Citizenship, Belonging, and the Experiences of Amero-Africans in West Africa: An Analysis of William Innes’ Early History of Liberia

Rev. Dr. William Innes of Edinburgh

In 1831 and again in 1833, Waugh and Innes of Edinburgh published a history of Liberia by ‘Minister of the Gospel’ William Innes.[1]

In his Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa, Innes describes the founding, structure, and struggles of this West African colony, founded in the early 1820’s as a haven for free and previously enslaved people of African descent and for ‘recaptives’[2] rescued from the newly illegal transatlantic slave trade.[3] Innes was an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, an ‘independent’-minded Presbyterian and then Baptist minister, one-time chaplain of Stirling Castle, missionary, bookseller, and author of over two dozen books and other publications, mostly on religious topics. The titles of his publications, such as Reasons for Separating from the Church of Scotland (Dundee, 1804), Christianity, the Only Effectual Support Under the Afflictions of Life (Edinburgh, 1810), Domestic Religion, or an Exposition of the Precepts of Christianity Regarding the Duties of Domestic Life (Edinburgh, 1822), and Instructions for Young Enquirers (Edinburgh, translated into Gaelic 1827) indicate why this otherwise mostly theological writer decided to write a history of a colony.[4] As we shall see, this reform-minded man viewed Liberia as a worthy project within the larger goal of uplifting lives as well as souls.

Although Innes’ account includes some discussion of the hardships faced by the colonists trying to build a community in and wrest a living from this unfamiliar and somewhat hostile territory, he presents a generally positive view of the experience and prospects of the Liberian colonization project. Indeed, Innes seems anxious to convince his readers that the colony could not only exist and thrive, but that it should. As we shall see, Liberia is, to Innes, a project of community-building in line with ordered nature and with American beliefs in democracy, self-sufficiency, and the sense of social harmony necessary for a united and healthy political community. In interrogating this text, then, we are led to ask: how are ideas about citizenship and belonging implied and described in Innes’ history of Liberia, how do they relate to the lived experiences of Amero-Africans in the United States and Liberia, and how are these ideas challenged?

Innes commences his history with a discussion of the historical conditions in which this colonization movement arose. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in November of 1816 as a benevolent institution dedicated to the long-conceived but as yet unsystematic scheme of colonizing black inhabitants of the United States to Africa, the continent of their ancestral origin.[5] As Innes and many others saw it, including many abolitionists and proslavery advocates alike,[6] black people could never live peacefully side by side with white Americans. Innes writes that all black persons are ‘branded by their colour as an inferior caste.’[7] He argues that so long as they live as an ‘inferior’ class within the general community of free persons, both black and white will suffer the ill effects of living in a mixed-race society, made up as it is of people with necessarily disparate natures and irreconcilable interests.[8] So long as people of African descent live within the mainstream white American community, the majority of the former will remain ‘idle, ignorant, vicious’ as a result of their disfavor, and cites as an example of this that ‘in many cases the free negroes are a great annoyance to the community, often living by pilfering the property of their neighbors.’[9] Therefore, Innes explains, the only way that people of African descent can create communities to which they naturally belong is to form them separately from white communities, and the best place to do so is by establishing their own communities in the continent of their ancestor’s origin. In doing so, they can enjoy the rights and privileges of citizens with others who share their place in the racial hierarchy. [10] In his majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court 1856 decision in the Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford case, which exacerbated the divisive political issues of slavery and race that helped spark the United States’ Civil War,[11] Chief Justice Roger Taney agrees with Innes’ theory of natural racial separation. He likewise believes that human beings are manifestly and naturally separated into inferior and superior races that cannot form a united political community.[12] Ideas such as Innes’ and Taney’s permeated political debate and policy in the United States for decades to come, widely disenfranchising black Americans and relegating them to second-class citizenship throughout the nation.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Yet the colonization scheme as described above is a manifestation of paradoxical ideas about belonging and citizenship rather than a straightforward, across the board rejection of the rights or abilities of black persons to enjoy political power, despite Taney’s assertions to the contrary. According to Innes, Taney, many in the ACS, the U.S. government, and so many Americans, people of African origin who were brought to American shores to labor, to raise crops and buildings and in every other way contribute to the economy and to the material well-being of United States citizens nevertheless do not belong within the political community nor could ever be citizens themselves. Yet advocates of colonization such as Innes believed that people of African descent were or could become citizens in Africa even if they were not born there. This was and continued to be believed by many of African descent as well. W.E.B. DuBois, African-American historian, racial theorist, and proponent of the pan-Africanist ‘vision’[13] of Africa as the natural homeland for all people of African descent, describes Africa as ‘fatherland,’ and ‘motherland.’ DuBois concedes that he has only a ‘tenuous’ connection to Africa ‘in culture and race’, like most people colonized to Africa in Innes’ time. African scholar M.B. Akpan points out that Amero-Africans (acculturated Americans of African descent who settled in Africa) who went to Liberia were vastly different from native Africans in about as many ways as they could be, in dress, language, religion, taste in food, clothing, housing, art, and so on.[14] Yet some, like DuBois, perceived themselves as bound to Africa by an essential ‘kinship.’[15] For Innes and others, this kinship is entirely racially based; for DuBois and many pan-Africanists, ‘the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and the insult; and this heritage binds [us] together…’[16]

