Ten years ago, I went to see Coleman A. Young, who had been mayor of Detroit for twenty years.
He was a man usually seen in, no pun intended, stark black and white terms. Vast numbers of whites in the suburbs thought he was the devil. And then there were those who really disliked him. On the other hand, older members of Detroit’s African-American community largely regarded him as a cross between Moses and the Messiah. My feelings were somewhere in between.
What I did know was that even in his old age, Coleman Young was a supremely intelligent man, especially when he didn’t let his own baggage get in the way of understanding.
This was a man who had managed to make it to the top in an era of legally segregation and virulent racism. Those days were gone. Did we still need affirmative action? I asked him.
If so, how much longer would we need it for? I knew I risked an outburst of his famous temper. He had a sign on his desk that said MFIC, and the IC stood for In Charge.
But he chuckled. “Let’s say you have a guy who has been chained in the basement for four hundred years,” he told me. “He’s shackled and can’t walk around.”
So, the mayor said, “one day you unchain him, lead him to the track, and say, “okay, sorry about that, now it’s a level playing field, and you get to race an Olympic athlete.”
“Do you think that would be fair?’
I saw his point, and agreed. But I don’t like it when black leaders label everyone who opposes affirmative action as a racist. I am convinced Carl Cohen, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, opposes affirmative action out of honest intellectual conviction.
However -- I also remember when African-Americans couldn’t go to some state universities at all. I understand Jennifer Gratz being unhappy because she couldn’t get into the U of M.
But you know what? I went to high school with two kids just like me. One died at Da Nang, and one at Hamburger Hill, and here I am.
President Kennedy put it best, I think. “Life is unfair,” he once told a startled reporter who was expecting the usual political blather. But, he added, “every man can make a difference, and every man should try.”