Nonfiction | December 01, 1999

It’s bad enough I’m a nigger, but I’ve got to be ugly, too!” Words overheard a few months ago on a Canarsie-bound L train in the New York City subway: the speaker a teenaged black girl, talking to three or four friends on their way home from school. The other girls laughed, as she did; her tone was not bitter or angry but communicated a rueful good humour, as though she were acknowledging a joke that life had played at her expense.

How had we come full circle, to the most deprecatory word anyone, including a black, could use to describe a dark-skinned person of African origin—a word that, more than any other, echoes the experience of slavery? I, a white person, had spent over twenty-five years working for black equality, first as a state and federal civil rights investigator and then as a writer and fund-raiser for a wide range of nationally known black nonprofit organizations. Had I—and the hundreds or thousands of whites like me who had taken the civil rights struggle as our own, as America’s most important unfinished domestic business—just been wasting our time? Even more unsettling to contemplate, had we been doing harm when we thought we were doing good?

I had grown up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Manhattan’s upper West Side, had at least one Negro kid in all my classes right through high school, had known Negro and Puerto Rican kids who played ball on our primarily Jewish block after school. I had had a black roommate and a black close friend in college, and prior to working in civil rights, I had been a counselor in treatment centers for mentally disturbed or predelinquent adolescents in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and Hamden, Connecticut, where many of the kids in residence were black. I had also worked as a child welfare case worker, supervising the placement of state wards, many of them black, in Connecticut foster homes and treatment institutions. I thought, in other words, that I was pretty knowledgeable about the way Connecticut blacks lived.

What I discovered when I began work as a state civil rights investigator in Connecticut in 1968 was a society that was almost as segregated by custom as the South had been segregated by law. In the arms and armaments industries that were among Connecticut’s principal employers, and in the other traditional industries that lined the Naugatuck Valley, black employees had been confined to jobs as janitors or to the lowest and dirtiest occupations as unskilled laborers. Their lines of employment and seniority were kept separate from the lines of white employees, and the unions did nothing to bridge that separation. Just the contrary: office and sales jobs were all but hermetically sealed against blacks.

Employment discrimination was complemented by housing discrimination that was, if anything, more absolutely rigid. A New Haven suburb, East Haven, only five minutes away by car and ten by city bus from a large concentration of blacks, had zero black residents. School boundaries were drawn in conformity with racially frozen residential patterns so that virtually all-black or all-white “neighborhood” elementary schools were the rule. Most local police and fire departments, including the state police, were hostile to employing any blacks at all and threw up barrier after barrier against hiring them. Employment testing exploded into massive use just as equal employment legislation went into effect. I came to understand that despite the civil rights revolution in the South and the sympathy it won for Southern blacks fighting legal segregation, in the North most blacks, although the pejorative word was rarely used, were still thought of and treated as “niggers.”

I also found a black community devastated by its experience of exclusion, hardly prepared to take advantage of the equality of treatment the new civil rights laws purported to guarantee. There were some blacks, frequently light-skinned and the scions of a black elite, who were ready to take immediate advantage of the opportunities opened by equal employment legislation. Some of them moved into government work to help enforce the new laws; others were snapped up by businesses with government contracts that needed to mollify investigators from the OFCC, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, which was beginning to apply some noncoercive but annoying pressure. Still others, perhaps the least qualified of black college graduates, got jobs as “equal employment officers” in personnel departments where they specialized in dealing with other minority employees, were listed as “executives” and yet had no line authority over white employees. There was, in any case, an extreme minority of blacks who were capable of competing on equal terms with whites for employment. The lifting of external barriers, to the extent that they were really lifted, did not make blacks, who had been excluded from such competition for generations, ready to compete.

A few unhappy experiences have stayed in my mind from those early days of civil rights enforcement. A young black couple was told that a house in a small town north of New Haven had already been rented. White friends of theirs called and were told the property was still available. The enforcement machinery worked perfectly: an injunction was issued within a couple of days, a court hearing was held within two weeks and the landlord was ordered to rent to the couple. Within six months, though, the couple had broken up, the man had moved away, and the woman was eventually evicted for nonpayment of rent.

A night watchman position in a warehouse was not given to a black applicant with previous guard experience. To settle the complaint, the employer agreed to hire him; within a month there was a spate of unauthorized absences and a couple of alleged instances, not contested by the employee, of his coming to work drunk. When he was discharged, another black was hired, and he, too, turned out to be unreliable and alcoholic. I don’t recall whether the employer was constrained to try a third time.

