In 1970, when black students occupied the dean’s office at Harvard Divinity School to protest against the absence of African-American scholars on the school’s faculty, the white administration was forced to respond and interview black candidates. It asked James Cone, the greatest theologian of his generation, to come to Cambridge, Mass., for a meeting. But the white power structure had no intention of offering Cone a job. To be black, in its eyes, was bad enough. To be black, brilliant and fiercely independent was unpalatable. And so the job was given to a pliable African-American candidate who had never written a book, a condition that would remain unchanged for the more than three decades he taught at Harvard.
Harvard got what it wanted. Mediocrity in the name of diversity. It was a classic example of how the white power structure plays people of color. It decides whom to promote and whom to silence. When then-Maj. Colin Powell helped cover up the 1968 massacre of some 500 civilians at My Lai in Vietnam he was assured a glittering career in the Army. When Barack Obama proved obedient to the Chicago political machine, Wall Street and the Democratic Party establishment he was promoted to the U.S. Senate and the presidency.
Diversity in the hands of the white power elites—political and corporate—is an advertising gimmick. A new face, a brand, gets pushed out front, accompanied by the lavish financial rewards that come with serving the white power structure, as long as the game is played. There is no shortage of women (Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Donna Brazile), Latinos (Tom Perez and Marco Rubio) or blacks (Vernon Jordan, Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson) who sell their souls for a taste of power.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” writes that “Barack Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms.” But this was true only for those black writers like Coates and Michael Eric Dyson who were obsequious cheerleaders for Obama. If, like Cornel West, you were black and criticized Obama you were isolated and attacked by Obama surrogates as a race traitor.
“For those who didn’t support Obama it was the lonely time,” said Glen Ford, the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, when we spoke recently. “It’s like A.D. and B.C. Before Obama time, my politics reflected that of a black commentator, probably within a respectable black political spectrum. I’m looking at a fax, ‘NAACP September 8, 2007. NAACP regional leader.’ I got this after giving a keynote speech in Little Rock, Ark., in commemoration of the events in Little Rock in ’57. You see what I’m saying? I could do that, even as late as 2007. Then Obama happened. It was a wonderful time for people who endorsed Obama. If you didn’t endorse Obama, you were verboten in the community. All of a sudden you were ostracized.”
The absence of genuine political content in our national discourse has degraded it to one between racists and people who don’t want to be identified as racists. The only winners in this self-destructive cat fight are corporations such as Goldman Sachs, whose interests no American can vote against, along with elite institutions dedicated to perpetuating the plutocracy. Drew G. Faust, the first woman president of Harvard University, whose appointment represented a triumph for diversity, upon her retirement was appointed to the board of Goldman Sachs, a role for which she will receive compensation totaling over half a million dollars a year. A new and “diverse” group of Democratic Party candidates, over half of whom have been recruited from the military, the CIA, the National Security Council and the State Department, is hoping to rise to political power based on the old con.
“It’s an insult to the organized movements of people these institutions claim to want to include,” Ford said. “These institutions write the script. It’s their drama. They choose the actors, whatever black, brown, yellow, red faces they want.”
“I don’t think a black left should be investing any political capital or energy into getting Barack Obamas into a Harvard,” Ford said, “or believing it can transform Harvard or any of these ruling-class universities from the inside out, any more than it can transform the Democratic Party from the inside out.”
Ford points out that “diversity” has been substituted by the white power elites for “affirmative action.” And, he argues, diversity and affirmative action are radically different. The replacement of affirmative action with diversity, he says, effectively “negates African-American history as a legal basis for redress.”
Once the Supreme Court in its 1978 Bakke decision outlawed “quotas” for racial minorities, ruling institutions were freed from having to establish affirmative action programs that would have guaranteed a space for those traditionally excluded. The Trump administration’s recent reversal of an Obama-era policy that called on universities to consider race as a factor in admissions is an attempt to eradicate even diversity. President Trump and his racist enablers, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are resegregating America.
“You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair … ,” President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965 to the graduating class of Howard University. “This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.”
Johnson’s call, along with that of Martin Luther King Jr., was swiftly sabotaged by white, liberal elites, who divorced racial justice from economic justice. White liberals could live with laws prohibiting segregation but not with giving up some of their financial and social privilege.
“White liberals are not seeking justice,” Ford said. “They’re seeking absolution. Anything that absolves them of responsibility for what this society has done, they welcome it. They’re hungry for it.”
