By Tarty Teh
With a healthy respect for complexities, I am not always the first to jump into any argument in which so many well-informed persons can’t seem to agree. But the debate about affirmative action has raged on for so long I feel my opinion on the issue is overdue. Well–so much for guts.
I am impressed mostly by the efforts of those who argue against affirmative action–impressed, that is, that some have managed to treat it as if it were a crutch for the permanently disabled. There is a familiar treatment of race issues by conservatives which is typified by an article, titled “Buying Off
Justice,” by Mr. James K. Glassman, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Research fellows at policy institutes are not exactly plagued by ignorance; so their mis-labeling of historical facts is often more a function of their desire to change rather than interpret policies. And while we generally are enraged by their such pursuit at the expense of the minority population, we still
manage to admire their scholastic flair. But Mr. James K. Glassman’s attempt leaves me nothing worth tolerating him for.
In his November 26, 1997, op-ed article in the Washington Post, Glassman maintains, with jaundiced conviction, that the following poll results agure against affirmative action: “‘Do you agree or disagree with the decision of the school to retain the black teacher in order to maintain racial diversity?’
Whites disagree, 53 percent to 33 percent. So did blacks, 49 percent to 36 percent.”
But I cannot understand how it escaped Mr. Glassman that the respondents to the poll had job for either teacher on their minds. And so you could switch from one color to the next without changing the outcome of the poll question; because beyond the relevant concern of having the workplace reflect the general population, either woman needs a job. And you don’t have to be white or black to be for it. That’s what the poll results mean.
I have not followed the issue of affirmative action closely enough to have a strong emotional investment in it, and while that detachment may not necessarily enhance my claim of having understood its complexities to some extent, it has the merit of protecting me from the taint of advocative goals.
And this, essentially, is how I came face-to-face with the issue.
Where Broadway and Myrtle Avenue meet in Brooklyn, there is a line of elevated subway tracks. For that the place is dark and dangerous. For the two years I had been in the United States since 1971, every bad thing that had happened to me I could justly blame on a black person. But I wasn’t black; I was African. But the bad thing that was now happening to me, I blamed on myself. I worked
in a factory in Queens as a self-supported foreign student. Normally I rode the bus from work and made it home by 1:00 a.m. But this was summer and today I did not go to school. That’s why I had ridden my bicycle to work, and was riding it back home.
It was well past midnight, but it would be another 30 minutes before I could get home. Aware that motorists treat bicycles as a superfluous contraption, the very least I could do was obey the traffic rules. That was why when I reached this interception, which managed three streets, I waited instead of
entering it even when it was least busy. I waited for the traffic signal to favor me.
As I waited, other vehicles gathered; some took their turns to go through. So by the time the light changed to let me through, there were a few headlights facing me from the on-coming traffic. I peddled into the on-coming headlights but well on my side of the road as I entered the interception. But I quickly froze in place when I realized that the car which had flooded me with its lights was turning left and had begun to occupy my path which should have been straight through the crossing.
Blinded by the light in my riding position on the bicycle, I straightened up and could now see the driver who had begun to address me with every epitaph meant to hurt a black person. That was because he had jammed his brakes to avoid running over me on my side of the road. Yet I responded with an infusion of apologies; but there was no let-up in the torrent of vulgar expletives.
I saw no indication that this would end soon, but for now I had not been physically attacked. If only I could get beyond this interception with my life, I prayed. More cars gathered around the interception, but the man who was tearing me down with his speech seemed to relish the growing audience.
I felt that something was about to happen to me. Soon. It did. The back wheel of my bicycle was nudged by a car behind me. An addition to me growing woes, I thought. So I turned very slowly. I saw another man standing outside his car with his right foot in the car and his right hand engaged below as if to hold the driver-side door as a shield for his pending attack.
“One more word out of you and I’ll blow your brains out.” I did not turn again to examine the source of the warning. “You almost kill the brother and you’re talking garbage,” he said. The man in front of me had no gun; even so, the verbal fury he proved capable of discharging had already been spent, although
he could not have resorted to it yet still without some grave danger to his own life. The man behind me, feeling no pressing need to produce a promised gun, left no doubt he had one. His commanding advantage was such that even where violence proved necessary, he could have easily gotten by on the strength of his moral indictment.
By this time the motorists facing the intersection had each lost at least a turn to go through.
I once had the right to proceed through the intersection; but that right had been held up by a man with a big car and mouth. But that right had been restored back to me only when the traffic light turned decidedly red, and I turned black. Yes, I proceeded through the intersection while the traffic
signal indicated red. My brother told me to.
My rights were affirmed just then; but somebody lost a turn. That’s why I didn’t have to wait another turn at another intersection for what had been denied me at this. Nobody blew a horn of impatience to hasten the unfolding drama.
The argument between the man ahead of me and the one behind me was an old one. The one ahead of me was white; the one behind me was black.
And so I was already feeling black when several blocks later a car pulled alongside me with someone with a by now familiar voice asking, “Are you all right, brother?” Yes. And I have been feeling that way since.
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