Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Affirmative action is vital to balance scales

By the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins
Guest essayist
Democrat and Chronicle

(July 18, 2007) — Two recent news items should cause us all to reflect on the continuing problem of racism in our society. The first was a column by Board of Contributors member Eric Bourgeois ("Need for affirmative action gone," June 18). The second was the opinion delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down so-called "race-based school integration plans."

Racism remains one of the most stubborn and troubling contexts in American society, and both the column and the Supreme Court ruling only exacerbate the problem.

In his column, Bourgeois unfortunately equates racism and discrimination. They are not the same. Webster's Dictionary defines racism as "the abuse of power by a racial group that is more powerful than another group and the abuse of that advantage. ..." Racism is not primarily about discrimination; it is primarily about power and the privilege that power takes for granted. The writer's citation of the census data that "75 percent of the country is white" is an example of the use of power and privilege to put others in their place. So is the use of the term "minorities" to label people.

In the majority Supreme Court opinion, the same kind of mistakes were made. Affirmative action programs remain necessary because we live in a society where power and access to power are not held equally. They are necessary not only to counteract discrimination but to provide for the larger social good. Simple "majority rule" has never been the primary goal of our society. Truly free and democratic societies seek diversity of opinion and experience at all levels of human interaction, and value fairness (which is not always the same as equality) and justice above all things.

As a person of European descent, I have learned — often the hard way — that my participation in the sin of racism is more about the privileged place in society that I take for granted than about my personal attitude toward people of another race. I have access to power (such as my sense of security and freedom) simply because of the color of my skin. Whether I like it or not, that is racism, and I am a beneficiary of it. Racism will exist, and affirmative action will be necessary to ensure fairness and justice, until folks like me accept that truth and begin to find ways to share or even give away power so that fundamental fairness may thrive among all of us who call this land our home.

Both Bourgeois and the majority on the Supreme Court want to believe that we can and should live in a colorblind society. We do not and cannot.

Hopkins is rector, Episcopal Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene in Rochester.

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