Fantasizing Reality

Slavery and its Legacy.
The Five Colleges Learning in Retirement (5CLIR) 2005 Memorial Series
Session #6 – April 7, 2005, Mount Holyoke College, Gamble Auditorium


Derrick Bell
NYU Law School, educator, lawyer
Author most recently of 
Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education
Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.

Why Brown Failed, How Bush Won, and
the Necessity of Distinguishing Current and Future Dangers and Opportunities

Derrick Bell, Visiting Professor of Law, New York University Law School:
    Part 1:    Fantasizing Reality: Why Brown Failed
Part 2:    How Bush Won
Part 3:    The Necessity of Distinguishing Current and Future Dangers and Opportunities

Part 1:   Why Brown Failed

For more than a year now, there have been countless conferences, symposia, and similar gatherings noting the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision declaring racial segregation by public entities in violation of the equal protection clause.

Significantly, these events have received little attention and thus the public knows (and cares) more about the Michael Jackson trial – and its predecessors, the Peterson murder trial, the rise and fall of college or professional sports teams, and the sex affairs of celebrities. Even so, for those of us interested, the Brown v. Board commemorations did provide an opportunity to celebrate the courage of those black parents and their children who undertook the risks of economic retaliation and physical harm to become plaintiffs in those early school desegregation suits. They acted out of faith and exhibited a level of commitment to America’s ideals that those who opposed them could neither match nor even understand.

After two decades of committed effort, civil rights lawyers did gain the decision that they wanted. True, but we know now that the decision was much influenced by the need urgently communicated in the government’s briefs to respond to communist nations who were gaining adherents among third-world peoples by broadly publishing stories about rank discrimination and racial abuse in this country.

Looking back over all those basically celebratory gatherings rendered almost other-worldly because, in truth, there was so little to celebrate, so much to regret and even mourn, I hear as a background echo the voice of Nellie Lutcher, the rhythm and blues singer of the 1940s and 1950s, who sang:

“The song is ended, but the melody lingers on. You and the night are gone, but the melody lingers on.”

Too few speakers at the Brown conferences inquired as to why the Supreme Court saw the light in 1954, and not during all the years back to 1850 when black parents through their lawyers had petitioned them for relief from the evils of segregated schools finally so poignantly portrayed in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion.

While no where mentioned in the Brown decision, the members of the Court were surely able to make a connection between the nation’s foreign policy difficulties abroad, the fear of subversives at home exploited during the McCarthy era, and the adverse affect on blacks and the barriers to their freedom and equality so widely trumpeted during the war as available to all.

Looking back to that time as the U.S. competed with communist governments, it is likely that not since the Civil War had the need to remedy racial injustice been so firmly aligned with the country’s vital interests at home and abroad.

The historic attraction to granting recognition and promising reform of racial injustice when such action converges with the Nation’s interests, provided a very real if unacknowledged motivation for the Court’s ringing statement in Brown. This statement provided a symbolic victory to petitioners and the class of blacks they represented while, in fact, giving both a new, improved face to the Nation’s foreign policy, and responding to charges of blatant racial bias at home.

Thus, Brown is a definitive example of the fact that: The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when that interest converges with the interests of whites in policy-making positions. This convergence is far more important to gaining relief than the degree of harm suffered by blacks or the character of proof offered to prove that harm.

We in the civil rights movement were a dozen years into the difficult implementation phase of the Brown decision before a few us recognized as Judge Robert L. Carter, one of the NAACP lawyers who helped direct the Brown litigation, wrote years later that ” the pre-existing pattern of white superiority and black subordination remains unchanged; …Few in the country, black or white, understood in 1954 that racial segregation was merely a symptom, not the disease; that the real sickness is that our society in all of its manifestations is geared to the maintenance of white superiority. …”1

Its advocates expected that the Brown decision would cut through the dark years of segregation with laser-like intensity. Thurgood Marshall, the leader of the legal team that won Brown predicted that the schools would be desegregated within five years. And why not? If blacks who had been burdened with legally sanctioned racial segregation for six decades, were willing to let bygones be bygones now that the Court had acknowledged in law what they had experienced in fact, would not whites, the beneficiaries of segregation comply with what was now the new law of the land.