Innes and proponents of Amero-African colonization, Taney and other racial hierarchists, and pan-Africanists like Dubois share a belief that there is something about a common African descent and shared experiences, however combined with ethnic descent and acculturation from elsewhere, which creates a natural community. Such natural communities, in turn, create opportunities for citizenship that cannot be enjoyed at all, or at least not fully, in any other context. These ideas are in tension throughout Innes’ account of how West African colonies came to be and the way they persisted despite significant challenges and hardships. These challenges arose within the colonies themselves and from conflicts between colonists and the ecology, and between colonists and their native African neighbors. Innes’ account of the difficulties faced by the Liberian colonists differs significantly in many respects from later scholarship and from other contemporary accounts. In Innes’ account, these difficulties are relatively minor compared to the benefits the colonists enjoyed as citizens of a new community to which they rightly belonged.[17] The contrast between Innes’ account and other contemporary accounts backed up by later scholarship[18] imply that Innes’ driving concern to use Liberia as a positive example of how racially-based communities are formed biased his very favorable presentation of the colony.

Regarding their prospects for acceptance and inclusion within the mainstream American social and political community, Innes describes his perception of the state in which non-enslaved people of African descent find themselves:

…[T]roughout the non-slaveholding states, the negroes form a distinct race, branded by their color as an inferior caste; regarded with a species of loathing when thought of as companions, and for ever shut out from the privileges of the white men by whom they are surrounded. Be it prejudice, or founded on reason, the feeling of dislike mutually exists… .No matter what may be their industry and sobriety; no matter what their attainments in science, or their character for morality, they can never hope to pass the broad line of demarcation, or assume a station of equality with the other members of the community.[19]

Frederick Douglass ca. 1847-52, Samuel Miller, American 1822-1882, Art Institute of Chicago, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Racial hierarchists like Taney share the ‘species of loathing’ which Innes describes. Today, Innes’ and Taney’s descriptions of race relations are difficult to read, especially Taney’s. For one, they conflict with contemporary thoughts and sensibilities about race which are, in the main, orders of magnitude more optimistic about the likelihood that people of various races and ethnicities can meaningfully share and participate in communities as social and political equals. For another, they don’t ring true, especially in Taney’s harsh Dred Scott account of the social and political issues of race in America. After all, there were many mixed-race communities in which black Americans lived relatively safely and peacefully alongside their white neighbors even given the national tensions over issues of race. Leading black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass settled in one such community, New Bedford, Massachusetts, following his escape from slavery in Maryland in 1838.[20] Taney’s opinion reads very much like a partisan political document and presents a wholly dismal picture of both the capabilities and prospects of people of African descent.[21] Innes’ commentary, on the other hand, presents a more mixed though still racially hierarchical view. On the one hand, he implies in the selection above and makes clearer elsewhere that he believes people of African descent are fully capable of ‘industry and sobriety,’ of morality, of worthy and admirable attainments, of being ‘provident’ and ‘respectable,’ of conducting ‘affairs of empire,’ and so on.[22] Yet Innes does not believe they are capable of this, on the whole, so long as they live in communities among their white racial ‘superiors.’[23] Removal from white society and colonization with others of their own racial heritage, then, is the answer.