“The legal, as well as moral, basis for affirmative action lay in the culpability of the United States and all of its layers of government in the enslavement and Jim Crow ‘hobbling’ of African-Americans—a unique history of oppression of a specific people that requires institutional redress,” Ford has written. “Otherwise, the legacies of these crimes will reproduce themselves, in mutating forms, into infinity. Once the specificity of the Black American grievance was abandoned, affirmative action became a general catch-all of various historical wrongs. Stripped of its core, affirmative action morphed into ‘diversity,’ a vessel for various aggrieved groups that was politically versatile (and especially useful to the emerging Black deal makers of electoral and corporate politics), but no longer rooted in Black realities. The affirmative action of Dr. King and President Johnson was a species of reparations, a form of redress for specific and eminently documentable harms done to African Americans, as a people. It was understood as a social debt owed to a defined class.”
“ ‘Diversity,’ ” Ford wrote, “recognizes no such debt to a particular people, or to any people at all. Rather, its legal basis is the ‘compelling interest’ of public institutions in a diversified student body (or faculty).”
Diversity does not force the white power structure to address racial injustice or produce results within the black underclass. This feint to diversity was abetted, Ford points out, by black elitists who found positions for themselves in the power structure in exchange for walking away from the poor and marginalized.
Ford calls these black elitists “representationalists” who “want to see some black people represented in all sectors of leadership, in all sectors of society. They want black scientists. They want black movie stars. They want black scholars at Harvard. They want blacks on Wall Street. But it’s just representation. That’s it.”
The plague of diversity lies at the core of our political dysfunction. The Democratic Party embraces it. Donald Trump’s Republican Party repudiates it. But as a policy it is a diversion. Diversity has done little to ameliorate the suffering of the black underclass. Most blacks are worse off than when King marched in Selma. African-Americans have lost over half of their wealth since the financial collapse of 2008 because of falling homeownership rates and job loss. They have the highest rate of poverty at 27.4 percent, followed by Hispanics at 26.6 percent and whites at 9.9 percent. And 45.8 percent of black children under 6 live in poverty, compared with 14.5 percent of white children in that age group. Forty percent of the nation’s homeless are African-Americans although blacks make up only 13 percent of our population. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.
Diversity does not halt the stripping away of our civil liberties, the assault on our ecosystem or the punishing effects of mandated austerity and deindustrialization. It does not confront imperialism. Diversity is part of the mechanics of colonialism. A genuine revolutionary, Patrice Lumumba, was replaced with the pliant and corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko. Both were black. But one fought the colonial tyrants and the other served them. A political agenda built solely around “diversity” is a smokescreen for injustice.
The victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over the powerful Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary in Brooklyn last month is not a victory for diversity, although Ocasio-Cortez is a woman of color. It is a victory of political substance over the empty rhetoric of the Democratic Party. Ocasio-Cortez defied the party establishment as an avowed member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She could not even get a pre-election endorsement from Bernie Sanders, her mentor. She calls for Medicare for all, the abolishment of ICE, a federal jobs program and an end to the wars in the Middle East and has denounced Israel’s massacre of unarmed Palestinians. She stands for something. And it is only when we stand for something, including reparations for African-Americans, that we have a chance to dismantle corporate tyranny.
“I’ve always felt, in the early ’60s when I was just a kid, that the silent partner, sometimes reluctant although still a partner, in the civil rights movement were the corporations who wanted a unified market,” Ford said. “Jim Crow was a big anomaly in terms of creating a more unified market in the United States. You can’t have an Atlanta skyline, with its magnificent elevators, with Jim Crow. Not only would Atlanta not be an international city, it couldn’t be a national city with Jim Crow. The corporate forces wanted to break down Jim Crow and explicit color discrimination. It standardized the market. This is what capitalists do. The Democratic Party is not behaving any differently than the corporations over the past 50 years.”
“I’m not worried by the Trump phenomenon,” Ford said. “That doesn’t scare me. It’s disconcerting. But it doesn’t scare me. I’m far more afraid of the space that it gives to the corporatists. It’s to their advantage. Trump defines the white man’s party’s space. It’s big. It’s no joke. It can win presidential elections. It can win again. It needs money from corporate Republicans, but it doesn’t need anything else from them. The white man’s party more clearly defines the space the Democrats claim. It’s everybody who is not an overt racist.”
“I don’t think Trump will ever beat Obama’s records in terms of deportation,” Ford went on. “We should be fighting U.S. immigration policy. But that isn’t Trump. We should be organizing against Amazon taking over a whole city. But that isn’t Trump. Will Trump’s next pick for the Supreme Court be different from any pick that a Republican would make? In fact, because he’s crazy, he might fuck up and make a bad pick for himself. He ain’t deep enough to pick the worst guy. He hasn’t read the Federalist Papers.”