I agreed with them and spent the early years of my career as a civil rights lawyer handling myself or supervising 100s of mainly school desegregation cases in a futile effort to make real our beliefs based more on faith than experience.

We were wrong. The resistance to compliance with the law of Brown was massive, open, and determined. Beyond the high-sounding proclamations like the Southern Manifesto, the declared purpose of which was to use “all lawful means” to reverse Brown. Opposition was much reliant on intimidation and threats aimed at both blacks who dared seek the rights to which the Supreme Court said were theirs, and whites who by either word or deed, indicated their support of what was now the law.

After 15 years of delays and evasions, the campaign to desegregate the public schools through court orders gained judicial support in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But our hard-won orders led school boards to close black schools, dismiss black teachers and principals, and send black children to white schools (not the best) where they were often met with far more hostility than acceptance. Notwithstanding these efforts to make compliance as easy on whites and as difficult for blacks as possible, droves of white parents responded to school desegregation by enrolling their children in private schools or moving to suburbs where – they hoped – blacks would not be able to follow.

It is heresy for civil rights traditionalists, but I suggest in my book, Silent Covenants, that the educations of black and white children might have been better served had the Court determined to strictly enforce the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” standard rather than strike it down, an order it could not enforce.

I will not spend much time reciting the sad statistics of school desegregation. Suffice to say that most black and Hispanic children today attend schools that are heavily if not entirely black and Hispanic. Most white children attend schools that are mainly white. The black and Hispanic schools are both separate and unequal in funding, facilities, teacher experience, and academic achievement. And the precedent in Brown is of little use in correcting these conditions because of a line of later decisions that require proof that school officials intentionally brought on these conditions – a far from easy task.

Today, the Brown decision, as far as the law is concerned, is of little beyond symbolic value. Because of a range of subsequent decisions, it is hard to imagine a case in which citing the Brown decision would evoke more than a sad smile from even a liberal court. With regard to contemporary race jurisprudence, Brown is, dread word, irrelevant, a reality little mentioned during the 50th anniversary commemorations.

I am not here to agree with those scholars who argue that racial reform would be further along today had there been no Brown decision. I agree with Judge Carter that “Brown’s indirect consequences have been awesome in that it has completely altered the style, the spirit, and the stance of race relations.”2 It is, though, simply not enough to proclaim Brown a great decision and then add that “much remains to be done.” That statement is almost the definitive example of an oxymoron. Its frequent reiteration reflects a dangerous complacency, a failure to understand the lessons that the Brown decision did not intend to teach.

So, what did Brown do? Georgetown Law Professor Michael Seidman provides an on-target answer to that question. He reminds us that the Supreme Court – motivated by the nation’s foreign and domestic problems to take on the school segregation cases – faced a massive contradiction between the oft-cited ideal: the commitment to equality; and the great, actual value whites placed on the racial preferences approved by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson,3 and practiced throughout the country’s history.

Given blacks lack of political and economic power, and the massive amounts of both arrayed on the other side, it appeared that our demand for equality could never be satisfied.

The Court, Seidman explains, “resolved the contradictions by definitional fiat: Separate facilities, deemed inherently equal under Plessy were, after Brown, proclaimed by the Court to be inherently unequal. No liability, no wrongdoers, no relief to individuals and groups for their loss during all the years when segregated was equal.

Once white society through its highest Court was willing to declare separate but equal unlawful, Professor Seidman points out, the demand for equality as far as much of white society was concerned had been satisfied. Black people no longer had just cause for complaint. The mere existence of Brown thus served [to] legitimate current arrangements of racial discrimination and segregation.

So, while a great many blacks remained poor and disempowered, their status was deemed no longer a result of the denial of equality. Instead, it marked a personal failure to take advantage of one’s definitionally equal status.”4

Brown, then, served to reinforce the fiction that, by the decision’s rejection of racial barriers posed by segregation, the path of progress would be clear. Everyone can and should make it through individual ability and effort. Rampant discrimination remained and the civil rights acts enacted as a result of the protests in the mid-1960s provided some limited benefit, but only as to the most open and blatant forms of racial bias. Over the years, much of the progress made has been coming undone before our very eyes.