Yet all the qualities that Innes enumerates as making people belong within communities and which he characterizes as those of good citizens, he already ascribes to Americans of African descent. We can see this most clearly in the passages in Innes’ history where he describes the contrast between Amero-African colonizers and the beneficial and ‘civilizing’ influence that they exert on their native Africans neighbors. In matters of language, religion, dress, morality, ability, education, and so on, they are in turn, deems Innes, superior to their native African neighbors and the latter, recognizing this, wish to emulate them.[24] We can also recognize Innes’ conflicting views in the terms he chooses to refer to the Amero-African colonists and the native African peoples in their territorial conflicts. When describing the participants and victims of battles, Innes refers to Amero-Africans and their native African allies in such terms as ‘woman’, ‘men,’ ‘persons,’ ‘mother’, ‘the people’, and so on. By contrast, Innes refers to native Africans primarily by terms such as ‘barbarian,’ ‘savage’, ‘enemy’, and ‘wretches’, characterized by ‘moral deformity.’[25] This implies that for Innes, civilization can depend on culture, virtues, religious beliefs, and modes of comportment rather than race. The very qualities that make people belong to a community and become good citizens can and are often held by Amero-Africans whatever side of the Atlantic. As we can see in the selection above, Innes concedes this even as he explains why black people cannot belong within American white communities. He allows that black individuals can and do ‘rise above their degraded brethren’ and exhibit such good-citizenship qualities as ‘character for morality’ and ‘industry and sobriety,’ capable of ‘mak[ing] attainments in science’ and so forth.[26] Innes, then, presents two very distinct conceptions of belonging, citizenship, and race which are, if not in direct conflict, at least in tension with one another.

Clipping from The African Repository and Colonial Journal, V. XIII 1837, describing the efforts of William Johnson to settle his former slaves in Liberia, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Innes resolves these conflicting ideas about race and belonging to his own satisfaction through his appeal to divine approval. Innes, as a ‘Minister of the Gospel,’[27] looks for and finds signs of God’s will that the Liberian colony survive. He argues that God must approve of removing black people to Liberia because the preservation of Liberian colonies is unlikely otherwise given the obstacles they faced, which in turn shows divine approbation of this racial separation.[28] The idea of divine arrangement of peoples into natural types and nations which pervades Innes’ history resembles such racially hierarchical theories as Taney’s. However, Innes’ view of racial ordering displays more divine benevolence for the black race even as it is extremely patriarchal. Innes perceives a divine will that all people of African descent be redeemed through their separate political and religious institutions. This will best be brought about first by separating the races into naturally sympathetic racially divided communities, and then locating those communities in places where they can spread the gospel of Christ to others of the same race who have not yet received it through the establishment of colonies. The colonizers were then placed in a position to help bring about the divine will in the world such as providing a Christian example to their African neighbors[29] and helping to end the ‘evil’ and ‘dreadful malady’ of the slave trade.[30]

Yet Innes’ overall sunny take on the lived experience of the Liberian colonists contrasts with contemporary and later accounts of the Liberian experiment. Douglass, for example, is skeptical of the glowing accounts of the colony’s success as well as of its prospects of helping to end the slave trade; he questions the motives and therefore the accuracy of those offering glowing accounts of the colonization effort’s success.[31] Innes’ account is one which invites such skepticism. He considers the ‘signal preservation’ of the colony a sign of God’s approval but does not consider the severe hardships that he chooses to cite such as supply shortages, attacks from neighboring tribes, difficulties raising crops, the fact that they had to wrest the colony’s land concession from Dei ‘King Peter’ at gunpoint, and the high rates of disease and death as signs of God’s disapproval.[32] Innes seems to minimize the hardships in Liberia as he follows every mention of them with an immediate qualification or comparison, such as citing the early American colonies’ struggles or remarking that the Liberian colonies could have suffered worse.[33] He goes so far as to dismiss symptoms of illness as mere climatic adjustment reactions of healthy bodies, though he does admit that many died.[34] According to historian Claude Andrew Clegg, however, the colonists often suffered extremely high rates of hunger, disease, privation, and mortality.[35] Clegg also cites many examples of the colonists’ difficulties, including the telling example of Emily Hooper, a young colonist who, after an extraordinarily difficult and expensive effort on her father’s part to obtain her freedom and fund her journey to Liberia, decided to return to slavery rather than further suffer the hardships of the colony. This episode was a great embarrassment to the ACS.[36]

