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Why History Remains a Factor in the Search for Racial Equality Earl Lewis U The conversation began innocently enough. “So how do you think of yourself?” we asked. A light-skinned child of six, the product of an interracial marriage, she without hesitation responded, “I am black, African American.” “Why?” came the question from both parents’ mouths even before we realized the consequences or implications of what we had just asked. With a tone that suggested surprise at our need to ask, she pronounced, “If slavery still existed, I would be a slave.” The young girl whose sense of self could not be erased from the history of race in America was my six-year-old daughter Suzanne. Even at that tender age she knew enough about her country to comprehend that she could not live outside of history and its meanings in everyday interactions. As a nation and society we had created race, and she was a by-product of that history ; in and out of school she had been so educated. Unwittingly, she joined a long list of scholars in saying that race was an historically manufactured social construction and had a lingering effect on all. No matter how much she might have desired, she could not escape that history. This essay does more than retrace that history; it explores the link between past events and contemporary public policy. It begins with a review of the constitutional debates over access to education, especially higher education, culminating in the landmark 1978 Bakke decision. It brie›y reviews the imperatives for adopting af‹rmative action policies in the United States during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. It argues that federal of‹cials responded to real disparities in life choices and material conditions and that the policies adopted were rooted in the history of racial discrimination in the United States. To underscore this point, I rely almost exclusively on black-white comparisons, while acknowledging that af‹rmative action bene‹ted American Indians, Latinos and Latinas, Asian Americans in some instances, and white women. Rather than examine all sectors of society, the second half of the essay looks closely at diversity in higher education . I conclude with two essential points. First, policies designed to insure equitable access to opportunity produce a more civicminded citizenry, which was a key reason for the introduction of af‹rmative action. Second, the introduction of af‹rmative action cannot and should not be divorced from the particulars of a given society. In the American context, this meant that action by public and private institutions intended to both correct past inequities and produce societal gains. With the latter in mind, those same policymakers sought to take advantage of the diverse talents and skills that deserved to be nurtured, assuming that in doing so they served the larger goal of furthering the aims of the democratic society. That the debate over af‹rmative action roils one nation re›ects the United States’ continued encounter with its racial dilemma. That ethnic hostilities have surfaced in a number of world settings reminds us of the problem difference plays in all societies. Failure to acknowledge and address the dilemmas of ethnic integration could prove a vexing and enduring problem for the world in the twenty-‹rst century. Defending diversity 18 The Continued Encounter with the American Dilemma Nearly six decades ago Gunnar Myrdal, aided by the prodigious research skills of a team of social scientists, forced an intellectual and philosophical confrontation: He and his colleagues exposed the profound differences between the American ideal and the American reality. As a liberal democracy, the United States had long been hailed as a “shining city on a hill,” an example of the best in human potential, where, some claimed, caste, class, religion, gender, and race were social markers but not barriers to success and achievement. From the foothills of Appalachia through the dense thicket of ethnic urban enclaves, across the barren landscapes of the West, another narrative competed. It described an America where social markers limited the height of one’s accomplishments and narrowed the scope of one’s dreams. Myrdal’s effort to understand those two Americas culminated in the publication of An American Dilemma, which he subtitled The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.1 Race, Myrdal concluded after his research, played a signi‹cant role in America. That the study commenced during the Great Depression, when black unemployment rose substantially, underscored rather than distorted what minority status meant in a democratic...


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