Recognition of this loss caused many of us to rally behind the Democrats and their standard bearer in the presidential elections of 2004. We did so despite the fact that the Democratic standard bearer made little if any public commitments to close the still gaping gap caused by racial discrimination.


Part 2:   How Bush Won the Presidential Election of 2004

This election outcome has placed all of our lives – and especially black lives – in extreme danger. It is well to consider how we came to this lonely and extremely vulnerable place. First, it would appear that the presidential campaign has made it all too evident how poor the educational system is for most of our citizens, rendering them vulnerable to manipulation. Critical thinking is not respected and those who engage in it to reach conclusions not in keeping with the government line about the Iraq war or the war against terrorism are treated with suspicion, even branded as unpatriotic or traitors – a charge that much of the citizenry are ready to believe and support.

Even though Sen. Kerry dumbed himself down, offered support for the Iraq War – though one knows from his anti-Vietnam protests that he simply could not believe in this even worst military disaster. His advisors likely told him that no sitting president has ever been defeated while the country was at war. So, he said he could conduct the war better – ignoring the fact that he had come home from Vietnam a hero and courageously spoke out against the war. This forgetfulness was fully exploited by the Republicans.

On the domestic front, Kerry took some good positions, but evidently not to lose votes (and he would have lost votes) he said he was opposed to same-sex marriage, though if there is a rational basis for such opposition, I have yet to hear it. Rationality was hardly a part of that discussion.

Kerry’s concessions were not enough although he received more votes than any other losing candidate – and may have actually gotten far more had he challenged the vote in Ohio rather than conceding the morning after the election.

The New Yorker magazine’s Hendrik Hertzberg spoke for most liberals when he wrote:

The election’s outcome defies logic, and perhaps that is the point. The early analyses credited Bush’s victory to religious conservatives, particularly those in the evangelical movement. In voting for Bush, as eighty per cent of them did, many of these formerly nonvoting white evangelicals are remaining true to their unworldliness. In voting for a party that wants to tax work rather than wealth, that scorns thrift, that see the natural world not as a common inheritance but as an object of exploitation, and that equates economic inequality with economic vitality, they have voted against their own material (and some might imagine, spiritual) well-being. The moral values that stirred them seem not to encompass botched wars or economic injustices or environmental depredations; rather, moral values are about sexual behavior and its various manifestations and outcomes, about family structures, and about a particularly demonstrative brand of religious piety. What was important to these voters, it appears, was not Bush’s public record but what they conceived to be his private soul. He is a good Christian, so his policy failures are forgivable. He is a saved sinner, so the dissipations of his early and middle years are not tokens of a weak character but testaments to the transformative power of his faith. He relies on God for guidance, so his intellectual laziness is not a danger.5 It is I would add, a comfort.

Hertzberg’s analysis is sound. Even so, Rabbi Michael Lerner also has a point when he warns that we cannot simply dismiss those who voted for Bush as “either Stupid or Evil (authoritarian, racist, sexist, homophobic, wishing to impose their religion on everyone, wishing to dominate the world, etc.)”

They may be wrong, but they are not crazy. Thus, we must look further to ascertain why so many voted as they did.

First, there is the matter of information. It is a fact that most Americans do not read the newspapers and in many regions the papers give them precious little of real substance to read. Television news programs, where many seek the news, are more committed to crime, scandal, sports, and the weather, in that order, than to solid news coverage about matters that substantively affect our lives.

As to so-called news programs, entertainment is the name of the news and profit is the game of the news. At least one-third and up to one-half of those programs are devoted to expensively presented commercial messages offering cures for all manner of bodily ills and dysfunctions.

When it comes to actual news, much of the media is blatantly partisan or so committed to neutrality that criticism of those in power is rare. How many truly progressive voices – Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, the editorial writers and editors of the Nation, In These Times, or American Prospect, appear on even public radio or television? As a result, American hear (and, alas, want to hear) far more about the latest sex-related criminal trial, the romantic involvements of British royalty, or the fortunes of their favorite sports team than a balanced discussion of the issues of health, employment policies, schools, and taxes that so determine our economic condition, our physical health, and the burdens and benefits of our citizenship. Even so, there remains the question of whether an ill-informed public was all the Republicans had going for them.