In addition to the evidence of hardship and mortality in many reports, accounts like Innes’ are roundly challenged by argument and even ridicule. One particularly scornful and influential critic of the colonization scheme was Douglass. Indeed, except for the fact that he actually refers to [news]paper accounts in his ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color’ address delivered in Rochester, New York in 1851, it would be reasonable to assume that Douglass was referring to Innes’ history when he observed: ‘Papers that never speak of colored men in this country but to abuse and slander them, speak in the most flattering terms of …Liberia.’[37] To Douglass, arguments such as those offered by Innes and American statesman Henry Clay, who recommend the removal of black people from American society due to idleness, lawlessness, and other perceived flaws invite a counter-question: ‘Suppose we should admit… that we are degraded and dissolute, as a class; are there no other degraded and dissolute people?… Who talks of their expatriation?’ to which he answers: ‘No one.’[38] Douglass also mocks the idea that colonization movement will weaken slavery as an institution. It’s the presence of free black people in slave states that help weaken slavery by demonstrating to the enslaved that there is another way they can live in America. Removing free black people to Africa, argues Douglass, removes this constant and substantial threat to slaveholders’ desire to rule unchallenged over a docile, resigned slave population.[39]

Liberian Senate drawn by Robert K. Griffin, Monrovia, 1856, public domain via the Library of Congress

Throughout his early history of Liberia, Innes wavers but does not stray far from his theme of Liberia as a natural home for Americans of African descent. His explanations for how and why Amero-Africans, acculturated to the United States in language, morals, religion, dress, and overall ways of life nevertheless belong in a land which most have never seen are not, as we have seen, entirely consistent. Why Amero-Africans can only successfully gain a sense of belonging and engage as citizens in a place where they are outsiders in every way except skin color is also not satisfactorily explained; indeed, Innis presents Liberia as if it were the only alternative to black Americans continuing to live in a state of political and social exclusion and oppression in mainstream white American society. Innes offers the ‘signal preservation’ of the Liberian colony as proof of its value to God and humankind as well as of its eventual success, but glosses over any consideration that the terrible hardships and dangers that the colonists had to face were evidence to the contrary. Others such as Douglass, however, perceive the flaws in the explanations and evidence that Innes offers, and presents both counterevidence and counterarguments that helped undermine support for the colonization project over the decades of its existence.[40]

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Bibliography

Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973): 217-36.

Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition. Accessed 20 March 2018 at http://frederickdouglass.infoset.io/

Douglass, Frederick, and John W. Blassingame. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series 1, Speeches, Debates and Interviews; John W. Blassingame, Editor. Vol.1, 1841-46. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975.

Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923.

Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974.

Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833. Accessed 20 March 2018 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044051050987

Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H Van Evrie, and Samuel A Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, Accessed 21 March 21, 2018 at https://www.loc.gov/item/17001543/

West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

[1] Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833, frontispiece

[2] Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004 p. 37

[3] Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961 p. 51

[4] ‘William Innes’ in Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923 pp. 325-326

[5] West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971 p. 93

[6] Clegg p. 3-4, Staudenraus pp. 2-7

[7] Ibid. p 102

[8] Innes pp. iv-v, 101-103

[9] Ibid. p. iv

[10] Ibid. pp. 102, 106-107

[11] Clegg pp. 174, 195-196

[12] United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H. Van Evrie, and Samuel A. Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860 pp. 18-19

[13] Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974 p. 5

[14] Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973) p. 219

[15] Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975 pp. 116

[16] Ibid. p. 117

[17] Innes pp. 87-89

[18] Clegg pp. 226-229

[19] Ibid. p. 102

[20] Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996 pp. 353ff

[21] Taney pp. 17-18

[22] Innes pp. 77, 86-87, 91

[23] Ibid. pp. 101-102, 176

[24] Innes p. 83, 86-89

[25] Ibid. pp. 57-65

[26] Ibid. p 102

[27] Ibid., frontispiece

[28] Ibid. pp. vi-vii, 37-38, 62, 64, 72, 91

[29] Ibid., pp. 112-115

[30] Ibid., pp. 9-10, 108-112

[31] ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 26 January 1851,’ North Star, 30 January 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, pp. 300-302

[32] Innes, pp. v-vi, 16-21, 38-39, 93-95, 101, 108-111; Clegg, p. 37; West pp. 114-115

[33] Innes., pp. 91-92

[34] Ibid., p. 93

[35] Clegg, see descriptions and figures in chapter 7 of The Price of Liberty, ‘To Live and Die in Liberia,’ pp. 201-248