Much more bleakly revelatory than these isolated instances was a meeting I held, at one of their homes on a Sunday evening, with a group of seven or eight black employees of a Naugatuck Valley manufacturing firm. They had all worked for twenty years or more on an assembly line, producing a variety of mechanical home products that white salesmen sold and serviced. The whites were actually trained by the blacks to do the repairs. When a black asked about possible promotion to salesman, he was brushed off, threatened with discharge if he persisted in his request. The sales jobs were cleaner and paid much better, but the blacks were concerned that if they filed a complaint, they would lose the jobs they already had. These were middle-aged men who had built their lives around these segregated jobs. They owned their own homes, had nice furniture and cars, some had children in college. They had adjusted to second-class citizenship and were not prepared to risk what they had on the strength of a new law whose provisions against retaliation had not yet been adequately tested in the courts. They were so afraid that their employer would discover they had even talked to a civil rights worker that they had insisted on the Sunday meeting and on my using my personal car rather than my assigned state vehicle. I was too unsure myself to pressure them to take any action. The complaints were never filed, and as far as I know the men remained on the assembly line until they retired.

Many major employers, under both legal and moral pressure, and usually against the bitter opposition of whatever labor unions were involved, made legitimate efforts to open up their work force, including professional and managerial positions, to blacks. What happened all too frequently was that the policy of equal employment ran headlong into the unpreparedness of large segments of the black labor force. Black production workers were late or absent more frequently than their white counterparts; they were less efficient; they did not take orders well. Black office workers were deficient in spelling or simple arithmetic; did not understand or adapt well to routine office procedures.

The bulk of the complaints I dealt with in Connecticut and then a couple of years later, when I transferred to the more powerful federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), came not from job applicants but from present employees alleging discrimination in disciplinary action or promotion. And it was certainly true that in companies that had hired reluctantly or where lower-level supervisors were hostile to integration, blacks were dismissed for lateness or attendance problems when whites with the same bad records were retained. Blacks were discharged or penalized for “insubordination” where white employees who had behaved the same way were let off with a warning. Blacks were denied promotions for reasons that were not found applicable to white candidates.

One consequence of white employers’ overreaction is that it allowed underperforming blacks to brush aside even legitimate criticism of their behavior by calling it “racist.”

I have sometimes wondered whether the initial staffing of the EEOC, a new agency created to enforce Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was a case of good intentions gone awry or a cynical ploy to undermine enforcement. The staff on all levels except that of attorney was predominantly minority, far from young, and drawn from other federal agencies. New hires were also predominantly minority. For the full period of my employment there I was the highest-ranking nonattorney white in the NewYork region.

The Connecticut Commission had been cobbled together with state employees from other agencies, too, but the director there, Arthur L. Green, a black, showed no hesitancy in transferring back or discharging the white deadwood he had been sent. Nor did he hesitate to discharge nonperforming blacks. And his new hires tended to be young and committed. The EEOC, by contrast, seemed to have no standards of performance for its own minority employees. In the view of the EEOC, minority underperformance did not, could not, exist. White supervisors, one of whom had been physically assaulted by a black employee shortly before I started there, were afraid to take disciplinary action for fear of being called racist and seeing their careers destroyed; black supervisors protected even the most unproductive of other blacks.

A few examples of what I found should be more than enough to illustrate the problems. The New York office, which handled all of New England as well, had no system for assigning cases. There were no priorities. Complaints could not even be investigated in chronological order because there was no filing system for new cases, just a row of cabinets into which files were shoved at random. Supervisors would simply go to file cabinets, take out an armful of case files, and distribute them a few at a time to the investigators. Cases that affected thousands of employees and might have had national significance languished in the files, while absurd or petty complaints (to cite the most extreme example, the case of an employee who accused her employer of “hexing” her were assigned for investigation. It took me months, once I had become a supervisor myself, to get the files in reasonable order and to establish priorities for at least the cases I supervised.

Right from its inception, one of the major complaints about the EEOC, both from the minority community and from white civil rights activists, was the incredible delay in investigating complaints and the enormous backlog of uninvestigated cases that kept growing and growing. The EEOC did set production standards for its investigators, but when two black probationary investigators failed to complete two cases each in six months, falling lamentably short of agency standards and without any indication that they would ever do much better, I was called a “racist” for suggesting they be returned to their former federal jobs, and a black supervisor found a way of doctoring their records so they became permanent employees. So many investigators proved unable to write up investigations in an acceptable way that a relatively junior white investigator was assigned to do the writing, and since the investigations were frequently incomplete because of inadequate supervision, he also took responsibility for telling the investigators what additional information they needed to get.