In a recent lecture, Columbia Law Professor Kendall Thomas suggests that in finding these voters irrational we fail to consider the role of fantasy in politics – how those harmed by political policies may come to identify with and support those responsible for those policies. . . whatever their level of educational attainment.6

There are certainly major reasons for fear and uncertainty in our country today. The war in Iraq alienated our friends abroad, and enraged enemies who can reap great destruction on us without owning nuclear submarines, super-sonic planes, and smart bombs. The budget surplus built by the “tax and spend” Democrats has been transformed by Conservative Republicans into the largest budget deficit in history, both to pay for the war and provide tremendous tax breaks to the already rich. Social programs are being cut and Social Security and Medicare are targeted for revisions from which neither may survive. Fewer and fewer jobs are secure, more and more families are at risk of financial disaster. And evidently to test the limits of his support among the working class, the Bush budget proposal provides for deep cuts in every social program you can imagine, while providing more money to the Pentagon and leaving untouched the major tax cuts granted to the top one percent of incomes. In a separate request, he wants another 83 billion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here, we come close to seeing the Republican strategy. The repeated evocation by their leaders of foreign terrors – particularly in a time of war and domestic fears and economic uncertainty combined with promises to protect our security that their actions have endangered, strangely enough, can lead many to come to rely on those responsible for those terrors and their resultant fears. The response to the fears manifests itself through an identification with the policy perpetrators in a kind of collective imaginary.

This is not a new phenomenon either here or elsewhere. The history of American slavery indicates that some slaves identified with their slave masters. They warned their masters of slave revolts, and risked their lives to save their masters when the big house was on fire. The oppression of slavery, imprisonment, those taken hostage, often leads to compliance and identification with the oppressors rather than revolt.

In these examples, the concern is for basic survival, but literary theorist Jacqueline Rose and other writers see a similar manifestation in political identification with oppressive leadership for reasons that to those endangered are both rational and necessary.7

As example Professor Rose reports that Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of England three times, holding office for almost 12 years, waging a major war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and despite a poor economy, and did so by winning the support of many of those harmed by her anti-union, and generally anti-social welfare policies.

Referring to the writings of Stuart Hall, Rose writes that the Conservatives led by Thatcher’s victory needs to be understood not simply in terms of material interest, “but in terms of images and identifications.” The Conservatives, Rose reports, were unpopular in terms of policies, but they mobilized a new ideological constituency. Politics is not only, but also a matter of fantasies in which the way people imagine themselves is crucial. People identify not with their immediate material interest, but with the place from which they can see themselves as potentially making good.

Rose’s discussion of Thatcher’s success (far more complex than I am relating here) provides some understanding of the votes of so many whites and alas all too many blacks and Latinos in the most recent presidential campaign.

The Republicans skillfully if perniciously evoked the fear of 9/11, the threat of further terrorism, and the need to support our leader in war time. .. “To stay the course.” Slogans like “Freedom in on the March” – amplified by right-wing radio commentators – were intended and had the effect of highlighting a sense of danger that only the current leaders could protect us from. Thus, when Bush, and company continued to assert – despite all the hard evidence to the contrary – that we had discovered weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that we were justified in launching a preventative war over the objection of much of the world’s nations, including long-time allies, the resulting confusion and controversy caused many to side with the leadership to ease anxiety and fear that they did not wish to openly acknowledge.

The so-called social issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, and guns, were issues that furthered the fear of many that their view of the world was in jeopardy. It is not simply that those who voted for Republicans were not serious in their opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem cell research, while supporting the death penalty and relaxed gun control laws. They were.

I believe though – admittedly based more on racial experience than statistical data – that support for so-called moral issues served as a more acceptable way of both reflecting their fears of endangered security and status, that once manifested itself in opposition to affirmative action, school desegregation, and other race reforms sought by blacks – though these racial issues were seldom mentioned by either party.