[36] Ibid., pp. 187-188

[37] Douglass, ‘Persecution,’ p. 302

[38] ‘Henry Clay and Colonization Cant, Sophistry, and Falsehood: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 2 February 1851, North Star, 6 February 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, p. 323

[39] Ibid., p. 322

[40] Staudenraus, pp. 249-250

Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!

angelina-weld-grimke-image-public-domain

Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of the wonderful and far-too-unknown author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on her birthday!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date…  (The orginal site at http://www.sappho.com/poetry/a_grimke.html is no longer active, please see below to learn more)

angelina-weld-grimke…and learn more about the luminous Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké – in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké – by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké – from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) – by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké – by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Black Issues in Philosophy – A New Series Presented by the American Philosophical Association Blog

Here’s the announcement by the APA:

‘Dear Readers:

We here introduce Black Issues in Philosophy: Blog of the APA Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers.

The purpose of this series is to offer announcements, discussions, critical reviews, opinionated statements (op-eds), and philosophical suggestions, ideas, or explorations relevant to the status of philosophers of African descent and readers interested in such issues….’

You can read articles, find out how to contribute, and more at the APA’s website

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Affirmative Action and Balance

Justice et inégalité - les plateaux de la balance by Frachet, Jan 2010, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThe recent Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, et al., was a cautious but significant one in favor of affirmative action. As Adam Liptak writes in his New York Times article ‘Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Program at University of Texas‘, while ‘not all affirmative action programs will pass constitutional muster… the ruling’s basic message was that admissions officials may continue to consider race as one factor among many in ensuring a diverse student body.’

This opposes the central tenet of affirmative action opposition: admission to universities can only be based on merit, which in turn is determined mainly by grades buttressed by the quality of relative achievements; therefore, only color-blind admissions criteria are just and fair.

But as we all well know, educational institutions have been generally the purview of the wealthy, the connected, and the white for most of our history. Opponents of affirmative action say the only way to correct this historic injustice is to remove considerations of race and wealth in the admissions process itself, relying on other methods of promoting equal opportunity in education so as to make historically disadvantaged groups equally capable of high test scores and advanced achievement.

But I don’t agree, and am a proponent of some types of affirmative action, including the University of Texas’ well-designed and balanced method, for many reasons.

For one, some sort of affirmative action appears necessary to balance the historical wrongs of our educational system. I picture a classic scale, with a neutral, color-blind system based on merit alone as its fulcrum. For most of our history, the weights of racial, social, and economic privilege were piled almost entirely on one end. If the weights hadn’t been placed all at one end over time, then sure, color-blind admissions criteria might be fine. Opponents of affirmative action argue that the balance has already been corrected by other methods, such as a free public educational system, anti-discrimination laws, certain welfare and scholarship programs, and so on. But if it’s really been balanced, why the continued disparity in outcomes, within the schools and in relative chances of success after graduation in so many arenas of life? Putting the idea that some races are just naturally more gifted and capable of achievement than others aside for the moment, which I’ll consider shortly and (spoiler alert!) reject, the failure of equality in outcomes strongly suggest that color-blind policies don’t balance it all out. I think they are again, at best, the fulcrum of the scale, the default position. But the fact that race, money, and connections have been piled on one end over the centuries can’t be undone, so the balance can’t be reached by simply removing the weight of history. The weights with which to balance the other side are also selective policies, this time favoring those who are not part of historically advantaged groups, such as the wealthy, connected, and white. Of course, merit must count, as it’s always done; it would be a disservice to students to remove the challenge and expectation of excellence that propel learning and achievement, and this Supreme Court agrees. But it’s become clear that test-based merit can’t be the only consideration if we wish to right the balance.

To return to the idea that some racial and ethnic groups are naturally more intelligent or capable of advanced achievement than others: this claim has been shown by science and history to be deeply flawed, to say the least. All racial and ethnic groups have produced too many individuals of great intellectual ability and advanced achievement to make this claim convincing to anyone but the most hardened racists, and civilizations throughout history, made of up people of all races, have taken turns outperforming others in innovation and intellectual advances throughout world history. While test scores have shown that many racial and ethnic groups do, at times, perform lower on tests, the results change dramatically as the social circumstances of the test-takers do. If the ability to score high on tests is changeable, then it’s not likely to be simply genetic. And this is assuming that performance on such tests is the same thing, or a direct predictor of, merit as it relates to education, which is a huge and I think unjustifiable assumption, but this is a topic outside of the scope of this essay.

