broom and a mop.”

My grandfather wasn’t ambitious enough to get a degree at IU, but he qualified for a better job than his black IU peer. That IU chemistry grad never used his degree.

My grandfather learned that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded. What did the black IU grad learn? I’m guessing he didn’t learn the same lesson from his experiences that my grandfather learned from his. He might have learned a bitterness that white people couldn’t understand.

When my grandparents’ two sons went to school, my grandmother got a job as a secretary. They bought a house in the 1930s and built equity with each payment. As they approached retirement, they built a new house and paid cash.

My grandparents were good, hardworking people. There’s nothing in the rewards of their hard work to apologize for.

My grandparents’ sons went to good white schools in an all white small town and both my father and his brother then went to Purdue and got engineering degrees in the 1950s.

Jim Crow laws were still in affect. It didn’t just keep the black versions of my father and uncle from white lunch counters and front rows in the bus, it kept them segregated in poorly funded schools. Few made it to college. I wonder how many blacks were at Purdue getting engineering degrees in the 1950s. The degrees weren’t handed out like candy. My dad and my uncle, worked hard, they struggled, but they did it with an opportunity that was systematically kept from their black counterparts. Their black counterparts likely lived with a bitterness that white people couldn’t understand.

Yet, there is nothing about the college degrees that my dad or uncle need apologize for. 

In my little Indiana hometown in the 1960s and ‘70s I went to safe, nurturing schools. I was blessed. I was born white and middle class in 1960 in an all-white town, attended an all-white school, and learned along side kids whose families had not-so-different backgrounds from mine. I say "blessed" because these were places with the best resources, where the spoils of earlier generations were concentrated so that even if you were white, poor, and uneducated, there were radiating waves of economic activity that provided you with a good job. And because you were white, you and your children were welcome to climb a ladder not so easily available to those of the wrong color.

My dad’s engineering job put me in a big house on a nice street with virtually zero-crime. And there was enough money to send my mom to night school and summer classes. She got a teaching degree and eventually a teaching job.

Though I didn’t try very hard in high school, I still got into college. I wonder how many of my African American counterparts could say they day-dreamed their way through high school and still got into college in the 1970s. I grew up watching black people on TV behave with a bitterness I couldn’t understand.

As a young man my grandmother sent me money every Christmas – first $100, and eventually a $1,000 each year. I once bought a trip to Europe with that cash. Later I used the money to pay for the raising of children. I would eventually build a career for myself as a small-business person, working, literally, sometimes seven days a week, earning every single paycheck. I still do.

There’s nothing in my success to apologize for. But I had a leg up. Over and over again.

Fast-forward to the year I turned 40. After my grandmother died a check arrived in my mailbox for $60,000. The only thing I did to earn that was to have the right DNA. It was my cut of the estates of a frugal postal worker and secretary. I’m not sorry I got it. I’m proud of my family heritage. But I’m Christian-enough to wonder about my African American counterpart – the grandson of the man who couldn’t get a post office job in the 1920s because his skin was black – the son of a man who didn’t go to college in the 1950s like my dad did because his skin was black and his own dad didn't get the post office job – and so as a result, he’s the same guy who didn’t get annual Christmas checks and then a big one for $60,000 like I did.

I invested that money in my home and my kids’ college funds.

Two of my kids have graduated college – the youngest is still in college. They have no apologies to make for their opportunities. But are they encountering black peers who grew up with a bitterness that is hard for them to understand?

I’m gonna guess yes.

It’s over 100 years since my grandparents were born into a country where being white meant unlimited possibilities if you were wiling to work hard, and being born black meant 2nd class status and limited opportunities, no matter how hard you worked . . . and then you were judged deficient for all the things you didn't accomplish. The money my grandparents earned in their privileged position is still at play in the lives of their grandchildren and great grandchildren – giving us an affirmative action program that wasn't available to everybody.

To this very day, research shows that black students are more likely to be expelled than white children for the same infractions. Reviews of arrests and sentencing records show the exact same disparity in our criminal justice system. Current research also shows that blacks who apply for jobs, home loans, and apartments are more likely to be rejected than their white counterparts with equal education and employment records. My black friends tell me, “If you think racism isn’t alive and well in America, you’re a fool.” It is a common feature of their lives. But it’s not out in the open anymore, it’s gone underground.

I’m not asking for any new law nor a new government program to fix this disparity. I’m simply asking my peers to stop callously judging struggling African American communities with questions like, “What’s wrong with those people?” or, “Why are so many of them in jail?” or “Why are they so angry? You can get ahead if you’ll just work hard and act right.”

I want my peers to think about their own family history and acknowledge the privileged shoulders of those they stood on to grab the success they found in life. I want them to be a little less self-satisfied and certain in the superiority of their own effort and a little more empathetic of those who’ve had less opportunity. If you don't know what I'm talking about, consult the Bible.

I don’t want my peers to apologize for their success or their peaceful, safe communities. I simply want them to broaden their view and acknowledge the obvious truths of American history and the affirmative action program people like us had.

There “but for the grace of God” I went, lucky that my grandparents were born white in early 20th Century America rather than black.

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