Dahleen Glanton: Talking about social justice reform without affirmative action is just hot air

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If America really wants to bring about racial equality, we know exactly how to do it.

There is no need to form commissions to study solutions to generational poverty, poor access to quality education and dismal hiring and promotion policies that systematically keep many African Americans stuck at the bottom.

These racial disparities comprise the bulk of social injustices in this country. The best idea America ever had to address them was affirmative action.

Some people at the top didn’t like being forced to share, though. They didn’t want to give up the preferential treatment they received in every aspect of American life. So they fought as hard as they could to get rid of the only government program that could level the playing field.

Before I go further, I must add a side note. I was a beneficiary of affirmative action in the 1970s — and proud of it.

One thing I learned quickly on my journey was that affirmative action was merely a tool that opened the door to opportunity. It would do nothing to help me compete once I entered the room. When it came to doing the required work, I was entirely on my own to keep up with those who were already there.

When the time came to choose a college, I decided to follow the path of three of the top white students in my graduating class and apply to the University of Georgia. I’d worked hard to excel at Hogansville High, but I remained at a disadvantage.

The first eight years of my education were at the all-black elementary school, where I was taught from hand-me-down books discarded by white kids when their shipment of new, updated books came in. My GPA was excellent, but my SAT scores were average.

During this time, state-funded colleges and universities that previously admitted only whites had opened up to African Americans. Affirmation action was an effective recruiting and admissions tool, and the university used it to give me a shot.

I obtained my first job at the Asheville Citizen in North Carolina because of affirmative action too. The white managing editor, Robert Satterwhite, traveled to the University of Georgia specifically looking for an African American to hire as rookie reporter.

Having decided on a journalism career much later than others, I certainly wasn’t the most qualified person for the job. I didn’t even have a suitable portfolio to show. But Satterwhite hired me, and for three years, he and others groomed me to become a more seasoned journalist.

From the moment President John Kennedy issued his executive order in 1961 establishing the concept of affirmative action, it was perceived by some as a tool to give special treatment to African Americans.

But that was never the intent. The goal of the order, which pertained specifically to government contractors, was to give black people and other marginalized groups equal access to opportunities for employment.

It was a precursor to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which expanded legal protections to African Americans when it came to voting. It also tore down segregated barriers in schools, employment and public accommodations.

No one needs to be reminded of how hard some white Americans fought against civil rights. Over the next half-century, they would be just as determined to dismantle affirmative action. Though barely a remnant of the program remains today, court battles continue in an attempt to rid the country of any sign that it ever existed.

It is not surprising that some whites would misinterpret the attempt to give blacks a fair shot as a direct attack on them. The prevailing argument remains that affirmative action hurts white people because it snatches away opportunities they are entitled to by sheer privilege.

It presumes that I stole a slot from a more deserving white person at the University of Georgia and again at the Asheville Citizen. It does not allow for the reality that those slots never had a white person’s name on them to begin with. Even if they had, most white people would have lost out to other more privileged white people.

The truth is that people who opposed affirmative action didn’t believe black people deserved an equal opportunity. But mostly, they weren’t willing to share the pot.

That has been America’s history whenever it came to racial equality. Forty acres and a mule was nothing short of affirmative action. And it was taken away too.

The special field order by Union Gen. William T. Sherman to redistribute 400,000 acres of Confederate-owned land to former slaves was a radical move in 1865, but it was fair. African Americans, after all, had spent nearly 250 years sowing that land for free.

Sherman apparently understood that the only way people who had been enslaved for centuries could ever catch up and become contributing members of society was to give them a nudge.

The land, and later adding a mule to the mix, was in the best interest of America because blacks wouldn’t have to depend on the government to take care of them. They would have the resources to compete in a capitalistic society and become self-sufficient.

But America wouldn’t have it. As soon as the war was over, President Andrew Johnson overturned Sherman’s order and returned the land to the white owners who, in fact, had stolen much of it from Native Americans. This early experiment in affirmative action was over before it got off the ground.

Even without the 40 acres and a mule, black people thrived during the Reconstruction era. For 12 years after slavery was abolished, blacks owned businesses, elected representatives to Congress and made strides in all facets of life. When America had enough, it put Jim Crow laws in place to stop it.

Imagine, though, what America might be like today if it truly believed in fairness. Perhaps there would be no need for mass marches for social justice. Perhaps there would be no impoverished neighborhoods plagued with violence. Perhaps there would be no permanent underclass on which ruthless police officers could prey.

Maybe equal numbers of blacks and whites would be living cohesively in stately homes along Chicago’s Gold Coast and next door to each other in middle-class neighborhoods across the country.

Perhaps George Floyd would not have needed to pass a fake $20 bill because he would have had a good job and enough real money in the bank to buy as many cigarettes as he wanted.

President Kennedy and Gen. Sherman were on the right track. Reconstruction proved that African Americans, if given opportunities, are as capable of succeeding as any other race. Most black people aren’t sitting around looking for a handout. But we would gladly take a helping hand.

A few years ago, I reached out to Satterwhite, my former editor who is long retired, and asked him why he hired me without seeing a single news article with my byline on it. He said he just saw something in me back then, and decided that I deserved a chance.

As time went on, race played less and less of a role in my subsequent jobs because my rising level of experience allowed me to compete on my own merits. I no longer needed a hiring program to force me through the door. My resume opened it for me.

That’s what affirmative action is all about.



Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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