President John F. Kennedy was actually very cautious about civil rights. He didn’t make a major speech supporting the right of black folks to be treated as human beings until June 12, 1963.
That night, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was shot in the back and killed on his front porch. That caused national outrage. It was the era of topical song, and everyone with a guitar immediately wrote a song about Medgar Evers. Everybody, that is, except for Bob Dylan. Dylan wrote a song about the unknown assassin, called Only a Pawn In Their Game.
The lyrics are directly relevant to today’s affirmative action debate:
A politician preaches to the poor white man,
You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
A version of that is happening today. Lower-middle class whites are forcing states and schools to reject affirmative action, thinking that they are the ones who suffer. Cultural, intellectual and financial elites are often supportive of affirmative action. They know they can take care of their own kids; after all, we still do have affirmative action for the children of alumni. Some of our nation’s top dogs think the society that has been so good to them would be stronger if it were more inclusive.
The more savvy know their world would be safer if there were a general perception that it was open and fair.
But the children of white factory workers and firefighters don’t share that feeling. Like the poor whites in Bob Dylan’s song, Jennifer Gratz believed her place was taken away by some black kid with a lower test score. She does not seem to be outraged that President Bush’s daughters got into elite schools.
For more than a century, intellectuals though that the American dilemma was one of race. For the last thirty years or so, the mantra among liberals has been that when you think it’s about race, it’s really about class.
Peter Schmidt’s book Color and Money makes it clear that it is about both. Having established that racial disparities are likely to outlast any of us, he concludes it is “an open question whether the nation’s courts, lawmakers and voters will allow colleges” to continue to level the racial playing field.
That’s a bit coy; he knows very well that the answer is almost certainly no. What we don‘t know is how black America will respond.
What we do know is that when large portions of any society feel shut out of the action, the long-term result isn’t pretty. What, after all, does happen to a dream deferred? Does it just sag like a heavy load? Or, as Langston Hughes asked so long ago -
Does it explode?