Even worse, to my mind—far more discouraging than the inability of many blacks at EEOC to do their assigned jobs in a minimally acceptable way—was the extraordinary indifference most of my black fellow employees showed to the complaints and complainants the agency dealt with. There was no commitment, no sense of urgency, no appreciation of the revolution that could be accomplished if the agency worked well. There was more talk about barbecue grills and automatic garage doors—middle-class suburban acquisitions—than about civil rights. One of the investigators referred to complainants with annoyance, calling them “those people.” Had she been white, she could have been called racist. Or maybe what she was most concerned about was social class. “Those people,” who worked with their hands, were not her people. She used to send thank-you notes to companies she investigated for the coffee or snacks they gave her during the course of her on-site visits, as though they had been social calls.

A number of the investigations I conducted or supervised resulted in cases filed in federal court by private attorneys or nonprofit law firms. There were positive consequences of any well-conducted investigation, too, in advance of any court action. The company being investigated would want to limit its liability, would make changes to conform to the law now, whatever its behavior might have been in the past. The job was not without real satisfactions, but toward the end, the only way I survived was by assigning myself cases as far from our office as possible: paper mills in New Hampshire—fly to Portland, drive the Presidentials; military contractors in Massachusetts—fly to Springfield, drive the Berkshires. Beautiful scenery to balance the permanent bad taste in my mouth.

My only activity at the EEOC that prompted legal action by the agency itself was a sex-discrimination case my wife filed and I shepherded through the agency appeal process. It resulted in establishing an important principle about the illegality of gender “preferences” and caused the New York State Employment Service to stop using different-colored application forms: blue for male, “salmon” for female job applicants.

All the black and civil rights organizations I worked for—generally via a profit-making consulting firm—after I left the EEOC relied heavily on financial support from the white community. My job was to help raise money from that community. I think most whites believed, as I did, that support for these organizations would bring us closer to the realization of two goals: firstly, an end to traditional white racism as it affected all aspects of black life; secondly, the provision of remedial and supportive services, especially educational services, to the black community to enable it to fully participate in the life of the larger society once the artificial barriers of discrimination had been removed. In other words, the hope was to address both sides of the double bind of white racism and black underperformance, to bring blacks up to speed while brushing racist whites out of their way.

Most whites, and possibly even many blacks, would probably agree that the defeat of traditional white racism has been largely achieved. There is no major aspect of American life in 1999—housing employment, education, public accommodations, voting rights—in which discrimination against blacks is not illegal. There are still violent attacks on blacks by vicious whites, but the law goes after these whites—even when the vicious attackers are policemen—as it never did during the first three centuries of black habitation on these shores.

Black underperformance, though, especially academic underperformance—to which other social woes are crucially linked—has shown remarkable tenacity. It has been both announced and demonstrated to the black community that college scholarships and the prospects of good jobs afterward, entree into the American middle class or beyond, are available to blacks who do even moderately well in high school, not just to the academic stars. Black college students know that graduate schools will compete to enroll the top tier of black college graduates, but despite all the active encouragement that has supplanted discrimination, blacks continue to do poorly on both high school and college achievement tests. Even in the lower grades, the results can be disheartening. Why should this be the case when white racism has largely transformed itself, however temporarily or grudgingly, into white benevolence? And when tens of millions of white charitable dollars have gone to support black educational institutions?

There are a number of identifiably black colleges in the United States, mostly in the South. They fall into two major groups, not counting Howard University, which is a special case. One group, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) schools, consists of private institutions, many of them started by Northern church groups during Reconstruction, to provide educational opportunity to the newly freed slaves. There are around forty of these schools, some of the better known of which are Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, Morehouse, Fisk, and Spelman. These schools have always been open to white students and faculty and have never, to my knowledge, been subject to any kind of desegregation order.

The other group consists of approximately forty state colleges in nineteen states, including Delaware, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, that were the separate and unequal black portions of segregated state systems of higher education. These systems were ordered to desegregate by the Supreme Court over thirty years ago; the case that covers them, and has lasted about as long as Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Dickens’ Bleak House, is now called United States v. Fordice and has created terrible problems for the black civil rights community, especially for its leading law firm, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF).

The principle that allowed the LDF to win Brown v. Board of Education—that separate is inherently unequal—applied exactly to these state schools. In terms of faculty training, physical facilities, and educational outcomes, these identifiably black schools lagged atrociously behind their white counterparts. Black civil rights agencies sued to have the systems merged, only to discover tremendous resistance on the part of the black population, not just current students or faculty but whole communities for whom these segregated colleges had been major cultural institutions. These schools had deep roots in the black community, had traditions—marching bands, football teams, fraternities and sororities, the whole college panoply, all of which might be swallowed up and destroyed by the stronger white schools if the systems were to be merged. What jobs would there be then for black faculty and administrators? Wouldn’t they just be pensioned off, their useful lives cut short?