By no longer focusing on racialized issues the Republicans place themselves in a better position to gain minority votes, using out group fear of each other and infighting to gain minority support for a party who ultimately seeks to roll back what little gains and rights minorities have.

Long before this election, and for reasons of misplaced anxiety and fears illustrated by Jacqueline Rose and other theorists, many whites opposed all social reform as “welfare programs for blacks.” This fantasy that whites on top are friends and blacks on the bottom are enemies has a long history and is not less strong because poor whites also have unmet employment, education, and social service needs. And, in fact, whites tend to benefit from civil rights policies more than blacks whose efforts brought them into being. Affirmative action policies, for example, have been of greater benefit to white women than they have for blacks and Hispanics.

The Republican Party has little interest in undertaking the challenging task of bringing together black and white voters by emphasizing the similarity of their interests and needs. To the contrary, in the last two decades, Republicans have been the dominant political force in the South, and increasingly across the country. They have achieved this position not by championing social reform, but by claiming that the Democratic Party was the party for “special interests”, meaning, of course, the party for blacks. This position along with attacking big government has enabled Republicans to dominate Southern politics at least since Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980.

It was no mere fortuity that Reagan launched his campaign with a speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, near the site where the three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Consider as well the Willie Horton scare ads in the elder Bush’s campaign as well in the many efforts to keep blacks from voting or having their votes count in both 2000 and 2004.

This is a non-partisan critique. The Democratic party had played this protective role for whites since the early years of the 20th century. They maintained political control by making vague promises regarding needed social reform, while emphasizing their determination to protect whites against “liberal”, read black, threats to vote, desegregate the schools and public facilities.

Even President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies were implemented with substantial amounts of racial discrimination and segregation. Roosevelt refused to give his support to anti-lynching legislation (that never passed) because it is said that he feared it would cost him the Southern vote.

When after World War II, President Truman began desegregating the armed forces and other civil rights policies, it led to the formation of the Dixiecrat Party led by Strom Thurman. Because of the great migration of blacks to the North and post WW II pressures, including civil rights activism, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In doing so, he predicted – accurately – that his support for civil rights would cost the Democratic Party the Southern vote for years to come.

Today, much of the Democratic leadership, while absolutely dependent on black votes, particularly in national elections, goes to great lengths to avoid acknowledging this reliance. Indeed, Democrats also seek elusive white votes by claims that they are not catering to “special interests.

Reading the platform positions and speeches of both parties, one might conclude that race was not a major issue in the just completed presidential campaign. I would differ and I want to illustrate that difference with a question. At one point, Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was one of the most respected men in America. Despite his race, he was considered by both parties as a candidate for president. He rejected those overtures, but had he accepted the vice presidential post and then after the president died or was incapacitated, was sworn in and followed a series of policies quite like those of President Bush, could he be seriously running for reelection?

Is there a message here regarding the continuing racial alienation in this country that is too scary to seriously contemplate?

I am not saying here that the country is racist. I seriously cannot image a woman, homosexual, or any other racial minority – no matter their credentials — being able to win with Bush’s record. For that matter being able to win at all. Racism and all the other modes of prejudice that feed oppression and separation, are certainly alive and flourishing. Rather, I am suggesting that racial reform and other progressive platforms that seek to create some level of equity between out group and majoritarian interests for many is viewed as threatening to safety, stability, and security.

Beyond the racial appeal to whites the Republican party has generated over the last quarter century, there is an identification with Mr. Bush based on his folksy whiteness that causes a great many whites (and some blacks and Hispanics) to ignore his shortcomings – even feel comforted by them, ready to believe whatever he says as opposed to what his administration has done and is doing.

Fantasy, a kind of collective imaginary becomes realism out of the fear of change, of loss of security and safety. Racism plays a continuing if not an always easily identified role in maintaining a political and economic system that is accepted despite (and perhaps because) of the great and growing disparities in income, wealth, and opportunity in this country.


Part 3:  Fantasy and Potentially Fatal Complacency

We have, during the many celebrations of the Brown decision over the last year or so, applauded the courage and persistence of the lawyers who for 20 years supported school desegregation litigation that finally led to the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. And they were committed warriors in the battles over law and precedents.

