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Have Americans Forgotten Who They Are?

We debate affirmative action, but the larger issue is civil rights-- affirming our basic values as a nation.

September 02, 1996|DEVAL PATRICK | Assistant Atty. Gen. Deval Patrick is head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. His remarks are adapted from an Aug. 22 speech to the National Assn. of Black Journalists

American ideals of equality, opportunity and fair play have been confounded over many decades by the politics and practices of division and exclusion.

Legions of racial and ethnic minorities and women feel less of a sense of opportunity, less assured of equality and less confident of fair treatment today than in many years. Society's collective thinking on the meaning of opportunity seems to begin and end with the topic of affirmative action--more a war of sound bites than a constructive and honest debate.

The specter of opinion polls and political agendas overshadows basic concepts of fair play and due process. The notion of equality is never even mentioned in public discourse today, as if avoiding the subject avoids the problem. Some openly question whether the civil rights movement has gone too far and behave as if the history of America is a history of discrimination against white men.

Many Americans, including many minorities, question whether integration was ever a valid goal. Indeed, race relations is the only major social ill today that we are seriously considering curing by denial, as if declaring ourselves colorblind in law will make us colorblind in fact.

But take a look at us. The unemployment rate for black males is still twice as high as for white males. Even college-educated black and Latino men and women of every race and ethnic background are paid less than comparably educated, comparably prepared white men. It's still harder for black folks and Latinos and in many cases for women to rent apartments, get mortgages, get hired or promoted.

Two-thirds of all African American children still attend segregated schools. And yet just three years ago, a cash-poor school district spent a million dollars to expand an all-white elementary school, rather than send white students to a predominately black school that was one-third empty and 800 yards down the street.

Black churches are on fire just like 30 years ago. A black 9-year-old in South Carolina was recently tied to a tree and terrorized by a white playmate and his parents. A 300-unit apartment building in Ohio refused ever to rent to African Americans. In Alabama recently, we caught a landlord racially coding his applications. A 6-foot cross was burned in front of a neighborhood auto repair shop in Florida because the white shop owner hired two black workers. Not far from there, a police department routinely threw applications from blacks in the trash. A 90% white congressional district drawn in four parts that don't even touch each other is OK in Texas. But a 55% black Texas district that sent Barbara Jordan to Congress is ruled too bizarrely drawn to be constitutional.

And it's not all black and white. A Louisiana corrections center required a minimum passing score on the written examination of 90 for men but 105 for women. In fact, when one woman scored 100 on the exam, she was disqualified in favor of a man who scored a 79, had an arrest record and no high school diploma. In California, when two young Latino couples earned the chance to move literally across the railroad tracks to a better neighborhood, a condominium manager told them there was no room because Latinos, in his view, were given to multiplying and he didn't want his building to become like the barrio they had come from.

I still get followed in department stores. I still get stopped if I'm driving a nice car in the wrong neighborhood. I still have trouble hailing a cab in most major cities. Now, perhaps these are nothing more than what I sometimes refer to as the indignities du jour. But they nag at my personhood every day even in my rarefied life.

Imagine what kind of effect these things have on the life and mind of a young African American or Latino man or woman who knows less about hope and faith than I do. They know like any of us that not everything wrong in their lives or in their communities is explained by race. But they also know that intolerance is with us, and in the midst of this come efforts to dismantle what national consensus we have on civil rights today and to divide us along racial and ethnic lines for political advantage or worse.

Affirmative action is equated with discrimination, as if there were no difference between cancer and cure. And the courts are on the brink of rationalizing justice right out of the law. Small wonder that people of perspective are wondering whether we have forgotten what we have dedicated ourselves to become in this country and are watching anxiously to see whether this country is about to make a giant lurch backward in its long struggle for equal opportunity and fundamental fairness.

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