Furthermore, studies have also shown us is that student success and failure can depend not only intelligence and socioeconomic background, but on expectations of success on the part of teachers, of families, of communities, and most importantly, of the students themselves. To claim that a student has an equal opportunity to succeed whether or not they are part of a student body that includes a significant number of others like them, racially or otherwise, is untenable. There are a few particularly individualistic personalities who can and do achieve highly despite isolation on campus, despite racism, classicism, legal discrimination, and so forth. But as members of a highly social species, most human beings rely much more on the opinions of their fellow human beings, and on feelings of companionship and belonging. And when a student looks around campus and sees few or no-one like them, it’s unlikely they’ll expect to succeed where those like themselves have not.

The Supreme Court recognizes this simple fact: color-blind admissions programs are not always just in a society that’s not and never has been color-blind. Admissions programs admit real students into real campuses where they help prepare them for success in the real world – an often racist world. If an admissions program doesn’t succeed in making a campus look like an institution of a free and democratic society which values opportunity for all, it’s unlikely it could be a just and fair one.

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Sources and inspiration:

Affirmative Action: Court Decisions.’ National Conference of State Legislatures website

Booth, Margaret Zoller and Jean M. Gerard. Self-esteem and academic achievement: a comparative study of adolescent students in England and the United States, Sept 2011

The Black-White Test Score Gap. Edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips,
Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

Lindsey, Brink. ‘Why People Keep Misunderstanding the ‘Connection’ Between Race and IQ.’ The Atlantic, MAY 15, 2013

Liptak, Adam. ‘Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Program at University of Texas‘. The New York Times, June 23, 2016

Tauber, Robert T. Classroom Management: Sound Theory and Effective Practice. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007

O.P. Recommends: Fareed Zakaria on What America Could Learn From Singapore About Racial Integration

Singapore, Satay stalls along Boon Tat Street next to Telok Ayer Market by Allie Caulfield, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn thinking recently about the nature of government and its proper roles, I recalled this Fareed Zakaria piece about Singapore’s engineered diversity.

In it, Zakaria praises Singapore’s efforts to reduce racial and religious bigotry by increasing the diversity of its neighborhoods. The government’s tactics to achieve this would be intolerably intrusive to most Americans, and indeed to the citizens of most modern democratic nations. When it comes to race and class, the Singaporean law favors the government’s interest in providing an environment where citizens are brought up in familiarity with people who are different than they are, and therefore less subject to the harmful effects of bigotry, over the rights of individuals to freely choose where to live.

So can Singaporeans be considered more free than Americans when it comes to race and class? What does it mean to be free, in this sense? We struggle here in the United States from the ugly effects of entrenched bigotries, ancient and new, long after we considered it okay to sanction them by law: we live in self-segregated neighborhoods where racial minorities and the less wealthy enjoy a far lower level of health and personal safety, religious minorities (at this moment in our history, especially Muslims, although Quakers, Catholics, Jews, and others have had their turns) are subject to the suspicion and hatred born largely of ignorance, and social mobility is extremely slow. But we can choose to live, at least on paper, wherever we want. Does that really make us more free?

And if we generally agree, as a society, that we believe the end of bigotry is a worthy moral goal, is it right and proper for the government to be the arbiter of that goal? Is morality a governmental concern at all? Or is it the government’s role to keep out while citizens wrangle with important moral questions, interfering only to protect its citizens from bodily harm?

Along with Zakaria, I find much to admire in Singapore’s goal, and its tactics do appear to help foster social cohesion and reduce conflict. Would Americans would ever ‘go for’ anything like that, if our conflicts of race, class, and religion continue to set us against one another? I doubt it. But I don’t think we should kid ourselves that it makes us any more truly free.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

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Source and inspiration:

Zakaria, Fareed. ‘What America Could Learn From Singapore About Racial Integration’. The Washington Post, June 25, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/from-singapore-lessons-in-harmony-and-diversity/2015/06/25/86fcbfa2-1b72-11e5-93b7-5eddc056ad8a_story.html

Our Kids Don’t Want Our Legacy of Bigotry, Thank You Very Much

Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson from false rape charges in To Kill a Mockingbird

I just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It made me good and mad all over again.

I had been reading it a week or so ago when I came across a Facebook post of a young man (I’d guess about 15 years old) who started making videos, on his cell phone, of salespeople following him around in stores. You can make a pretty good guess what color his skin is. In a temper, I made a comment on that post, perhaps an incautious one, in that it could have been interpreted as too broadly accusatory. I called out anyone who was reading it, who might be engaged in that sort of behavior, to just stop it!