But just as we have critiqued how the working and middle-class people who voted Republican against what we view as their self-interest when actually they may have been addressing their fears and powerlessness by creating a political fantasy that led them to support their oppressors.

Must we not also utilize the same analysis in trying to ascertain whether our civil rights leaders back in the 1930s, acted out of their quite justified fears and powerlessness when they rejected continued economic development in favor of an imagined fantasy in which they could eliminate racial discrimination through the courts that had mainly rejected their petitions for decades?

Certainly, there was little basis in reality for believing that society and its courts that had relegated black children to segregated and horribly unequal schooling would change if we convinced the Supreme Court that such schools were unconstitutional. And yet that is precisely what they and we who followed them believed for reasons that – based on even a cursory view of American history – boggle the mind.

In the early and mid 1930s, black and liberal whites within the NAACP debated whether blacks should develop economic and political structures as a bulwark against racial hostility, or seek in the courts decisions that would invalidate the laws and policies based on that hostility.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and a few others urged that black children needed neither integrated schools nor separate schools. What they needed was education. He urged that we recognize the society’s racial hostility and build economic and political structures as defense against it. He was not only ignored, but forced out of his position as editor of the Crisis, a publication he created, when he persisted in calling for strengthening black institutions – including schools rather than launching an all-out desegregation drive.8

Again, I must ask – with some pain – how did our fantasy that the law would provide equal educational opportunity for our children differ from the view held by a majority of the voters that George W. Bush is a great leader whose policies of the last four years justified granting him another term in office.

It may be heresy – but consider whether our civil rights campaign, while manifesting outward militance, was actually deeply if unconsciously influenced by quite justified fear and powerlessness. In this instance, a collective imaginary pursued long enough and fortuitously merged with the political needs of white leadership, resulted in what appeared a great legal victory.

Unfortunately, as history teaches, even when interest convergence results in an impressive legal decision for black rights, the remedy will be abrogated at the point that policymakers fear the remedial policy is threatening the superior societal status of whites, particularly those in the middle and upper classes.

Thus, the fears and powerlessness- rooted fantasy that may have prompted the litigation campaign against racial segregation, has eventually led to token reforms without much lessening of economic and political powerlessness that 75 years ago led our leaders to choose a route to racial justice that has provided limited rewards for some of us and continuing misery for the rest. Racial subjugation today is taking a toll less dramatic than overt segregation and the violence of lynching, but is not less destructive.

The destruction today takes the form of poor schools, high levels of joblessness and poverty, resort to crime and prisons that hold more blacks than are enrolled in colleges, and large disparities in income, wealth, employment, educational achievement, housing, health, and all the indicia of subordinate status. Add to this vulnerability the presence of large number of other people of color, recent immigrants willing to accept low pay and great indignities in pursuit of the American dream AND the preference of many employers to hire these workers over blacks.

Paradoxically, these very manifestations of our dire plight both feed the sense of superiority in many whites, and the fear in many more that blacks are a danger from which they need the protection that their leaders promise to provide. Here, indeed, is a prescription for a form of quiet genocide in which the victims are blamed for their untimely demise.

It seems then that both those who oppose racial reform and those of us who advocate it are acting – at least in part – out of political fantasies based on a sense of powerlessness and fear for security and well-being.

Some may say that our opponents’ fantasy is based on fear, while we who urge racial reform are acting out of fantasy based on an abiding faith in this country’s ideals – even though these ideals are more often recited than adhered to.

And yet, it is essential that we make the on-going effort to understand when we are speaking and acting and voting out of fear rather than faith. Certainly, we must continue the struggle against racism, but we should do so enlightened by and not ignoring what we have learned in the half-century since Brown v. Board was decided.

What appears to be victory is not always what it seems and because of the role of fantasy in serving the security and status needs of both proponents and opponents of racial justice, even what is real can mislead and misrepresent usually in ways that serve the status quo and those who benefit from it. The desire to work for good and oppose evil remains praiseworthy. It is simply that determining what is good requires a more constant effort of evaluation a greater willingness to admit error in our complex and dangerous world.

