Monday, August 4, 2008

Personal Aside: Back to the `60s with Barack Obama.

This article was written for The Chicago Daily Observer.

In the 1960s many Americans, me included, were powerfully influenced by a book, “Crisis in Black and White” by Lawrence Silberman. With the nation in ferment over civil rights, Silberman happened to hit the jackpot with a book that stirred liberal impulses, including mine. By 1966, 42 years ago, I was the officer at The Quaker Oats Company charged with rectifying imbalance in minority hiring and opportunities. The original view was that if equal opportunity legislation were to be passed, blacks and other minorities would swiftly take advantage of their new freedom and rise to the top.

That was the reigning liberal consensus until Silberman’s book came out. Silberman laid out a radical thesis. He said that even if all the shackles of discrimination that held minorities back for decades were to be removed, the result would be rather like a runner freed from manacles on his feet: he couldn’t be expected to plunge headlong into the run without significant help. Essentially Silberman was saying that blacks, particularly, were inferior and had to be helped through concerted corporate action which actively discriminated FOR them as they had been discriminated AGAINST in years passed.

His book made a powerful impression on me. Like many, I had chafed at the inequities in treatment that I noticed on a trip to Washington, D. C. in 1951 where “colored only” restrooms still existed in some of the suburban Virginia restaurants, where major hotels still retained the right to keep blacks from registering and where assuredly even in the nation’s capital a condition of separate but unequal in housing, restaurant service, taxi service and theatre attendance was predominant. The city’s biggest legitimate theatre, The National, allowed blacks only to sit in balconies to view performances. A string of motels outside the city were held apart from whites—for black habitation only. The major hotels in town…the Statler Hilton, the Mayflower, the Sheraton Park…were reserved for whites only. There were only a very few exceptions. Ralph Bunche, an official of the United Nations and former NAACP official, was allowed to stay at the Statler Hilton. Congressman Adam, Clayton Powell was a resident at the Shoreham apartments. William Dawson, the Chicago congressman also chairman of House Government Operations, was allowed to dine at the Mayflower.

All these things infuriated me. When in 1958 I took my first job in Washington working for a senior congressman on foreign affairs, the condition had improved slightly. But assuredly when Silberman’s book appeared and I was involved in running a tutorial remedial reading program at the Ickes housing project on the South Side…and a free nutrition education program on the West Side…as well as an early minority enterprise program on the West Side…it made powerful sense to me. Now I realize that essentially I was sold on the concept that blacks were unequal to the challenge and that whitey would have to move over and surrender some of his liberties to them.

In 1969 when I became an assistant commerce secretary I at last had the power to rectify the imbalance, I thought. I wanted to do it for two reasons: first to enable minorities to attain a measure of social justice and secondly for a very real partisan reason. As a Republican I felt my party had missed th boat on civil rights and I wanted desperately to do what I could to win support from minorities so as to build a broader, more integrative party.

Once sworn in, I resolved to do it by convincing the Nixon administration to embrace affirmative action. The administration was already doing some of this with employment thanks to the work of a good friend of mine, Arthur Fletcher, assistant secretary of labor who devised the concept beyond equal opportunity in hiring but forceful quotas for what was then known as the “hard core” unemployed.

As for me, I looked at the existing statutes passed by the Congress. One was the Small Business Act of 1953. The Small Business Administration was created to push actively for inclusion of small business…then overwhelmingly white…to get federal contracts. What I did as the top officer in minority enterprise was to take the SBA act and have it amended in its section 8-A so as to mandate…force…the government to patronize minority—principally black—businesses. I did this with the help of Sen. Jacob Javits (R-NY), Sen. Charles Percy (R-IL) and a host of Democrats including my then good friend…not so much a good friend now…Sen. Walter F. Mondale (D-MN). I worked at the time with Jackie Robinson, then an executive with Chock-full-0-Nuts coffee, Whitney Young of the Urban League, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Roy Innis of CORE.

The enlarged 8-A section produced hundreds of billions of dollars of contracts for minorities, principally blacks. Something told me in the back of my mind that this was the height of unfairness…that I was actively discriminating against white Americans…so I wrote into the measure that the activity should last only 10 years. Hah! Not only is it still going but a feature was added to bring the benefits of active governmental discrimination to women as well. This I firmly opposed and testified against it after I returned to Quaker—but the genie was out of the bottle. A genie I had freed.

What has this to do with Barack Obama? Significantly the entire concept of affirmative action has started to fall into disrepute. But it is amazing to me that this young man…just having turned 47…who was only eight years old when I launched this revolution…still is focused on 1960s guilt-ridden programs that have not worked. He has called for even more affirmative action. He demands “reparations” for slavery.

I have seen affirmative action in hiring to be one of the worst things that ever happened to minorities…principally black Americans. When I returned to my corporation, I sensed the anger and hostility from those who resented what I had done and who turned their hostility against blacks who moved to the front of the line. Many of these people were able but no matter—all were tarred with the brush of government-sponsored discrimination and their effectiveness was marred.

With minority business, government contracts began to reward inept management. Politicians took over on the local level—such as the Daley machine under two mayors, cutting deals with politically manipulative blacks, setting black tokens into “president and CEO” positions while whites pulled the levers of power. As result, national faith and trust in the ability of minorities to rise in the system was destroyed and the legacy today is that when you see a top black manager in a post you have the faint suspicion…sometimes validated…that he or she wouldn’t be in that post without state-sponsored corporate discrimination.

I cannot undo the past. In justification it could be said that I meant well. But ever since I have become wary of white guilt-ridden liberals because that is what I was. And I see many white, guilt-ridden liberals supporting Barack Obama for the wrong reasons. Not because his ideas are vital: they are a retread of the `60s of which I am familiar. But these younger white, guilt-ridden liberals have not yet learned what I learned to my discomfort.

Therefore I was heartened when John McCain who had dabbled as a supporter of affirmative action has now courageously turned the corner and opposes an issue that will appear on the Arizona ballot. When I first interviewed Barack Obama a decade ago on the radio I had a faint glimmer that with his youth he saw the terrible damage affirmative action could cause. I even tried to get it out of my head that as the first black president of the “Harvard Law Review”—and I know Harvard having been a Kennedy Fellow there—he was a product of affirmative action. I frankly don’t know if that was the case with Obama—but I haven’t seen the breadth of fresh insights that one would have a right to expect from someone with those credentials, someone who was an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. I still can’t get it out of my head that perhaps he so enjoyed affirmative action in his career that he wants to extend the beneficent state-run discriminatory pattern unduly in the future.

For that reason, I am doing all I can to convince Americans to shuck affirmative action, to repeal the 8-A that I helped create, so that the time will come…during my lifetime, hopefully…when a black American will be able to serve as president without having been the beneficiary of discrimination in reverse or use of the race card that Obama played when he touted how different he is in skin pigmentation from other American presidents—hoping just one last time to capitalize on that white guilt that animated me so many years ago.


  1. The white radicals who controlled NAACP - Roger Baldwin, Jane Addams & etc. - made sure that Booker T. Washington was consigned to oblivion and W.E.B. DuBois and his 'talented 10%' valorized.

  2. Obama does not want reparations for blacks, according to a story by Christopher Wills.

    You have come full circle -- and you are wrong now. Your reactions are superficial.