The thing is, I could be a target of my own comments. Even though I don’t remember ever following anyone around a store because of their skin color, I know my thoughts and actions are sometimes influenced by unjustly negative biases too, and I’ve caught myself, from time to time, automatically having low expectations of people, based on their appearance, before I’ve spoken with them or had a chance even to observe how they actually behave.

But that makes me mad too. I remember when I was very small, when I first became aware of (often subtly) bigoted comments and attitudes, in some of the grown-ups around me, be it towards people of another race, religion, sex, or sexuality. There was a black family next door, for example, and we played and chatted with those kids blissfully unaware of race issues. Over time, I realized that there was some sort of divide, some awkwardness, between ‘my’ people and ‘their’ people. I won’t say who, but I have quite a few relatives and family friends who are quite bigoted, and many more who are but less so. It made me uncomfortable, and the way the adults answered my questions often sounded dishonest, and were unsatisfying. That may be why, when I was in sixth and seventh grade especially, I was obsessed with the civil rights movement and the whole issues of American racism. I’m sure I checked out every single book in our school library on the subject, and I remember when I was assigned to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ a few years later, I had already read it several times. It’s still one of my favorite books.

So why am I mad at other people when I, too, catch myself in biased thinking? I’m mad on behalf of myself and every single other young person who inherited that unwanted baggage from each previous generation. And I’m willing to bet that, all things being equal, those adults who passed on those bigoted attitudes wouldn’t have chosen to inherit them either, since they are good in other ways.

Although I’m so conscious of that bias that creeps in, I’ll often adopt an exaggeratedly non-bigoted attitude (even if a person of color is behaving suspiciously or badly, I’ll sometimes pretend they’re not, for example), and for all of us who feel a little bigoted against our own wills and fight against it, young people pick up on subtle cues with astonishing insight. They pick up on those awkwardnesses, those little changes in the way you hold yourself, in the way you think and speak, in the presence of different people, and they all too often internalize it, adopting those attitudes themselves over time, even becoming more racist themselves in an attempt to justify those adopted instincts.

I feel that for every one of these kids who inherit racism, their innocence has been violated: not the kind of innocence that, I think, is often just idealized ignorance (like that regarding sex), but the good kind, where people are just people and they’re all equal candidates for companions and playmates. Little kids treat each other more or less the same when it comes to color, once they’ve asked those funny getting-to-know-you questions that, to adult ears, sound racist, though they reflect only honest curiosity (hence the lack of self-consciousness). The racial divide happen later, when the awkwardness creeps in, as you grow and realize that your very thoughts have become tainted with the quality of injustice that is bigotry. In these subtle little ways, people pass on those old nasty habits of thought and behavior, robbing the next generation of that kind of inner peace that justice brings, and of so many opportunities to have a wider circle of friends, companions, and allies.

That’s how I remember it happening.

Going back to the teen and his cell phone videos: while I felt defensive on his behalf, I was also disturbed that he called one of the women following him around ‘bitch’. Then I felt doubly sorry about how this kid is being betrayed: not only are adults around him behaving badly in treating him preemptively, and therefore unjustly, as a criminal, but he’s been inculcated with at least some degree of sexism already, in that he’s comfortable with calling women ‘bitch’. An epithet on his part would be warranted, I grant, but ‘bitch’? That’s as sexist as those women following him are racist.

In every way, as with the one before, and those before that, the older generation is letting this kid down, as we do all other kids we’re subjecting to our bad example.

But I’m hopeful. I think the internet, even as it’s making our kids more sophisticated and worldly-wise than we might be comfortable with, are also bringing kids in constant contact with others of all races and cultural backgrounds, and they’re communicating freely with them clear of adult interference. They’re learning that others, whose bodily appearance may be different, have the same sort of thoughts and emotions that they do, just as we did on the playground. Now, however, the adults are not present to infuse those interactions with their racism, purposefully or not. Mr. Barack Obama was right, when he observed of his daughters and their friends ‘…when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on those issues.’

Kids these days: they’re becoming cosmopolitan, in spite of all of those adults around them who justify their own bigotry by trying, unconsciously or not, to pass it on to their kids. Fortunately for the kids, I don’t think that’ll work this time around.