So, Bell, you will say, we have listened for the better part of an hour telling us how bad things are, the usual piling up of the society’s evils at whidh you deconstructionists and critical race theorists are so expert. But you never tell us where we should go from here. How do we clean up this mess, improve social services, reduce racism, decrease the power of the corporations while enhancing democratic values?

We can’t re-make this system. The ills of greed and exploitation, uncaring competition to get ahead at the expense of whoever, are the unacknowledged components of our capitalist system. Now and then, by great effort and with the help of fortuity, some improvement can happen – or as with Brown v. Board of Education – seem to happen. It is always fragile, more symbol than substance, and vulnerable to reversal.

Many of you here plan to work for change after graduation. You should do so,but know that you will be hard pressed to do right within Institutions Thriving on Wrong. Racism, sexism, homophobia are permanent. Subordinating some of the populace is a major component of stability in a society with great and growing gaps in income, wealth, and opportunity.

Rather than give in to despair, this knowledge must make you aware – already an advantage compared to so many whites and, alas, more than a few blacks and other minorities. As Ray Charles used to remind us in one of his songs: “Understanding is the best thing in the world.. Yes it is, yes it is.

Let me leave you with the advice the character Denver received from her long departed grandmother in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. Denver is terrified of white people, and with good reason. In slavery, they’d whipped her mother while she was pregnant, and crippled her grandma, jailed her mother, owned everything.

All of these memories scared her to death, and Denver has not left her house for years. But now, needing to get help for her sick mother, she stands on the porch trying to get up courage to leave, and has this imaginary conversation with her grandma, an escaped slave who had told her about how evil whites can be.

`But you said there was no defense,’ Denver says, meaning against white people,”

“`There ain’t,’ says her grandma in her mind.

“`Then what do I do?’

“`Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on.'”

That is not only a good philosophy, but it may be the only philosophy that makes sense for those in this country suppressed because of race, class, and sex.

And where, you may ask, is God in all of this? I believe in God, but not in an all-powerful figure observing the world and dishing out luxury to some and genocide to others. Rather, I believe that the universe is made up of many components, and the desire to do good for others rather than for self – even at the sacrifice of self, is one of them. Good not for reward either now or in Heaven, but good because it justifies the miracle of our existence as nothing else does – or does for very long.

As Rabbi Michael Lerner puts it: this force is the source of love, kindness, generosity, social justice, peace and evolving consciousness, and that this aspect of the universe permeates every ounce of being, every cell, and unifies all being as it moves the beiing of the universe toward greater and greater levels of love and connection and consciousness, and makes possible the transcending of that which is toward that which ought to be.”

This is an inner motivated good, not determined by doctrine or creed or rigid rules. I am not a theologian, but I think this is what Jesus taught, how he lived his life, and why he died rather than renounce his teachings. For good or ill, mostly the latter, the orthodox Christian church took over and its followers have done much that is worthy, but, I fear, more that is evil.

Still, we can pray either within or outside the church that we are able to do more good intentionally than we do ill unintentionally. With that as motto and motivation, success – when it comes – is welcome, but defeat and discouragement which occurs more frequently, is not defeat or cause for despair and surrender. While we live, there is always a chance to do good.

Our motto would be that of long-time Harlem activist, Preston Wilcox: “Nobody can free us but ourselves.” For fund-raising, I would continue NAACP membership for organizational purposes, but focus on the Internet in ways similar to and other political groups both to convey information and raise funds. Indeed, if the IRS takes away the NAACP’s charitable tax status in retaliation for Executive Director Julian Bond’s anti-Bush speech, it could be a blessing in disguise, a proof that blacks are being persecuted by the government and need to respond financially and through personal involvement as so many of us did for the Democrats in the presidential race even though the Democrats did precious little to deserve our support.

Don’t like my plan? Then, formulate one of your own, if not for the NAACP, then for a group with whom you have influence, or one based on what you as individual can do. We need individual as well as collective action.

Jeremiah is speaking to our condition when he wails that: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Those to whom he was speaking in his time did not heed his warnings and they were destroyed. In the light of their history, and in the light of our conditions, we must opt for realism in our work and thought rather than rely on a hope mired in fantasy.

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