The civil rights organizations backed away from U.S. v. Fordice, and these schools, still overwhelmingly black, still academically inferior, supply seventy-five percent of all college degrees earned by blacks in public colleges in the United States. The UNCF schools, a goodly number of them anyway, are academically weaker than the black state colleges, and even the best of them are being preserved not because of their academic strength but because they are black institutions and have histories inseparable from the black experience in America. I am talking about the institutions through which a group defines its own identity. What their graduates do on LSATs or GREs may be a relatively minor matter.

Many blacks who have emerged from the ghetto into successful professional life, many teachers in inner-city schools, many forthright black community leaders, will acknowledge that a black kid who does well in school, who studies hard, may be subject to scorn and harrassment, possibly even to physical abuse at the hands of his schoolmates for “acting like whitey.” Is this sort of behavior simply sour grapes on the part of youngsters who know they are going to fail and don’t want to be shown up by a classmate’s success? Or does it cut much deeper than that, have resonance with Southern blacks’ support for their traditional schools, roots in a genuine desire to preserve black identity? And what might that identity be?

The American black community is extraordinarily diverse. It has important currents flowing from the Spanish-or French-speaking Caribbean as well as from former English colonies such as Jamaica or Barbados. Different parts of the North received migratory flows from different regions of the South in two separate major waves coinciding with or immediately following the two World Wars. Differences of skin tone, reflecting the sexual predations of white planters and carrying forward the “privileges” of a “café au lait” mulatto class, still play a complex role, putting black identity under great strain from within. The methods used by sociologists or census takers, or test evaluators, for that matter, are completely inadequate to describe or quantify the complexities of black experience. What most unites this community is the shared history of slavery and segregation, of abuse and humiliation, of being treated as moral and intellectual inferiors, objects of fear and contempt, second-or third-class citizens, by whites who have acted as if dominance were their birthright. To what extent is “acting like whitey” an acceptance of that dominance, a betrayal of black identity?

Slavery denied black men the right to support and raise their own children. And still, today, in the ghettos, black men in great number, because they are unemployed or addicted or in jail, do not take responsibility for their own children. Black women were not allowed, as slaves, sexual modesty and control of their own bodies. And still, today, in the ghettos, multiple fathers for multiple children and widespread promiscuity are commonplace. Blacks in slavery and for generations afterward were kept illiterate or nearly so. And still, today, in the ghettos, learning to read well, to study hard, is “acting like whitey.”

Identity forged by oppressors is still identity. The lives that those black assembly-line workers in the Naugatuck Valley built for themselves as second-class citizens were real lives, with values to be defended and preserved. Even the black supervisors at the EEOC who chose to retain less-than-competent trainees may have been affirming a personal solidarity among blacks that was far more meaningful to them than conformity to job standards imposed on them by a white bureaucracy.

The last several years have seen a tendency in many black communities to use political power to undo Brown v. Board. of Education even at the grade school level. Blacks will do a better job of insisting on high standards for their own children, this view asserts, than will whites, many of whom will simply let black students drift because they do not believe blacks are intelligent enough to learn. A black teacher who insists on high standards for his pupils, who criticizes their shortcomings, can hardly be called a racist, although he or she will may have to get past accusations of “acting white.”

If the historically black colleges were dependent for survival on the gifts of their own alumni rather than on state and federal subsidies or white charitable contributions, they would have to provide their students with a competitive education. As things stand—with white money pouring in from outside—these black schools maintain both low academic standards and the nation’s highest rate of student loan default.

There is a substantial black middle class out there, the product of the last thirty years of civil rights activity, that has to decide whether it wants to invest its money and skills in making black institutions—not just the traditionally black colleges but also the NAACP and the Urban League and the Legal Defense Fund and a host of other presently white-funded organizations—both truly autonomous and not second-rate. There is nothing autonomous about black studies departments in white-financed universities. White funders, corporations, foundations, government agencies, and, I suspect, even universities, are exceptionally soft on black-led organizations, demand little in the way of performance, not even financial accountability, and are afraid perhaps, and not without reason, of being called “racist” if they ask too much.

In terms of autonomy, the most successful black institutions that exist today are the membership-funded professional organizations of black engineers or computer programmers or businessmen, or even of black policemen and firemen protecting their interests in bigoted urban departments.

Above all, and most successful to my mind, is one of the very few black national organizations that does not have deep roots in slavery or segregation, that rejects second-class citizenship and that scorns white help. I certainly count on making no new friends among its membership, but I’m sure that if that girl on the subway or her family had belonged to the Nation of Islam, she would never even have dreamed of calling herself a “nigger.”

 

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