A Caste-ing Call
Professor Bryan K. Fair is to be commended for the novel approach he has taken in presenting a subject that has plagued this country since days of slavery: White privilege as juxtaposed to Black caste.
In “Part One: A Personal Narrative,” Fair carefully tells the story of his upbringing in predominantly Black Columbus, Ohio, as one of 10 children of a single mother. Living in places that had no heat also serve as an integral part of his upbringing. In his personal narrative, Fair not only speaks to the disparities he faced at home, but also refers to the shock he received when he transferred to a predominately White high school.
Fair discovered that his stellar academic preparation at his former predominately Black high school was of such inadequate depth that he struggled to match his previous marks. In spite of his insecurities, the support he received from family and friends made him determined to go to college. He eventually excelled, and — thanks to the university’s affirmative action program — he attended Duke University
Fair did well at Duke and decided to attend law school at UCLA. His narrative offers hope. But for each success story like his, there are several more of Black males who did not make it.
“Part Two: White Privilege And Black Despair: The Origins of Racial Caste In America,” provides the historical basis for the inequalities that have been institutionalized in what Fair calls a racial caste system in the United States. The term “caste” is especially compelling and discouraging because its definition conveys the message that one is born into his/her status and it will not change no matter how hard one tries. As Fair states: “Many persons in the United States have convinced themselves that it has been the most just, equal nation in history, that all men are created equal, that everyone has the same opportunities to achieve success, and that those who fail are inferior.” But he quickly disabuses the reader of this notion by stating: “The image of the self-made, individualistic American is in fact a mask hiding America’s true record of race, gender, and class privilege, and concealing the struggle of racial minorities, White women, and even poor White men, to gain equality.”
Fair provides analyses of relevant court cases to support his argument that without “federal anti-discrimination laws, some Whites made their Whiteness a basis for privilege and Blackness of infamy.” The conflict between White privilege and Black caste, according to Fair, resulted in the first Civil War of the 1860s and the second civil war of the 1960s — when affirmative action legislation was passed to “level the playing field.”
The critique of color blindness is a must read. According to Fair, the history of this country has been one of color consciousness; therefore, the pronouncements of color blindness and merit serve nothing less than as a smoke screen to maintain White privilege and racial caste.
The third part of the book — titled “The Constitutionality of Remedial Affirmative Action” — develops the rationale by referencing “landmark” civil rights court cases. Fair also provides seven myths that are used to attack the value of, and the need for, remedial affirmative action. In the section that follows each myth, he offers a factually supported rebuttal. Individuals or groups interested in information that debunks such myths as, “Affirmative action has failed,” “Affirmative action helps and hurts the wrong people,” “Affirmative action denies White males equal opportunity,” will find this section of the book especially useful and informative.
Fair summarizes the rationale for affirmative action when he states: “Remedial affirmative action gave me a chance for a productive life. But I had to make something of it, knowing that the price of failure was high! Unlike Justice Clarence Thomas and others, I am not ashamed that I benefited from remedial affirmative action. It helped improve my life. I have confidence and self-esteem and gained more, in part, by completing college and law school. … I am one of America’s ‘racial caste babies,’ who somehow survived a ghetto and who supports remedial policies designed to eliminate caste. I would never pull up the ladder that helped me climb out of racial poverty.”
This closing is very important to advocates and critics of affirmative action because they could view Fair as an example of an individual who has overcome major historical, personal, and political obstacles to become the success he is. In spite of the obstacles, he has maintained an attitude of hope and the conviction that this is his country and he plans to do everything in his power to influence Americans to debunk the myth of color blindness. According to Fair, “The color blindness model undermines the identification of the racial caste’s infrastructure.”
Detractors may use Fair’s success story as proof that affirmative action should be eliminated because it helps those people who really do not need help. Fair would counter such claims by attributing his success to the fact that he had support and encouragement from his mother, teachers, coaches, and friends as well as institutional affirmative action programs that provided access to those previously off-limits.
Fair has succeeded in blending his personal experiences with detailed analyses of court cases and U.S. Supreme Court Justices’ opinions to explain how the political and legal history of America is founded on the basis of White supremacy and White privilege. And the only solution he sees to bring about equity for those who have been disenfranchised is through affirmative action as we have known it for the past twenty years.
— Dr. Robert W. Ethridge is associate vice president for equal opportunity programs at Emory University in Atlanta.
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